Botanica
The colors and flavors of Botanica. Photos by Jakob Layman and Heather Sperling

Dish By DishLos Angeles

How Chef Zarah Khan Brought New Energy to Botanica, As Seen in Five Dishes

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With its debut in 2017, Botanica helped lift Silver Lake out of the dark ages. 

A naturally bright, sunny spot where locally grown goods took center stage alongside whole foods and natural wines, it was an ideal agent of change that pushed this maturing hipster mecca beyond its overdependence on dusky woods, small-batch bourbon, and exposed lightbulbs.

Launched by former food and lifestyle editors Heather Sperling and Emily Fiffer, Botanica was, in fact, a trifold concept. Yes, it was a restaurant fetishizing farmers market fare with a Mediterranean accent, as well as a marketplace. But there was also an online magazine extolling the virtues of cleaner living, stories of independent creators and craftspeople, and recipes.

The restaurant was welcomed from the start. But in March 2020, right when restaurants started turning on their heads, Botanica found its sweet spot with a new chef: Zarah Khan, who came south from Seattle, where she was lauded for her time leading the kitchen at London Plane. Her heritage (Mom is Pakistani and Turkish), travels, love of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean ingredients, and market-prone sensibilities aligned perfectly with the owners’ points of view. 

The collaboration resulted in refreshed energy and some new spins to Botanica’s beloved menu mainstays. Khan takes us through the inspiration and techniques that make some of Botanica’s best-loved dishes so irresistible.

Botanica
Botanica

1. Japanese Sweet Potatoes With Chimichurri

“When Heather and Emily opened Botanica, it was their menu. They were both food writers who basically said, ‘the kind of food we want to eat doesn’t exist in L.A.’ The sweet potatoes — which are boiled, cut in half, and seared on the flattop — were already on the menu with a salsa verde when I came in. They’re just ridiculously good. The potato will never come off the menu. People would be mad. So I was like ‘we’re not getting rid of this dish, but I want to play with it.’ I tweaked the recipe a little more and added a chimichurri. Now there’s preserved lemon in it and Aleppo pepper, cilantro, parsley, shallot, a little red wine vinegar, and olive oil. I’m very collaborative with my kitchen and I told our line cook at the time, ‘this is the direction I want to take this in.’ She did a test version and it was great, so that’s what we ran with.”

Botanica
Botanica

2. Tuna Butter & Rye

“I grew up playing music, which is my first love, and that’s how I think about the composition of a menu. You hear musicians talk about, ‘there’s this song I’ve been writing for five years and finally it’s right for this album.’ This is like the song I’ve had in my back pocket for years. I’ve wanted to do a tuna butter toast for so long, and it finally felt right for this menu and time.

For the tuna butter, we confit tuna belly from Baja Aqua Farms in Mexico with olive oil, onion-y aromatics, and butter. That all gets slathered on a piece of toasted rye, and topped with dill, garlic chips, trout roe, and fennel pollen. It’s creamy, crunchy, salty, all the things. This is one of the ones where I black out and later say, ‘Wait, I thought of this?’”

Botanica
Botanica

3. Confit Baja Tuna

“So then, what do you do with that beautiful, rich tuna belly that I’ve confited for the tuna butter? We all, especially Emily and I, just love acid and lime and bitter things. And I wanted to do something with Persian limes, limes that have been dried in the sun. I worked with a cook who had preserved some limes, and we did a tuna salad back when there was only a marketplace [during the Covid-19 restaurant shutdown]. I wanted to make a lime aioli and tested it with preserved limes, but it wasn’t working. Then I tried Persian limes in an aioli, and it worked for the confit tuna. On top we take raw shaved celery ribbons that are all curly and toss them in the lime emulsion, and together everything balances out. You’ve got fatty aioli, fatty tuna, and the super burst of lime, crunchy acidic celery, and then these dill spring shallots that are just like confited in olive oil with a fuck-ton of dill, which all gets poured on top.”

Botanica
Botanica

4. Seared Mushrooms With Farro

“This was a different direction for a dish on a menu I had in Seattle where I had basically the same elements of tahini and mushrooms. I knew I wanted to do that, but that was an all-day place and this needed to work for dinner. The maitake mushrooms can be so earthy, and the green tahini has spice and acid and is very bright, so it balances out the meatiness of the mushrooms. We use tahini from Soom, a female-owned company, which we’re very passionate about because we’re a female-owned restaurant. We make a puree of all the jalapeño, herbs, lemon, and oil and mix that into the whipped tahini for a base. 

I went to Tel Aviv before moving here from Seattle, which influenced a lot of how I try to think about cooking. Sometimes I make recipes that are way too over-complicated, and think, ‘this isn’t even a recipe, it’s a spell, there’s too much going on.’ So I’ll dial it back. A lot of food I had in Israel was so simple, but mind-blowing. So I just try to let the ingredients speak for themselves. Sometimes I think, maybe I should change this dish because it’s been on the menu since I got here. Then I’ll have it for dinner and be like, no, this is never going.”

Botanica
Botanica

5. Cassoulet Vert

“Something that drives me and how we want to cook at Botanica is making things that are hearty and nourishing but that also make you feel good. Not something heavy [that makes you] ready to take a nap right afterwards. So that’s something we like to play with a lot. There are a lot of sneaky ways that cassoulet could be heavy and make you feel bad. But that’s not how I want to eat, so that’s not how I want to cook. So I was like, ‘let’s make it vegetarian.’ The base for this dish is this really yummy zucchini broth with fenugreek and cooked-down onions. The broth is a little bit bright compared to the beans, while the onion and fenugreek is very warming and sort of deep.”

 

Hadley Tomicki is an L.A.-based writer on food, travel and culture, and the co-founder of the James Beard Award-winning website L.A. Taco. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.

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