The spectacular French dip calzone at Ronan is an ode to French dip pioneer Philippe’s. It’s also the type of thing that can happen when an independent chef is left alone to explore the depths of his imagination.
“Before we opened, I made this list in my phone of, like, a thousand items of free-flow, brain-flow ideas for dishes, and this was one of them,” says chef Daniel Cutler, who runs the Los Angeles restaurant with his wife, Caitlin.
The massive calzone is plump and speckled and charred. It comes with a knife because you definitely should cut into the 10-inch calzone and then dip pieces of it into comforting French onion soup and fierce hot mustard. The filling includes beef that’s been marinated in Cognac and aggressively seared before being basted in butter and sliced. There are also three cheeses (local mozzarella and caciocavallo from Gioia Cheese Co. in El Monte, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano from Emilia-Romagna) inside each baked-to-order calzone. The chew and the char of the dough are important elements as well.
“We bake the dough upside-down, so it gets that same leopard spotting you would get on the top of the dough when you bake a pizza,” says Daniel, who also cooks pizzas in his oven that burns California white oak.
Ronan is a modern mom-and-pop restaurant. Caitlin is the general manager of the Melrose Avenue destination. The Cutlers, who previously worked at Sotto and Alimento, have a 4-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old daughter. Do the math and you’ll realize that Ronan, which opened in September 2018, had a pregnant GM for most of its first year.
“One of the big drivers for the restaurant was I really enjoy working in the restaurant industry, and I thought it would be very hard to be a mother and work for someone else,” Caitlin says. “Given how talented I think Daniel is, I was like, ‘Why would we not open our own restaurant?’ That way, we can make choices that will benefit ourselves and our family. If our oldest daughter, Logan, was ever sick, I didn’t want to have to go to work and not be able to call out."
Ronan serves dinner six days a week, and Daniel and Caitlin regularly put in 12-hour days. Logan hangs out in the restaurant after junior kindergarten. “She runs around the dining room like a crazy animal,” Caitlin says. They’ve decided they’re OK with many things that might not make sense in somebody else’s restaurant. They’re fine with blasting hip hop even though some customers have found it jarring. (“If you go back on our Yelp, I would say six or seven of the first 20 reviews are like, ‘Super loud aggressive rap music is not really what I would suggest for a restaurant,’” Daniel says.)
The restaurant is home to the raucous Parm Boyz pop-ups, where red sauce flows freely and tables are covered with chicken parm, eggplant parm, and pasta on one or two Sundays each month. Chris Amirault, the bar director at Otium, had approached Daniel about the possibility of bringing East Coast-style Italian-American food to Ronan. Daniel says he was down with the idea because he wants Ronan to be a place where talented people from other restaurants, and also talented people who work for him, can try out different things.
Ronan sous chef Jeremy Elkaim, for example, wanted to make the parsley salad that Fergus Henderson serves with bone marrow at St. John. At Ronan, that salad comes with a fish dish inspired by Coni’Seafood, a beloved Mexican restaurant that the Cutlers visit on their day off almost every week. Ronan’s gremolata-topped sea bass is a tremendously delicious DIY lettuce-cup situation with the restaurant’s version of banchan. (When the Cutlers first met, Daniel was living in Koreatown.) There might be fried shallots, chile paste, marinated-anchovy aioli, assorted pickles, or a test run of some farmers market ingredients the Cutlers just found.
On the week I eat Ronan’s calzone and sea bass, I also pop by the new Melrose Avenue outpost of Banh Oui. This is where chefs Casey Felton and Armen Piskoulian make Vietnamese sandwiches. But the space is also home to Tony Khachapuri, where Felton and Piskoulian serve Georgian flatbreads. Plus, Felton and Piskoulian have brought in former Gwen pastry chef Amy Taylor, who is running Oui Bakery with its excellent donuts, olive-oil-soaked stecca, and fermented chili baguettes, in the same location.
“Melrose has become more about the people involved rather the concept living within the space,” Felton says.
That’s another thing about having an independent restaurant. You don’t have to define yourself in any traditional way. You can be different things at the same time, in the same space. At Ronan, Daniel is going through his list of 1,000 ideas and thinking about how he might make a sweet-and-sour sauce with pomegranate juice.
“Ronan is not really an Italian restaurant by any means,” Caitlin says. “It’s much more of a personal restaurant.”