Chef–restaurateur Daniel Amirian: timeless cuisine with timely flavour
If you’re travelling to and around Los Angeles, and find yourself en route to Santa Barbara or Malibu, Cork Dork is a side trip worth taking even as finding it may require effort for a non-LA resident. At first glance, it is a fashionable bistro-bar dressed up in the wine country chic mould. However, a constantly changing menu with not-so-traditional wine country dishes packs a punch. It’s a formula that promises adventure and a few surprises, brilliantly engineered by chef and co-owner Daniel Amirian, who grew up in these reaches of Los Angeles County.
Amirian comes armed with a résumé adorned with apprenticeships with some of LA County’s top chef-driven restaurants (Daniel Rossi at Sunset Restaurant in Malibu, Celestino Drago and Evan Gattanda of Drago, and Massimiliano Blasone and Salvatore Sodano at Nikita Malibu), where he refined his techniques and integrated a wide variety of international flavours into his repertoire. However, his secret weapon to standing out is his unusual background (raised kosher by a Persian Jewish father and Jewish mother from Cajun country).
While Cork Dork’s menu isn’t kosher, the mix of menu staples and seasonal specials are testament to how Amirian’s strengths as a chef were solidified by working with limited ingredients (i.e. no pork) and making up for it with a wider selection of spice and seasonings (through the Cajun side of his family).
This manifests in appetizers, salads and mains ordered that are perfect foils for an eclectic 40-plus wine list with selections from France, Italy, California and even Lebanon. His winter burrata salad swaps tomatoes for seasonal squash and a Savage Grace Chilled Red. Smoked beet tartare paired with Schemata Paso Red Blend (an exclusive wine label to Cork Dork), and this followed by an Ora king salmon and prime hanger steak matched with Reynolds Family Cabernet, respectively. Finish that off with his chocolate and peanut butter custard partnered with Dash Late Harvest Zinfandel that’s so good even non-peanut butter fans will find it hard to put down.
The most delightful aspect of Amirian’s approach as a restaurateur, meanwhile, is taking his culinary skill seriously but being accessible and easygoing with the customers. He wants to create a home-environment feel that, at its core, is not far removed from how he was raised by his parents.
What was the “a-ha” moment in your life when you realized you wanted to be a chef and not just a restaurateur?
Daniel Amirian: After opening my first local restaurant, Pizza Nosh, we had hit the ceiling with our niche kosher market, so I jumped into the kitchen to invent some new vegetarian and vegan options to broaden our reach. I began my endeavour of changing the menu and we had a great response to the improvements. This motivated and excited me to go to work every day and develop new ideas and creations. My first “a-ha” moment was when one of our well-travelled patrons approached me to create a tasting menu for them. I was thrilled with this opportunity and realized that he had confidence in my abilities to use my talent to create a menu on my own. It was an amazing feeling that I will never forget.
What lessons did you learn from your first restaurant (the pizza franchise) that you are applying to Cork Dork from a business standpoint?
Everything is cooked on demand, and your team is your second family, so treat them right!
You worked at some of the Los Angeles area’s highest profile restaurants and with the chefs. What did they teach you?
Honestly, they taught me everything I know, and I am grateful to learn under some of the greatest mentors in Los Angeles. As a chef, the most important skills they helped me master are time management, being a strong leader and mise en place—organizing your area in a way that doesn’t leave you running around in the middle of service.
What lessons did you learn from your parents in terms of resourcefulness that you work into managing Cork Dork and surprising customers?
My gift of gab. Ever since I was a little boy, my parents instilled the qualities of being a good host. We frequently gathered at our house, and I would have to set the table, do tea service and welcome our friends and family into our home. I got my gift of gab from my dad who loves to entertain everyone and has a very charismatic personality. These lessons have set the tone for my future career path and what I would be lucky enough to do every day.
With so many wine bars in your immediate area, what measures did you take to ensure Cork Dork would end up being a very different experience from the others?
We are always here showing each guest how much we care about them and their experience each day. We strive to make everyone feel the family vibe when dining with us, and we personally ensure that happens by being present and sharing our passion every day. We also have a sommelier working every day to answer all questions and share his knowledge.
What made you choose a wine bar concept for your restaurant rather than a brasserie, bistro, steakhouse, etc.?
It was fate: both of us were planning on opening a concept out here in the Conejo Valley for the last 10 years. As friends since high school, we stayed in touch and finally decided to merge our talents into one concept. It’s been a fun partnership and I’m personally looking forward to the future.
What advice would you offer somebody interested in opening a chef-driven concept like Cork Dork, especially with differentiation from other restaurants.
Whatever you do, put your all into it. Make sure all your vendors are looking forward to helping you grow, if not pick new ones. The community you are in will be the deciding factor, so get out there, be a part of the community and help in every way you can. Support local schools, programmes that help to benefit your community. It has always been, and it will always be my pleasure to serve my community. I do my best to make sure that every person I meet knows and truly feels that. I really want to be part of something bigger than just a business or a restaurant! That feeds my soul!
Tell us about your partners, including your sommelier, and why this stands as the perfect team to run Cork Dork?
We have different strengths and weaknesses which makes us a strong team. Aaron put the Dork in Cork Dork, you will never meet a guy who is so genuine and enthusiastic about what he does. Aaron fully immerses himself and geeks out on all things wine with every opportunity he gets to. Debbie is amazing and is our mother hen. She fills in wherever needed to make sure everything is running smoothly. We are all on the same page and bottom line we are here for the guests. The guest experience is what drives us every day.
Charred Brussels sprouts with gremolata
1 lb Brussels sprouts, remove core and stem and pull leaves apart
2 oz olive oil
Maldon sea salt to taste
Fresh ground black pepper
1 medium bunch of parsley, chopped
1 small bunch of fresh mint, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
Zest from 1 lemon
Toss ingredients together in a bowl and set aside for later.
1. Preheat oven to 500°F and place cast iron pan inside to get hot.
2. Toss Brussels sprouts in a bowl with 2 oz olive oil to evenly coat all leaves.
3. Carefully remove hot cast iron from oven and place Brussels sprouts inside. Return to the oven until crispy and charred , approx. 5–8 minutes.
4. Season with maldon salt, pepper and toss in gremolata to taste. Mix well.
5. Place in bowl and garnish with more gremolata.
Cork Dork short ribs
5 lbs boneless shortribs, seared on the grill or pan with salt and pepper
In braising pot or ½ hotel pan add:
3–4 whole carrots roughly chopped
1–2 onions roughly chopped
½ bunch of celery, rough chopped
6–8 peeled garlic cloves
1 small can tomato paste
16 oz inexpensive red wine
Thyme, sage and parsley to taste
A handful of mushrooms (cremini, porcini or portabellas)
Chef’s tip: add enough beef stock to come up the pan or pot half way.
1. Bring to a boil then add the seared short ribs and push them into the liquid so that the liquid is halfway up the meat’s side.
2. Set oven to 225°F and place the pan or pot covered inside for 4–6 hours at least. The importance is that the meat is fall-apart tender.
3. When the meat is done cooking strain the residual liquid from the pan and reduce by half and add a little butter to thicken. This will be your finishing sauce.
4. Plate with local planet carrots and peewee potatoes.
Squash burata salad
Seared salmon with root vegetables, purple cauliflower and risotto