Chef Maiki Le’s cozy Upstairs 2 is one of the L.A. culinary scene’s best-kept secrets
By Jessica Koslow
Twelve years and counting — and, aside from devoted loyalists, many locals don’t even know that Upstairs 2 exists. Executive Chef Maiki Le, formerly of Belcampo, agrees that this is a unique restaurant “in a variety of ways.”
The restaurant sits atop The Wine House, L.A.’s largest wine store, a stone’s throw from the 405. Inside, the décor is not your usual L.A. space. It’s as if you’ve traveled back to ’50s Palm Springs or an old Las Vegas showroom.
“The Knight family has owned and operated The Wine House for over 40 years,” says Le. “Their expertise in wine and beverages keeps the beverage program at Upstairs 2 relevant and at shockingly low markups.”
So yes, Upstairs 2 is as focused on the wine as it is the food, and not surprisingly hosts a variety of wine dinners year-round.
But what might stand out the most as you dine in this romantically lit restaurant is that so many of your fellow diners are regulars, chatting with the waitstaff and feeling right at home. That’s something Chef Le loved about the place, but it was intimidating, too.
“When I first started at the restaurant, I was very apprehensive about stepping into a place that had so much history,” says Le. “But as I transitioned the menu and got to know a lot of the guests, people really began to embrace the changes. Many of the regulars had eaten my food before. They just didn’t know it was me! As we got to talking, people would say, ‘Oh you must know so-and-so if you worked there,’ and as it turned out, many times we did know the same people.”
Some of her current customers had also been loyal patrons of Josie Restaurant in Santa Monica or Momed in Beverly Hills (both previous employers), and of course many had been to Belcampo.
Since Chef Le has jumped onboard Upstairs 2, she has shifted the menu toward being more market-driven and sustainable — what she calls “New American.”
Items on the dinner menu are organized according to wine pairings. For example, sweet pea ravioli with Meyer lemon cream sauce, carrot puree and pecorino Romano pairs with rosé — one of which wine director Marilyn Snee will happily recommend.
Snee quickly becomes every diner’s best buddy. Ordering the New Zealand lamb porterhouse with pomegranate molasses, spinach, and cilantro-cashew chutney? She’ll select for you a medium to full-bodied red. Maybe you’d like to try the grilled jidori chicken lettuce wraps with kebab marinade, fresh cucumber, pickled carrot, daikon, onion and herbed yogurt? Snee swoops in with a soft and aromatic red.
If you’re in the mood for a drink with just a side of nibble, Upstairs 2 has a Rush Hour 1.5 menu at the bar, featuring small bites from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays (the restaurant is closed on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays).
Chef Le was born in San Diego and moved to Los Angeles nine years ago. In between, she made stops in Orange County, Rhode Island and New York, where she studied pastry at the French Culinary Institute. In high school, she was a server at Norm’s. During her college years at Brown University, she became the assistant manager for the university’s dining services program.
In New York City, she sharpened her culinary chops. She even got the chance to show off her skills on “The Next Iron Chef,” and later she celebrated victories on Food Network’s “24 Hour Restaurant Battle” and “Chopped.”
“Influences are all around us all the time,” Le says. “Every person I’ve worked with has contributed to the way I see food, especially the chefs I have been lucky to work under. I am inspired by all the familiar foods I grew up with, but am also inspired by all the things I have yet to try. Given the nature of the internet and social media, it’s easy to see and read about food from all over the world cooked by professional and home chefs alike.”
When Le references her memories of familiar childhood foods, she’s speaking of her Vietnamese parents and extended family.
“I come from a large family in which food tends to be the central focus of all our gatherings,” she says, “and growing up, all the food was prepared from scratch. From a young age, I associated good things with food, and I think that is the foundation that led to my professional interest in cooking.”
Upstairs 2, 2311 Cotner Ave., West L.A. (310) 231-0316 upstairs2.com