After garnering two Michelin stars, glowing reviews and a “discovery” nod from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, one of L.A.’s most lauded tasting-menu restaurants closed two years ago with little notice. Next year, it’s set to return.
Somni, from chefs Aitor Zabala and José Andrés, sprouted passion fruit tulips from chocolate dirt; arranged tuna katsu into the shape of a battle ax before it could be coated in saffron and caviar; and injected strawberry-shaped cocoa butter nubs with vermouth, strawberry purée and Aperol until its closure in August 2020, creating some of the most whimsical dishes available in L.A. during its brief run. In late summer 2023, Zabala will reprise the concept in West Hollywood, with additional seating and new items.
The restaurant’s cuisine, sometimes experienced in upward of 20 courses — seasonal ingredients depending — was described by Times food critic Bill Addison as one that “blurs the line between whimsy and academia, between applied theory and cheeky cleverness”: difficult to pinpoint, harder still to categorize under any nationality.
“The circle was never closed with Somni; it was interrupted,” Zabala said by phone. “Everyone closed in the pandemic, but it was not natural, you know? [There was] something missing, and I was feeling that it’s not the right ending for a dream — and I am the person always looking for the next dream, but this dream, I was feeling there was no ending.”
The closure was credited largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, though it also occurred amid a lawsuit filed by the SLS Hotel’s ownership that would shutter both Somni and Andrés’ the Bazaar, which was also housed on the ground floor of the property. The ending felt abrupt to the restaurants’ fans and staff alike. When they closed, Zabala said, they’d recently hit their stride with staffing and training and accolades. Though he could have launched a new project after the closure, he felt there was still more of Somni to explore.
The chef, who had dreamed of opening his own restaurant since he was 19 or 20, first moved to the U.S. in 2007, persuaded by Andrés to leave El Bulli during its seasonal closure and help him develop L.A.’s Bazaar. He returned to Spain and the kitchen of El Bulli, then in 2010 gave Los Angeles another chance, returning to Andrés and, with him in 2018, debuting Somni.
Zabala opened the restaurant under José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup hospitality firm (now called José Andrés Group). When the doors closed, Andrés gave Zabala permission to continue the restaurant without him, should he wish to revive it. What followed were two years of recipe experimentation within Zabala’s test kitchen in Silver Lake, aided by a staff member he was able to retain from the restaurant. Together, they’ve been experimenting with new ingredients and formats and jotting down their recipes and findings in a large folder full of Somni recipes old and new. The trick, Zabala says, will be transitioning from testing one or two dishes at a time to preparing food for up to 20 for a seating of diners.
“It’s been really hard work in the last two years,” he said, “but hopefully, it’s paying off now.”
He searched for investors during this time too and worked some private events, but what proved most difficult was locating a bricks-and-mortar spot. Zabala estimates he visited more than 60 sites. This year, he settled on 9045 Nemo St. in West Hollywood, the former home of a Donna Karan retail storefront and a flower shop.
The space featured a kitchen, but it was nowhere near what was needed for Somni; that required a custom build-out of a new, open kitchen and dining room (with much the same layout of the original). The original counter — 10 seats in a horseshoe around an open kitchen — will be expanded to 14 in the West Hollywood location. The property is nearly double the size of Somni’s original dining room and includes a patio, which will be used to welcome guests with bites and sips before the meal begins. That additional space is also set to accommodate a six-seat private dining room.
The chef is hoping the more private locale will prove more tranquil for diners, as opposed to the buzz of the Bazaar’s multiple concepts humming just beyond the original Somni’s doors.
“We had a really small space inside the Bazaar, and I felt sometimes it was really aggressive seating with all the noises,” Zabala said. “That experience is great, but you come in for another type of experience [at Somni]. Here what we are trying to do is make it more organic, more relaxing.”
The menu will likely launch with a few twists on some of the original Somni’s classics — perhaps a retooled version of the inventive take on a slice of pizza, which in Beverly Hills was made with meringue in lieu of crust and slathered with tomato liquid, then dotted with mozzarella mousse. Gradually, as staffing and training increase, new items will most likely be available, culled from the recipe book Zabala and his cook had been adding to in the test kitchen for the last two years. Similarly, the chef expects to launch with a single dinner seating, then eventually maybe add a second seating, as in the original; perhaps, he says, he’ll experiment with the option of an abbreviated menu for those looking for a shorter meal.
In preparation for the reopening, he’s working with ceramists, glassblowers and other artists to design the vessels, or plate ware, and art for the space. Pricing also will mostly likely change, though Zabala is unsure how much; sans beverage pairings, dinners cost $280 per person in Beverly Hills.
Some things, he says, will be different, but those changes are exciting. As the space and the reopening shift into view, Zabala & Co. are focusing on fine-tuning, not just to bring enthusiasts an experience that meets their memories of past Somni meals but one that also could make Los Angeles proud as a whole.
“I’m excited to be back, to open a restaurant in the city that to me is like a home after living here for more than 10 years,” said Zabala. “I feel at home here. It’s really exciting for me and my team to be part of this community and try to make the city proud of what we’re doing. We are so proud of what we are planning to do, so I hope the city is happy too. We are excited to open the doors and bring the old faces and the new faces to the restaurant.”