By Frier McCollister
For chef Dominique “Dom” Crisp, a trip to Basque Country in October 2019 served as the catalyzing spark of inspiration for his first independent restaurant venture, Saso.
It opened Feb. 18 in the Playhouse Square Plaza space, most recently occupied by Trejo’s Tacos. Having been raised on a vineyard in Wren, Oregon, the rugged terrain of northern Spain’s Basque Country with its varying climates and abundance of fresh seafood and produce seemed familiar.
“When we got to Basque Country, it was, ‘Wow. This is so much like Oregon. This is like home. This is good. This is familiar,’” Crisp said.
“It was really cool, really inspiring. When we got up in the mountains, it really reminded me of home. It is just like Oregon. You have these very intense micro areas, people doing amazing stuff in their small communities: foragers, butchers and fishermen.”
In Oregon, Crisp and his family nurtured an interest in food, wine and the satisfactions of home.
“I’m from Oregon, born on a vineyard into a family of gourmands,” Crisp said. “My mom was an amazing home cook and an educated nutritionist, and my father is a winemaker and a thespian.”
Crisp’s career as a chef was influenced by his parents.
“The finer things in life are not materialistic,” Crisp said. “They are things that we consume, and we enjoy with friends. That’s been my ethos since I was a kid.
“It’s something that’s been ingrained in me by my father, in that he makes the wine that he drinks and my mom, who always raised me on organic, wholesome ingredients and amazing rustic execution as well. That was my upbringing. But I got out and started developing, finding my own course. That started in France.”
After graduating high school, Crisp reconnected with his family’s roots during a trip to France with his best friend.
“I’m a quarter French. My mom is half French. My grandmother was a war bride from World War II,” Crisp said.
“My distant family had a bistro de pays in Southern France, the center of Provence, Le Bistro de Pierre Rue.”
During high school, he worked at a pizzeria in Corvallis, Oregon, where he had quickly advanced, working all stations in the dining room and kitchen. At the family’s bistro in Provence, he and his friend worked through the summer and Crisp’s culinary interests continued to clarify.
“That’s where this huge French influence comes from and also this amazing need to look for quality ingredients and go to the market,” he said.
Returning to rural Oregon, Crisp thought about moving to a “big city.”
“I really had my eye set on Portland,” Crisp said. “It’s always been a beacon for the culinary and bar scene in the northwest. It’s always been a little better than Seattle. Seattle is amazing for what it is, but Portland really exploded when I got up there. I got there when I was 21, in 2008.”
He cites two primary influences from his extended sojourn in Portland. The first was working for chef Davide Filippini of Trattoria Gallo Nero. Crisp called him an “amazing Tuscan chef from Italy.”
“It was like watching someone do ballet, because of how he handled customers and how he cooked,” Crisp said. “It was very inspiring to me. Seeing how he interacted as a chef with his customers was inspiring. That showed me chefs don’t just belong in the kitchen. They can be the face of a restaurant.”
The other important turn in Portland for Crisp was working at the buzzing alternative gastropub Dig A Pony. There, he found himself in an extended familial clan in the midst of a frenetic kitchen.
“I was alone in the kitchen a lot,” he explained. “During happy hour, tickets were pouring in. You learn how to execute good food at a high level, really quickly. That’s where I really cut my teeth in becoming a very good line cook, which is important for any chef. It also showed me how to be a part of a really great family team. I worked at that place five or six years. It was important to me.”
In 2015, Crisp unwittingly discovered Los Angeles.
“I chased a girl down here, Alicia,” he said. “She’s my wife now. I’ve known her since high school. She had been my inspiration to strive for better things.”
Soon, he relocated, and the couple married. He is grateful for his new home.
“LA is the most interesting, multifaceted, cultural city that I’ve ever been in — and that’s after traveling through Europe,” Crisp said.
“I love this town. There’s nothing like it. The more people I meet and the more people I talk to, it just keeps getting better and better.”
Crisp considers himself to be an “oyster chef,” which largely reflects on experience gained since he arrived in Los Angeles.
First hired as the sous chef at L&E Oyster Bar in Silverlake, his tenure there marked another turn in Crisp’s experience.
“I got offered the job as the sous chef, under chef Spencer Bezaire and his wife Sabrina, amazing hard-working local people,” he recalled.
“He just gave me full creative reign and control and just let me run wild. We were going to the market twice a week. I was cooking food that I wanted to make. He was really supportive of me. I learned so much about oysters and relationships with farmers.”
After four years there, Crisp was “poached” to become executive chef at Blue Plate Oysterette in Santa Monica, where he continued to expand on his contacts and logistical savvy in sourcing the freshest oysters and seafood.
“I was able to get oysters flown into LAX,” he said. “I pick them up after they’ve been harvested that morning out of the water and sell them that evening. That’s the logistical power of this location that we live in, which is fantastic. That’s what we carried into Saso.”
The name “Saso” is a play on the Basque word for ocean, itsaso. Fresh seafood forms the spine of the menu, which is inevitably informed by the day’s fresh catch.
“Saso’s about the inspiration of the Basque country and the Basque food, which is about sourcing,” Crisp said. “So, it’s finding the best ingredients. Finding the best local spot prawns and serving them while they’re still alive.”
Crisp relies on a network of small family purveyors to ensure his daily inventory: oysters, mussels and kelp from Alaska; shellfish from Washington; Dungeness crab from Oregon and sea bass and kumamoto oysters from Baja.
Glacier Point oysters from Alaska were recently featured ($18/$35) served raw or grilled. Fresh oysters are a given here, but the Crudo Bar also features crab claws from Santa Barbara ($7) served with mustard sauce, and also salmon carpaccio ($14) with cured olives, shallot, radish and capers. Not of the sea, but no less fresh is the Txuletta Tartarra ($16), a luscious Wagyu steak tartare, topped with trout roe and anchovy aioli.
In Basque style, the menu is fronted by a list of 10 pintxos, or small plate appetizers.
Delectable choices include Calimero ($8), poached shrimp, Spanish deviled eggs, capers, chive and smoked salmon aioli; Txangurro Tortas ($12) or dungeness crab cakes with navarra cheese, hot peppers and avocado crema; or Txirla ($13), described as “local clams from the Josper.” The Josper is a contained charcoal oven made in Barcelona that forms the centerpiece of Saso’s open kitchen area. Bring a gang and order the Esperientzia ($99), a heaping platter of all 10 pinxtos.
Custom cocktails, crafted by lead bartender Vito Morales, include the New Moon ($13), a martini riff of horseradish-infused vodka chilled by a black orb of squid ink ice. It’s a perfect companion to a plate of oysters. The Mission Shandy ($13) is a mix of gin and Basque cider with fresh fruit, most recently blood orange.
The rest of Crisp’s team at Saso includes his pastry chef Dolly Webster, with whom he bonded during the pandemic, prepping meals for the ER and ICU staff at PIH Health Good Samaritan Hospital. The kitchen devolves on his two trusted sous chefs, Timothy Garcia and Chris Ostorga. The operation hums along with the ever-genial supervision of general manager Matt Krawczyk.
Outdoor distanced seating for 50 diners is splayed across the handsome courtyard of the Playhouse. Inside, an expansive and colorful mural by local artist Tim Biskup adorns the entire north wall of the dining room. Inside or out, Saso provides the ideal setting for a leisurely cocktail and a plate of fresh oysters.
“We take pride in using the best local ingredients,” Crisp said. “We serve my family’s wine. It’s handcrafted. It’s local. I think that’s been the most important. Why Saso has been able to work, why it will work and why we’ll continue to be here. We wanted to give Pasadena and this space at the Playhouse, it’s best option. We’re all just excited to be part of this community.”
37 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena