As the premiere high-end dining destination in Los Angeles, Providence can hardly be considered a hidden gem. Scores of ink have been spilled in praise of chef Michael Cimarusti, along with his dedicated disciples in the kitchen. The wine list is universally lauded. The service: Michelin-caliber. Yet in the front of the house, barman Kim Stodel somehow eludes critical effusion. For a little over two years he’s been spearheading the restaurant’s forward-thinking drinks program. Despite masterful execution, many in the city still don’t even know there’s craft cocktails to be had here. But he’s O.K. with that. And so are his regulars.
What makes a bar great? There are many boxes to check, but they won’t amount to much without a steady hand to steer. For Stodel, a guiding light was never far from reach. “I went into the kitchen,” he remembers. “I enjoyed the process of working with them, because that was the key [to] being successful as a front-of-house person. It could be translated in another way, apart from the food just being there on the plate.” A meticulous approach to assembly is crucial, but no single drink can become so precious that it requires 10 minutes to achieve.
Finding the balance, Stodel batches necessary components, when possible, while storing improbably luxe bottles of booze in his well. “I went the extra mile to source things that are special,” he says. “I’m less concerned with making profit on that shitty vodka. We don’t even really have a well.” To wit, his “Ruby on Rye” combines strawberry, rhubarb, and grapefruit with Michter’s — a vaunted American whiskey — into a $15 cocktail. In fact, whether you’re in the mood for a classic Martini, or a mezcal mixer infused with pureed corn, it all costs the same, across the board. A respectable rate anywhere in this town. But at a restaurant feared for its triple- digit tasting menus, it’s a bona fide bargain.
To keep costs down, Stodel recently implemented a zero-waste protocol behind the bar. It’s not exactly what it seems. “The theme for my bar wasn’t so much a conscious decision to be an environmentalist,” he admits. “It’s more about how to be harmonious with the kitchen. I can’t outshine them, and I never will. But what I want to do is enhance the total experience of the restaurant.” This involves synergy with the chef; dialing in the drink ingredients to match what goes into the food. “I learned from the kitchen: being efficient, being good at your station, and what that really means, and how that translated into zero waste.”
Rather than tossing out passion fruit and mango seeds used by the pastry chef, Stodel macerates them into sugar syrup, harnessing the tropical flavors into a Scotch/tiki hybrid he calls the “Highland Getaway.” In other offerings, he candies fruit zest, or cryo-vacs lemongrass and ginger scraps to form a pate du fruit garnish for his slightly savory “Muay Thai.” It forms the liquid end of his favorite pairing, against a scallop-in-shell soaked in basil oil, tapioca beads, and a spicy coconut broth.
Beyond a flair for seafood, it turns out that the head chef is something of a spirits connoisseur to boot. “[Cimarusti] is a huge whiskey buff,” Stodel says of his boss. “He’s constantly throwing names at me that I’ve never even heard of, asking if we can carry it.” These curiosities help propel an eclectic and focused backbar — creative, yet concise.
In this sort of environment, inventiveness and quality ingredients are a given. But service is perhaps even more essential. And this is where Stodel really hits his stride, elevating the experience with a level of care afforded only to the most intimate of watering holes (it fits no more than six guests at a time).
Then there’s the cache — a secret parlor, hidden in plain sight. “Because this restaurant has a reputation, people are a little scared to come in,” Stodel laments. They assume they’ll be pressured into all sorts of expensive things, he says. First-timers are shocked to learn that you can sample many of the eatery’s signature dishes at the bar, without committing to the full-on tasting menu — a prerequisite of dining room service. Plus, you get uninhibited access to the tableside cheese cart, easily the best in the city.
Although you can’t reserve spots at the bar, it remains improbably accessible throughout evening hours. Much of the traffic is temporary — diners enjoying a brief aperitif before an extended seating in the main room. More surprising still is the under-reported lunch menu, available exclusively on Fridays, when you’ll encounter bar food like no other.
Says Stodel, “I’m expected to give you a dining experience comparable to what you would have in the restaurant.” He lifts that sizable load, then ultimately takes a backseat to his counterparts in the kitchen. But you never doubt for a moment that Stodel relishes his role.
“I love that we’re sort of hidden,” he says. “When people discover us, they’re always surprised, and always amazed.” And they never knew what they were missing.