Providence: How to make 'ugly seafood' a huge hit

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(CNN)It's often said that nine out of 10 restaurants in the United States close shop within the first year of business.

It's also now said that these terrifying numbers have been more or less pulled out of the mythical ocean, sort of like Jaws.
A more accurate attrition rate, according to a recent Ohio State University Hospitality Management Program-based study, is that three out of five restaurants either go under or change management within the first three years.
    Which is blood-curdling enough.
    So what would possess any restaurateur to want to front-crawl through such toothy waters?
    Especially one -- in this dining era in which the word "casual" seems to be attacking from all sides -- that sets up a pricy, prix fixe, perfection-striving, real silverware, white tablecloth room on the edge of Hollywood in Los Angeles, aka the restaurant turnover capital of the galaxy?
    That restaurateur turns out to be Michael Cimarusti, a man who has also assembled a flawless wait staff who can concisely explain the interplay between cured scallop tartar and its wild nasturtium leaf "taco" shell -- and a tasting menu with the cojones to name one of its signature shellfish dishes The Ugly Bunch.
    "I'd originally thought about calling that dish 'The Good the Bad and the Ugly' and then briefly went with 'Highway One,'" explains Cimarusti, executive chef and co-owner of Providence which, more than 10 years after opening, is one of the most consistently acclaimed dining destinations in L.A.
    "It's a great dish. I love it. And it's been The Ugly Bunch now for about five years," says Cimarusti. "So I guess we'll be sticking with that name."
    Just like L.A. is sticking with Providence.

    The restaurant

    Lobster-with-Matsutake-mushrooms.
    Housed at a quietly famous culinary address on an unassuming block of Melrose Avenue shared with a party supplies warehouse, Providence occupies the former space of two legendary L.A. restaurants: Le St. Germain (1970-1988) and Joachim Splichal's flagship restaurant Patina, now re-situated at downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall.
    For a kitchen with serious culinary ambitions, 5955 Melrose Avenue is a charmed address.
    But in L.A.'s notoriously fickle dining scene, charm gets you only so far.
    Maybe about three months, estimates Donato Poto, Providence's co-owner and general manager, who has seen many a white-hot L.A. restaurant come and go over 35 years in the business.
    "L.A. is a very odd city," says Poto. "It can give you false hope sometimes.
    "You see it over and over again here -- restaurants that are beyond busy for a few months.
    "Then at the end of the year they're closed and they don't know what happened.
    "This business ... " Poto pauses. "... Certain days you want to run away from it -- but fortunately for us very seldom."
    A decade in, Providence is now reputed for seafood-centric culinary feats on par with turning an Ugly Bunch trio (sea urchin, geoduck and abalone scrupulously served over crème fraiche panna cotta) into something nearly too gorgeous to eat.
    Cimarusti and his staff are locally famous for their inventive reinventions.
    Other popular dishes include a simply but stunningly dressed Santa Barbara Spot Prawn with tomato and bronze fennel.
    Uni Egg urchin hidden beneath scrambled eggs and champagne beurre blanc is also loved.

    Secret recipe for business

    Still, Providence's greatest dining coup to date may be defying the even uglier odds of staying afloat in the ephemeral world of upscale L.A. dining -- where celebrated names like Rivera, Sona, Campanile (the list goes on) are now fond memories.
    What's the survival secret?
    "To be honest, I don't really know -- beyond having an incredibly loyal, talented and dedicated crew whose energy you can feed from every day, and just focusing on being the very best that we can be," says Cimarusti, a repeat James Beard Foundation Best Chef nominee whose toque tenure includes several years at L.A. dining institutions, Water Grill and Spago.
    "Our abilities and influences here at Providence may have evolved over the years, and the overall picture can get a little clearer after a decade," says Cimarusti.
    "But otherwise I don't think our vision has really changed very much from day one to year ten. Basically it's about a lot of hard work -- and hopefully a lot of fun."
    Providence's accolades over the last decade include a 2006 Best New Restaurant James Beard Award in its first year, followed by two Michelin stars and a number one slot on Los Angeles Times' restaurant critic Jonathan Gold's "101 Best Restaurants" list in 2014 for the second consecutive year.
    "L.A. has that reputation for paying more attention to movie stars than Michelin stars," says Poto. "But what is also very true is that this is a city where people still really appreciate exceptional food and service.
    "You can still 'wow' people at a restaurant in Los Angeles, says Poto. "That part never gets old for us."
    The Ugly Bunch is intended to make seafood thought of as "ugly" -- geoduck, sea urchin, abalone -- into something beautiful.

    Sustainable ingredients

    Ingredients at Providence change regularly to emphasize seasonality and coordinate with a recently introduced tasting menu-only format.
    They also underscore sustainable fishing and seafood sourcing practices, a major focus for Cimarusti, who has addressed senators and congressmen in Washington on the subject.
    "When I was a younger chef, at Water Grill and Spago, I was in the process of becoming increasingly aware of these things," he says.
    "But now, I mean you have to be sleeping under a rock not to know that when some food blogger in Tokyo posts photos and writes about the delights of eating Pacific bluefin tuna -- which is down to 4% of its historic biomass -- that person is not doing the world any favors."
    One the other hand, he adds, sustainability shouldn't be confused with laying off of fish in general.
    "If you want to save Pacific salmon, you should eat Pacific salmon," says Cimarusti.
    "Because if there's not a market for wild Pacific salmon there won't be fishermen out there chasing them and lawmakers won't regulate their protection."
    In 2013, the Providence team successfully doubled down on L.A.'s seafood appetite and opened Connie & Ted's, a more downscale West Hollywood seafood restaurant named after Cimarusti's Rhode Island grandparents and modeled after the classic clam shacks the chef enjoyed growing up around New England.
    And still does.
    "I was back east in Wellfleet [Cape Cod] a couple weeks ago, eating at one of those simple places that serves essentially a very naive style of cooking -- and, yes, the food was very basic -- but it was also some of the best fish 'n chips I've ever had," says Cimarusti. "From a fry mix."
    On deck for the Providence group is Cape Seafood and Provisions, a soon-to-open fish shop on Fairfax Avenue that'll sell many of the carefully sourced ingredients found at both restaurants.
    New or 10-year fans of Providence can pick up Providence-caliber seafood for a great meal at home -- even if it's not quite Providence.
    "Hey, just like that fish 'n chips place in Wellfleet, it mainly boils down to the quality of those raw ingredients," says Cimarusti. "You just need some really great fish."
    "And a cook," he adds, "dependable enough not to mess it up."

    Providence, 5955 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038-3623;