As our little group rounds the corner, we can see the waiters at the Italian restaurant look up with hope written all over their faces. But like the couple hurrying by just ahead of us, we walk right on past. Some advice: Don't make eye contact, it's just too painful. The Italian place is almost empty, yet a few doors down, the new Ford's Filling Station is a riotous clamor.
People are spilling out the door as newcomers wriggle their way up to the host's podium. The bar is three deep, with the lucky ones perched on stools around a few high tables. Out front, there's a whole other scene, with people sprawled on metal chairs, waiting for friends or lighting up a smoke.
The younger Ford has something of a following too, from his short-lived fine dining establishment, Chadwick. This time Ford, 39, is tapping into the way his generation actually wants to eat — at some place casual and fun, where you don't have to commit to a three-hour meal.
With some of L.A.'s younger, most talented chefs, it's a movement in the making. Think Brooke Williamson and Beechwood in Venice or David Lentz and the Hungry Cat in Hollywood. Neal Fraser of Grace is working on a more casual concept too, and Andre Guerrero of Max in Sherman Oaks is about to open Oinkster in Eagle Rock. They're all creating the kinds of places they'd like to hang out on their night off — and guess what? So would a lot of other people.
Laid-back and tasty
Ford's Filling Station is billed as a gastropub — a casual place to grab a beer or a glass of wine and something good to eat. Come for a draft of Pyramid hefeweizen and some fried Ipswich clams resting on a bed of shoestring fries. One order is not going to fill you up — the soft-bellied clams are expensive to ship, but they sure are tasty. Grab a bowl of the savory split pea soup with chunks of ham hock at the bar, and you won't go away hungry. I love that Ford has this reliably good and filling soup as one of the constants on his menu. Pair it with a butterleaf salad showered with shaved hard-boiled egg in a bacon-sherry vinaigrette and that's dinner.
This crowd is definitely an industry crowd. Culver City, after all, is home to many studios and peripheral film businesses. One night, friends and I were waiting in the bar when a guy in a baseball cap approached one of us. "Hey, I've only seen you on film — you look a little different in person," he said, apologizing for not recognizing him sooner. My friend was perplexed. Just then another guy with a shaved head shot up a hand from the bar and motioned the stranger over. Wrong shaved head.
No matter. Curious as we were, we couldn't manage to overhear the rest of their conversation — Ford's Filling Station is incredibly noisy. In a loft-like space with high ceilings and lots of hard surfaces, there's not much to be done. It's a bit quieter on the side patio, but there, you're missing most of the scene if that's what you're after. Noise is not an issue, either, if you've managed to nab one of the tables for two along one wall. You get to sit side by side so you can whisper in each other's ears.
Though the look is high-tech, it is accented with sensual touches — glowing wood tables polished like satin, Turkish carpets underfoot and dark leather banquettes. Alabaster votives lend a soft glow to each table. And at the back of the room is the open kitchen with a massive wood-burning oven center stage. Right now, though, they're running mostly on gas while Ford resolves issues with the city.
Even so, the flatbreads are turning out just fine after a befuddled start. Early on, a version with grilled white shrimp and white bean hummus had a pale, limp crust. Now the oblong flatbreads are emerging from the oven thin-crusted and crisp. My vote goes to the one topped with four cheeses, tomato and a sprinkling of fresh oregano. The tomatoes could be more flavorful, but the combination of the cheeses with the wonderfully crisp crust makes for some good eating.
At Chadwick, Ford's first restaurant, his heart was definitely in the right place. He named it after organic gardening guru Alan Chadwick and used, like he does at Ford's Filling Station, organic produce whenever possible. But there, the effect was somehow too precious. Here, the feeling is more democratic and the prices are very fair, considering the quality of the ingredients.
I especially liked the smoked trout salad with dainty fingerling potatoes, feathery pepper cress and a sticky delicious lemon aioli. There's also a curried lentil and frisée salad that's smart and substantial, topped with slices of duck prosciutto, fresh goat cheese and toasted pecans.
One of the nicest ways to begin a meal here is with a platter of cured meats — your choice of any three, which include sweet or hot soppressata, finocchiona salame and prosciutto di Parma or Serrano ham. It comes with adorable mini-baguettes warm from the oven.
When it comes to main courses, Ford offers a different lineup than the usual run of entrees. He's got decent fish and chips for one. Enclosed in a puffy batter, they're more like tempura than classic fish and chips, but then again, it's not just fish. Right now it includes Atlantic cod, jumbo shrimp, asparagus and potato wedges served with a delicious handmade tartar sauce. There's a substantial oxtail soup with big chunks of oxtail in a rich, nourishing broth with cracked wheat and the occasional root vegetable that has soaked up all that goodness.
He's brought back Tuscan-style flattened chicken from where it's been languishing, with an excellent version. Crispy as advertised, it's moist and tender too and served with Ford's signature roasted corn succotash and lemon-garlic confit. You'd expect a pub burger to be something special, but for purists, this may not be the burger of their dreams. Made from organic chuck, it's not the quality of the meat that's in question, but the fixings — lots of Point Reyes blue cheese and caramelized onions — that overwhelm the beef. Steak tartare, which comes with a poached egg on top and a touch of sweet in the dressing, probably won't pass muster with purists either. And why is it served with homemade potato chips, which are not great, instead of toast points? The chips are so thin they break if you try to load any tartare on top.
The biggest surprise here is the vegetarian option, a dreamy polenta cake loaded with chanterelles, tomatoes and pearl onions with a swirl of mascarpone.
The short one-page wine list manages to encompass wines from Santa Barbara, Carneros, Beaujolais, South Australia and the Spanish Basque country, with most bottles available by the glass as well.