Wine House Kitchen chef Maiki Le recently looked through three binders of menu notes that span her two-decade career. It’s full of ideas, old menus, and pencil drawings. “Most of it is so dated,” says Le. “But it’s so nice to be able to reference [the past] and try to figure out the future.” Le has a clear future vision as a chef in Los Angeles. “I want to be contemporary versus passe,” says Le.
Wine House Kitchen, on a West LA rooftop blocks away from the bustling Sawtelle Japantown, just passed its six-month mark. Le applies the same thoughtfulness toward her menu above the longtime neighborhood shop Wine House. As Le looks to the past and what her fellow chefs are up to in 2023, she’s busy preparing Wine House Kitchen’s Vietnamese French and California menu. But there’s ample support from the restaurant’s general manager/wine and beverage director — and former Terrine partner — François Renaud.
Wine House Kitchen is hardly the sole Vietnamese fusion restaurant in town. There’s Tet-A-Tet, Cassia, or the nearly 30-year-old Crustacean. Wine House Kitchen’s current menu barely resembles the opening one. “We pretty much changed everything,” says Renaud.
“When we opened [in November], we still had a menu with old house favorites and our new Vietnamese French using dishes,” Renaud says. “We’re full Viet-French fusion at this point, which is exactly what we wanted to do and where we wanted to be. I’m thrilled that we’re able to showcase an aspect of both Vietnamese and French cooking that is both classic and modern. The French and Vietnamese have a difficult history, but this relationship is incredible.”
In the early months, a handful of holdover dishes were brought from the previous restaurant, Upstairs 2. Wine House Kitchen embraces more of Le and Renaud’s personal backgrounds while dropping items like the sliders that played it safe. Le and Renaud kept the popular dishes most enjoyed by diners, including the salmon imperial roll with creme fraiche, spinach, and three types of roe, or the popular grilled venison chop.
Le’s parents were Vietnamese refugees during the war, and this influence — along with seasonal ingredients — shows up with the recent additions like the bún bò Huế spiced elk strip loin, which combines different meat with a central Vietnamese beef noodle soup.
On the drink side, former Blind Barber and Viale dei Romani barman Chris Grosso recently experimented with a bright and herby Vietnamese gin Song Cai and introduced three cocktails. Renaud used the same spirit to develop a “Trou Vietnamien,” inspired by his Normandy roots. Normans enjoy a Trou Normand — usually made with sorbet and Calvados — during long lunches or dinners as a palate cleanser. During DineLA, Wine House Kitchen made a cocktail that played on words and served the cocktail with blood orange sorbet and Vietnamese gin.
For those who visited Wine House Kitchen in the earlier months, the lighting is softer in the 40-seat room. Aside from the restaurant industrywide staffing issue, Le and Renaud are plotting a late spring menu in an effort to showcase more shellfish during the spawning season. “I gratefully thank Francois as we’ve been able to do a lot more French Vietnamese Californian fusion,” says Le. “People were gravitating more toward the Vietnamese French fusion and less toward generic pasta. So we’ve been able to do quite a few things with the menu that people liked, which I never thought could happen.”