Planted in the snug, ground-level space of the O Hotel on South Flower in the financial district, Il Fiore quietly began its brunch service in the middle of April. Dinner service commenced a bit later in the month, and that menu continues to evolve. Il Fiore is still operating in “soft opening” mode, though that is due to change this week.
Notably, Il Fiore is helmed by two chefs with distinctive pedigrees, Joel Stovall and Clay Cassis. The two tended to finish each other’s sentences, as they commented on their grand opening plans.
“We’re waiting until June 15, when (pandemic) regulations are lifted,” Stovall offered.
“Once we know for sure on the 15th, we plan to have (the grand opening) by late June, early July,” Cassis added.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, Stovall served as chef de cuisine at Josef Centeno’s Orsa & Winston, working with Centeno for the last five years. Yes, that Orsa & Winston: deemed “2020 Restaurant of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times, Stovall’s tenure there included the award of a Michelin star in 2019.
When Cassis knocked on the kitchen door of II Fiore, Stovall hired him — and the chemistry between the two emerged.
“Clay came in one day and he expressed that he was interested in working there, because of the interesting combo of Italian-Japanese (cuisine). So I hired him. I went through a lot of people at Orsa. Right off the bat, he was one of my best employees I had. I knew right away I wanted him, and I was happy to have him. We started doing side events, doing little pop-ups, and Clay was helping with that.”
After a year, Cassis moved on to positions at Jordan Kahn’s Vespertine and later at Bestia.
“We kept in touch the whole time. During the pandemic, we still got together and did some pop-up events of our own. We became a team,” Stovall recalled.
The opportunity to take over the space on Flower Street was unexpected and not immediately welcome.
“(The hotel’s owner) reached out to me initially in February and asked me if I was looking for a new gig. I honestly told him I was content. I was looking forward to doing garden dinner parties in my backyard. We were going to do a kombucha pop-up thing, and so we just had our own things going on. I didn’t really want to jump back into a restaurant just yet,” Stovall explained.
“But I came and checked out the space and (it was) just the prospect of having free rein of a kitchen and it was a beautiful space. I knew that if me and Clay teamed up, we could do something amazing,” Stovall continued. “I came and saw the space. Immediately I (knew) I can only make this happen if my right-hand man Clay is down to come help out open this. I called him up, and right away, he was instantly in.”
“We came and did the walk-thru. Two days later we came in, and two days after that we opened for brunch,” Cassis added.
“And those two days were spent just cleaning up the place, too. It was a mess. When the pandemic hit, (the previous occupants) just left everything in the walk-in. It was a lot to clean up. It was like the apocalypse happened and they just walked out,” Stovall recalled.
The two continue to experiment with the menu at Il Fiore.
“When we got here, it happened so fast. We hit the ground running. We didn’t really have any time (for research and development). We were playing together with dishes the whole time and tweaking, seeing what were crowd favorites and what were favorites of ours as well,” Stovall said.
“We take a lot of time to look at each dish and try to figure out what we want to do and (what we want to) keep,” Cassis noted.
Their influences are diverse, but there’s an emphasis on fresh ingredients and serving an Italian bent.
“It fell into place so naturally for us. Like you said, we’ve been working together for some time now. We fill in each other’s empty spaces so well. It almost felt unspoken, just because of how we cook together at home for our tastings,” Cassis said.
“I think we settled on ‘Modern Italian’ but just keeping it open with our other influences,” Stovall added.
“For me there’s a lot of Middle Eastern (influence) as well. But truthfully, most of the dishes on this menu are Italian in nature. But there should be more delicate Italian dishes, and that’s where a lot of the Asian influence comes in,” Cassis explained.
Il Fiore serves brunch with a selection of fresh pastries, toasts and sandwiches from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week; however, it’s the dinner menu served as of 5 p.m. that reflects the collaborative and creative calibration between Stovall and Cassis.
A brief tasting tour of the dinner menu included: ricotta cappelletti en brodo with brown butter, shimeji mushrooms and Thai basil ($18); Kampachi crudo spotted with avocado mousse, herb oil and black togarashi with a ruby grapefruit garnish ($16); mussels in coconut broth and white wine jus, seasoned with fennel pollen and served with toasted slices of crusty housemade bread ($22); octopus poached in butter with charred spigarello and pickled fennel with morita chili ($22); semolina spaghettini slicked in a white cardamom pomodoro with opal basil and fresh Parmesan ($20); and a risotto with seared scallops and uni in a shallow pool of lobster bisque ($26). There’s also a menu of 10 custom cocktails, all priced at $14.
The dishes are as mindfully composed on the plate, as their respective flavor profiles have been alchemized by the duo for optimal depth and complexity. Many of the vegetables, herbs and edible flower garnishes are grown from Stovall’s own backyard garden, an impressive six-bed layout on a half-acre plot in nearby Silverlake.
“I moved there last summer. The main reason I did, I saw the backyard, and it looked all torn up and trashed with weeds. But I saw there was potential for a garden. So that was the main reason I decided to move there. It was during quarantine, so I had all this free time. I went all out,” Stovall recalled.
Stovall is a native of Hemet, California, and has been an avid gardener since childhood.
“I grew up on a ranch, actually. We had 7 acres on this ranch I grew up on. My mom got me into gardening when I was a kid. We’d do flowers and herbs and stuff. I was always excited about gardening, even as a kid.”
The search for fresh, novel ingredients extends to foraging in the wild as well, though for Stovall it’s a more urban adventure. On his phone, he has a map pinned with the locations of a dozen wild fruit trees in his neighborhood alone.
“I’ve been foraging forever. It feels like you’re treasure hunting. It’s free delicious fruit. How can I pass it up?”
On the other hand, it’s Cassis who rambles the local mountain ranges for wild, edible vegetation. While hiking the Sierra Madres, he discovered a particularly bountiful spot.
“There’s a prairie (where there is) tons of miner’s lettuce, tons of chickweed, tons of beautiful nettle that Joel uses here for the nettle chimichurri, even wild growing stone fruit,” Cassis revealed.
Ultimately, there’s unusual value at Il Fiore, and the time is ripe to take your pick of the dishes. The food is prepared and presented by two gifted, seasoned and inspired chefs, and the price points are quite reasonable for the degree of finesse and tasty originality being offered.
In typical fashion, the two traded parting shots.
“My biggest message is that I (don’t) want this to be just another one of those expensive, inaccessible Downtown restaurants. I want this to be very welcoming. I want the food to be approachable, unpretentious,” Cassis emphasized.
“We just want it to be a fun, exciting place. As soon as the restrictions open up, we want to be able to have some jazz, just to be a nice little cozy, atmospheric spot for people to come in and enjoy themselves,” Stovall concluded.
At Il Fiore, haute cuisine comes back down to earth.