Talk about haute cuisine. 71Above is the round restaurant on the 71st floor of the US Bank Tower in downtown LA, the tallest restaurant West of the Mississippi, so it's as haute as cuisine gets, with a view from Laguna to Malibu.
As chef and partner Vartan Abgaryan (pronounced VAR-tun ab-GAR-ee-yun) looks out the bank of windows that ring 71Above, he says, "If someone calls and says 'I'm running late, there's traffic,' I'm gonna go, 'Where are you?' I'm gonna look down on the street and say, 'I don't see traffic there. Why are you lying? Where are you?' They'll be like, 'Oh, I'm on the Ten, there's traffic.' And I can see the Ten, there's no traffic on the Ten. I'm looking there right now!"
KPCC photographer Maya Sugarman and I visited 71Above Thursday, spending an hour with Abgaryan. (Make sure to listen to the entire interview in the audio player above!) It was supposed to just be a half-hour, but ...
Being at the top of the skyscraper brings a unique set of problems for a restaurant. It's a little like Hawaii or Alaska. Everything needs to be brought up to the 71st floor, from toothpicks to cooks' coats to whole fish. And while guests whizz up to the restaurant on two banks of elevators that get there in two minutes and have TV sets in them, there are only a few freight elevators and they are much more busy and much slower.
That in mind, we started our interview in the ground level storeroom, off the loading dock, and indeed, it took us twenty minutes to get to the 71st floor. "When did this occur to you?" I asked Vartan, who left Cliff's Edge in Silverlake to open 71Above? "Not at the beginning," he laughs. "Definitely not at the beginning. In my mind, everything was going to be so easy, and then after a couple days of coming down here consistently, I realized we had to have a porter because I couldn't make that trip every day."
So he hired Christian Rojas, whose job is to see to bring goods up from the storeroom and bring down trash and laundry and bottles and anything else that can't pile up upstairs. And the kicker: Rojas, who spends so much of his day in an elevator, is a claustrophobe. But that's okay; his boss is afraid of heights!
When we arrive at 71Above, the first thing I do is ask Abgaryan to stand with me and check out the view. "I'm okay now, but in the beginning I would stand a good six, seven, eight feet (away), and I'd have to hold on. But now I'm comfortable." "Do you enjoy it yet," I ask? "It's not enjoyable, no."
But we're doing what the guests do, and it's something Abgaryan has to fight. The view, he says, is his main competition. So, "there's a lot of attention paid to the restaurant itself. The design, the thought behind everything. The chairs, the tabletops, the handmade pottery that we put on the table, the plates, our style of service, our style of presenting food. I'm very visual, so a lot of the food is, for lack of a better word, pretty. We do a lot of things at the table, we sauce things at the table, so people's attentions are focused back onto the food." And, to deliver a complete experience and keep the focus on the foo, the dinner menu is $70 prix fixe, with three fixed courses and a couple extra from the kitchen.
It's been a long but quick climb for the 34-year old Abgaryan. He came to the US in 1991 from Armenia. His first restaurant job was at an Outback Steakhouse, which he says he admires for its organization and success ("a chain that successful, obviously they've done things correctly"), if not its food. Then he leaped straight to Lutece in Vegas, a branch of one of New York's top restaurants, and there he learned attention to detail. He spent 2-1/2 years at executive chef at Cliff's Edge (another metaphor), and then started 71Above this year, with a 30-year lease.
"Thirty years is thirty years," he says. "I don't know how I'm going to deal with that since I've never had a job longer than three years."
I dunno. Is there a good restaurant in Death Valley?