In late September, Minh Phan walked among generously distanced outdoor tables at Second Home, a Hollywood workshare space set among dense vegetation, with a blowtorch in hand.
She ignited the blue-orange flame and waved it over a black pot nestling binchotan-seared swordfish surrounded by smoked tomatoes and pickles made from passion fruit and baby lotus. The edges of the Kadota fig leaf cradling the ingredients caught fire for a moment and then plumed herbal smoke. Phan repeated the pyrotechnics, table to table, for each of the 20 assembled diners. Her eyes crinkled at the corners while she chatted; we knew she was smiling behind her mask.
The dish was the fifth of 10 courses. It followed crab and thickly sliced figs piled on a seedy, savory-sweet tuile, and a Santa Barbara spot prawn fried with sweet potato into a spindly fritter. After the fish came braised short ribs scented with calamansi and cinnamon basil and then porridge with pan-smoked abalone. A dessert finale combined purslane granita, lychee grapes, a “zero waste” jam made from the scraps of fruits and herbs, cardamom cremeux scattered with oats and jujubes and cherries, and a quenelle of carrot ice cream, all presented in tiered pottery.
Phan, chef and owner of Porridge + Puffs in Historic Filipinotown, called the two-night tasting menu pop-up Phenakite. She named the event after the rare crystal — appropriate for a project, as she said later over the phone, “born out of destruction and pressure.”
As of Nov. 6, Phenakite becomes a recurring series at Second Home. Tickets are $150 per person (including a 16% service fee); they will be released two weeks in advance of reservations. Phenakite will serve 20 diners on Friday and Saturday nights through 2020; Phan plans to add more days of the week to the schedule in 2021.
A new fine-dining venture, as hardly needs to be stated, is a complex undertaking in any time, much less during a pandemic with no sure end in sight. Safety was a primary focus during Phenakite’s September tryout, Phan said. Afterward she met with her staff members, who wore protective headgear along with masks during service, to address any concerns. She also felt buoyed by Second Home’s COVID-era investments, including a UV air-purifying system.
The restaurant-in-residence’s upscale tone signifies a shift in formality for Phan, though the rigor of her culinary style has always been evident. Porridge + Puffs’ namesake dish is fundamentally comfort food, though something as simple-sounding as a poultry and mushroom porridge involves layers of chicken and turkey — as well as garnishes from a laboratory kitchen full of fruits and vegetables transformed through pickling and other styles of fermentation.
Phenakite’s early run (I saw the September event mentioned on Instagram and snuck in under the radar) made it clear that Phan’s global viewpoint and penchant for complexly constructed plates can triumph among synchronized service and beverage pairings. A sequence of nonalcoholic drinks — among them jujube and orange blossom shrub and pear-tarragon juice — held my attention as much as a smart, largely floral mix of wines and a cocktail of bourbon, black sesame syrup and umami-packed Iki bitters.
A mutual friend connected Phan with Second Home’s directors; the opportunity proved too important for her to overlook, even during a health crisis.
“As an Asian American woman, I’ve never been allowed to be an artist,” said Phan, who began cooking in restaurants as a pastry chef 20 years ago. “I’ve always had to be of service or take care of someone.”
Women friends in the industry — particularly n/naka’s Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida, who gave Phan ceramics made for a Vespertine collaboration as a “permanent loan” for Phenakite — encouraged Phan to embrace the chance. “They reminded me I’m in my early 40s,” she said. “If I don’t leap into this now, when exactly am I going to do it?”
Phan has proven among the most community-minded chefs in Los Angeles. Porridge + Puffs has been dormant since early September, but she and her team have hardly been idle. The number of group efforts in which Phan has a hand can make the eyes blur: collaboration meals with n/naka and Alta Adams and (with other women chefs) Cochon555; partnerships that feed seniors and that support underserved communities through Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement, Food Forward, SEE-LA and Miry’s List. Her aim is to generate revenue at Phenakite that helps support Porridge + Puffs’ community involvement.
She’s also quick to mention members of her expanding crew: Joanne Bae (whose resume includes Maude and Here’s Looking at You) is Phenakite’s chef de cuisine, joined by chef and fishmonger Claire Ito, consulting chef Jenny Ung (formerly at Wolfgang Puck Test Kitchen) and general manager Trinh Dang (Alimento, Spago).
To give Phan some bandwidth to focus on Phenakite, Porridge + Puffs will reopen Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, for takeout, gifts and pastries by manager Connie Sum, who is taking the restaurant’s creative reins.
“I am super excited about Connie spreading her wings and taking over P+P,” Phan said. “She’s been at my side, through thick and thin, for almost two years. She and Traci Matsumoto have made the restaurant what it is, through its half-dozen incarnations (including a focus on takeout tasting menus and flower arrangements) in the last seven months.
“We hope this new incarnation of P+P will be the one that sticks around for a while.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.