What if no one had introduced Caroline Styne, then manager of Jones, to Suzanne Goin, who was at the time chef de cuisine at Campanile? We wouldn't have Lucques or A.O.C., two of L.A.'s most beloved restaurants. And we certainly wouldn't have the partners' new Tavern in Brentwood.
Styne and Goin are the food world's equivalent of Lerner and Loewe or Leiber and Stoller. Everything they do just seems to work effortlessly. The two share a certain sensibility and aesthetic. At any of their restaurants, there's a sense of comfort and sensuality, contemporary rustic cuisine and warm but crisp service, and enticing environment. But most of all, they each have a strong sense of place.
Still, given the larger stakes and tonier surroundings, Tavern is just a wee bit disappointing in terms of its food at this point, which is very much in the Lucques genre but not quite there yet.
Tavern is a big, complicated restaurant, the duo's most ambitious yet, open in one guise or another from breakfast all through the afternoon and the dinner hour until late night. It has its own bakery, a takeout deli and abbreviated gourmet shop known as the Larder, where you can pick up charcuterie, cheese, olive oil, salted anchovies and more. The coffee is good, the cocktails inventive and delicious, the short menu a la Lucques mostly reinvented California-Mediterranean.
The pork burgers served in the bar -- juicy patties dressed up with Manchego cheese and an incisive romesco sauce -- good enough by themselves to make Tavern a destination. You could say the same about the fried oysters wrapped in bacon and served with a Tabasco-accented aioli. There's even a kids menu for "little tavernistas," a nice touch from a chef with three toddlers at home.
Designed by Jeffrey Alan Marks, the space is sophisticated and welcoming with the sleek looks of an updated London tavern -- its elegant awning, boxed topiary and opulent foyer papered in a pattern of branches and birds. People troop up and down the steps, a photo op in the making.
Packed for a reason
Woe to anybody who hasn't reserved for dinner well ahead of time, though. Your table will most likely be in the bar or the cafe/Larder, shut out of the room where everybody wants to be, the gorgeous atrium with its soaring glass ceiling, potted olive trees and leather chesterfield sofas that stand in for banquettes. The chairs are upholstered in velvet in watery colors, the walls a subdued sage green, the tabletops that old French standby, zinc.
The crowd seems well-heeled and mostly Westside, dressed expensively with restrained good taste. But as the evening wears on, and the longer the restaurant is open, the crowd gets younger and slightly more bohemian. Tavern's draw is its mise-en-scène, where you can show off your gown, your new husband, your town. And since Styne and Goin always pay attention to comfort, it's quiet enough to talk in the dining room and Larder.
Prices are not crazy either: Most main courses are under $30. Maybe, though, you just want to stick with the starters and desserts.
Goin uses farmers markets as her larder, and she's some kind of genius with first courses and salads. Keep in mind, though, that the handful of choices changes frequently. I love her green goddess salad with tender greens, avocado and Dungeness crab cloaked in that gorgeous green dressing sparked with tarragon.
In another salad, escarole's bitterness is set off with olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, anchovy and Parmesan. Last week she was sending out multicolored heirloom tomatoes with roasted baby eggplant, a smear of fragrant pesto and some deliriously good fried mozzarella.
You can't go wrong with the bouquet of spring vegetables with burrata, olives and Meyer lemon either. Sometimes she makes a lovely version of roasted asparagus with fried egg, this one fat tender spears set on a bed of soft polenta and crowned with a soft-boiled egg rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
The current menu reads like great summer food. She's put merguez, the spicy North African lamb sausage, on as an appetizer, with a swatch of wild arugula and luscious roasted apricot halves -- a wonderful combination of flavors that replaces an equally delicious duck sausage served with a kumquat marmalade.
Desserts head for the comfort zone, too, which means an impeccable fruit crumble made with ripe, juicy peaches and blackberries and served with a tangy buttermilk ice cream. More unusual, though, is the walnut tart, essentially a pecan tart made with very fresh local walnuts.
Fragile elderflower panna cotta is scooped into a tall glass and topped with a pretty Prosecco and pink grapefruit granita. And if you love sundaes, get the strawberry coupe of velvety mascarpone ice cream layered with strawberry compote, or the bracing chocolate coupe that combines a gutsy espresso granita with rich praline ice cream.
I've left main courses for last because this, for me, is where the menu tends to falter. They don't show the same kind of clarity or vibrancy as the first courses. They're a bit clumsy, in fact. However, you can't go wrong with mussels and clams steamed in vermouth with artichokes and served with toast spread with puréed fava beans, or with the devil's chicken with leeks and mustard breadcrumbs, a dish that was on Lucques' original menu.
Other main courses, though, are so soupy they need to be served in a bowl. Glorious slow-roasted suckling pig is done in by a huge splash of vinegary juices. Chunks of lamb grilled on a rosemary skewer and served with a salsa verde are set down on white beans and a lake of brown jus. It's messy and unattractive. Every fish I've ordered has been overcooked. In the end, main courses are a blur of flavors and nothing stands out.
Caroline Styne is one of the best front-of-the-house managers in the business. Service is not only friendly and correct -- you always have the feeling that you're being well cared for. She is the wine buyer as well, and while nothing on the list is bargain-priced, she's giving you something interesting for the money.
Be sure to go for breakfast or brunch sometime when you can enjoy the light streaming in the glass-roofed atrium, the quiet and elegance of the room over soft-boiled eggs rolled in buttered crumbs, pancakes, or scrambled eggs with chorizo. Not since Campanile have we had such a swell spot for breakfast.
It's not perfect -- yet -- but for now it's still the best thing going in this part of town.