It all started with the jam. This being Los Angeles, it wasn’t, of course, just any jam. It was — and is — organic, and local, and often made from varieties of fruit that usually don’t make it out of California, like Blenheim apricots, or combinations that you don’t see elsewhere, like strawberry and rose. The jam is fragrant and not overly sweet, and you want to eat it with a spoon.
Word started to get around that Jessica Koslow, 33, was spreading it with ricotta on burned brioche, and soon there were lines out the door at Sqirl, her cute, shabby, hip little storefront on Virgil Avenue in East Hollywood. “Sqirl was, really, a jam company,” she said to me a couple of weeks ago, munching on a piece of brioche with blood-orange marmalade and almond-hazelnut butter. “I knew it couldn’t stay that way, because I wanted to create a place that worked, long-term, on a street corner that no one wanted to be on.”
So Koslow turned Sqirl — the name combines “squirrel” (as in “squirrel away”) and “girl” — from a cottage industry into what she calls a “breakfast-and-lunch spot.” Her intention was to support the best local farmers and to present what she describes as “something curious, things I eat myself, but things that are outside of the box. I mean, you can get scrambled eggs and French toast anywhere. I wanted to figure out how to stand out, to do something that showed that I was thinking about and exploring good food.”
So far that sounds like about 20,000 other chefs. But what makes a chef great is her palate, and the food that Koslow makes is highly seasoned, both down-to-earth and luxurious — and about much more than jam.
Instead, it’s a kind of gentler version of dinner food, with little or no meat, but often with eggs and seasonings from the southern and eastern Mediterranean and much of Asia, and yet somehow, in the end, quite American. Nothing is bland or insipid, and much of the food is laced with a sharpness that comes from lemon juice and hot sauce and garlic and pickled things. For breakfast food, it’s downright revolutionary.
The first time I ate at Sqirl, on an August morning so sparkly that even desolate Virgil Avenue looked good, I ate a rice bowl made with Kokuho Rose brown rice (which I think is the best brown rice produced in the United States) with sorrel pesto, preserved Meyer lemon, house-made hot sauce, black radish, feta and a poached egg.
That is some wickedly conceived breakfast food. I would say that Koslow and I are culinary soul mates, but given the popularity of the place, it’s clear that I’m not the only one. This is food whose time has come. I went on to savor more of her dishes: crispy rice salad with lemon grass, mint, ginger and cucumber; black-eyed peas with braised celery, aioli and poached eggs; and an eye-popping red-flannel hash. I recently cooked this hash with Koslow at her apartment in Silver Lake, and frankly, it clobbered the heavier traditional version. The sharpness of the dish is achieved with the addition of lemon juice or zest at every turn, a piercing horseradish cream and a tiny but unusual little salad of asparagus, carrots and greens.
We roasted potatoes and beets (Koslow smokes the beets at the restaurant), then broke up the potatoes — skins on — with our hands and chopped the beets. We mixed them with chopped roasted onions, fresh scallions and cheese; corned beef is an option, but we skipped it on this occasion. She then seared it all in a cast-iron skillet, with a liberal amount of butter, allowing the hash to brown nicely on the bottom before turning it once and cooking a minute or two more.
It was late afternoon, almost dinnertime, when we finished. But the yolks of the eggs, soft-fried in butter, mingled perfectly with that horseradish cream and the crisp hash, the bright salad refreshed everything and I felt as if I could begin the day again.