Gastropubs in Los Angeles

“Who cares how time advances?  I’m drinking ale today” – Edgar Allen Poe

Pub grub has come a long way from pork scratchings and pickled eggs when pubs, or public houses, functioned as drinking establishments and inns for the working class in Great Britain.  It wasn’t until the 1950’s that pub owners started offering hearty food with their ales, with what’s now considered to be quintessential pub food items like fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and pasties.  Pubs are still casual establishments for friends who want to socialize over a few pints and bites, but more interest is being placed on quality meals to chow down on.  Now we have a quickly flourishing movement of gastropubs, a term coined in 1991 by the owners of The Eagle Pub in London that combines the essence of pubs and gastronomy to emphasize gourmet delicacies.  While pub purists argue that gastropubs kill the distinct rustic character of traditional pubs, the majority of Angelenos are welcoming this movement with open arms and empty bellies- and how ironic, given that this is a city where drinking usually means drinking and driving.

Gastropubs have a characteristic cozy and comfortable vibe with simple furnishings of banquettes, tables and stools so that the food and brews can take center stage.  For those who love beer, it’s a dream come true as gastropubs offer obscure selections with unique names that will even pique the interest of non-drinking patrons.  Siamese Twin, Damnation, Arrogant Bastard, Snake Bite, Hair of the Dog, Dead Guy and Raging Bitch?  They sound like the latest up and coming bands to debut at the Viper Room, but they’re all local and foreign beers that can only be found at these specialty establishments.  I for one tend to gravitate toward these outrageously named brews for the fun factor, as I’m not well versed in the genre of ales and stouts.

There are many gastropubs in Los Angeles now, from Santa Monica to Downtown, and up north in Hollywood down to the South Bay.  The Village Idiot has remained strong since it opened in early 2007, still drawing in a full crowd at its beautiful open space on a desirable stretch of Melrose Avenue.  Like most gastropubs, they offer wine and non-alcoholic beverages, but there’s nothing better than a cold brewsky to wash down classic British fare like fish and chips and steak and potato pie.  The menu breaks down their food in comical genres like ‘no face’ for vegetables, ‘2 legs’ for poultry, ‘4 legs’ for red meats and ‘no legs’ for fish, perhaps so that even a true village idiot can understand the menu.   Healthy salads, tarts and tartare are on the menu, but it’s predominantly hearty fare like roasted chicken, cornmeal crusted catfish, grilled hanger steak, and crispy pork belly.  The classic fish and chips with malt vinegar dipping sauce is excellent here, with crispy fries and tender white fish with thick batter.

The Village Idiot is open at 9am for breakfast on the weekends, so hungry village blokes can indulge in a full English breakfast of bangers and ham with beans on toast, roasted tomato, mushrooms, and fried egg.

Even though it’s a gastropub, it’s a gastropub in America after all, so American classics with a twist like the juicy pub burger with a marvelous balsamic onion relish can be paired with your pint of hefeweizen.

On my last visit to this gastropub, I had one of the daily specials, a house cured pastrami sandwich on toasted white bread with whole grain mustard that was to die for.  The succulent pastrami sliced paper thin was bursting with fatty juices and peppery spices, and it ranked right up there with my favorites from Clementine‘s and Langer’s.

The most uncharacteristically gastropub feature of this establishment is their fairly impressive dessert menu.  Pumpkin pie crème brûlée, chocolate cinnamon bread pudding, and banana treacle tart at a pub?  It’s a wonderful deviation from tradition, and if purists want to scorn at me for patronizing and calling this place a gastropub, then I’ll just shrug my shoulders and enjoy my peach rhubarb tart with cinnamon ice cream.

A notable contender on the gastropub scene is Wurstküche, housed in a large warehouse in a dark and quiet area of Downtown LA near Little Tokyo.  For those who aren’t familiar with the area, it may be difficult to find this spot, but once you open the small entrance door, you’ll be hit with a sonic boom from the lively crowds that squeeze into the long communal tables and benches.  In a smart and delicious move, Wurstküche has carved out a niche for itself by specializing in sausages and wursts to accompany their predominantly Belgian and German beer selections.  With intriguing drinks like sarsaparilla soda, elderflower soda, and botanical brew of dandelion and burdock, even the curious non-drinker gourmands will want to flock here.

If you can first nab a seat at this perpetually packed place, then the next step is to go around to the back to order any one of their sausages, divided into Classics, Gourmet, and Exotic.  Classics include bratwurst, bockwurst and hot Italian, with 3 vegetarian options of Italian, smoked apple sage and Mexican chipotle.  The classic bratwurst, a pork based sausage with hints of nutmeg and coriander, is a must try before you venture into the gourmets and exotics.  The chicken and turkey based Mango Jalapeño with a generous heap of caramelized onions offers an adventure into the sweet and spicy.

Other gourmet selections include Chicken Apple & Spices, Sun Dried Tomato & Mozzarella, Green Chillies & Cilantro, Filipino Marharlika and Kielbasa.  All are served on their freshly baked buns and can be garnished with sauerkraut, onions, sweet peppers or spicy peppers.  The exotics delve into rare meats like buffalo, duck and rabbit, but my absolute favorite at Wurstküche is the rattlesnake and rabbit with jalapeño peppers.  This peppery sausage is surprisingly juicy and tender, pairing well with a glass of Echt Kriekenbier.  The smoked alligator and pork andouille sausage is smokey like a kielbasa but a little too lean and crumbly for my taste.  Double dipped Belgian fries with white truffle oil is a mandatory side order here, though you can choose other dipping sauces like chipotle ketchup, blue cheese walnut and bacon, pesto mayo or thai peanut.

Venturing down south beyond the 105 Freeway is unheard of these days for Angelenos who live on the west side, but venturing even further south below the 91 Freeway and Artesia Boulevard?  Not possible, you’d think, but I heard of a certain gastropub in Redondo Beach that was opened last year by Beechwood owners Nick Roberts and his wife Brooke Williamson, and I made the trek down to check it out.  The glowing pink sign stands out on the otherwise dead and shady neighborhood, and this joint is clearly a local favorite.  Hudson House offers a fairly interesting selection of beers, including the oddities with eccentric names, and the menu is anything but traditional pub food- it centers around the concept of comfort food but with a gourmet twist:  lamb skewers with honey yogurt harissa sauce, chicken meatball sandwich, beer battered cauliflower fritters, brown sugar pork ribs, a pretzel burger and tilapia tacos.

Wheat beer steamed clams with lemon, Thai basil and garlic are actually great, and dipping their toasted bread into the garlic perfumed sauce is highly encouraged.

Dungeness crab deviled eggs flop, much to my disappointment, with absolutely nothing special or tasty about them.

Romaine salad with grilled shrimp is tossed with a light ginger Caesar dressing which almost borders on a Chinese salad flavoring.

Fortunately the juicy and perfectly grilled marinated skirt steak with garlic and truffle cheese fries bring the gastronomy level up a notch to back up Chef Williamson’s impressive bio.  These shoestring fries with the perfect hint of black truffles is quite delectable, and almost worth the whole trip down to the South Bay.

Hudson House represents one end of the extreme on the gastropub spectrum with their non-traditional pub food, and the crispy beer battered Twinkies really says it all.  It’s wonderful that the gastropub movement is permeating into different parts of the city, and that residents of the South Bay have their own new local joints to enjoy, but for now, I’ll stick to my side of the town for pub grub.

Which brings me back to my neighborhood on the west side where I frequent the lovely outdoor patio of Father’s Office, one of the first and perhaps most famous of all gastropubs in Los Angeles, where you can enjoy 36 brews on tap and nosh down on the prizewinning Office Burger.  The dry aged beef patty cooked medium rare and served on a fluffy French roll with caramelized onions, maytag blue and gruyere cheese, applewood smoked bacon tomato compote and arugula is really all that, and it’s honestly one of my favorite burgers in LA.  With the slightest pressure of my finger pads on the bread as I take a gratifying bite, warm meat juices come pouring out of the tender meat and run down my forearms, but I can’t even be bothered to drop the burger to clean myself up, as the next moment comes too quickly, the moment when the saltiness of the cheese comes rushing in, followed by the sweetness of the caramelized onions and a rapid finish of arugula bitterness.  Even though I’ve eaten about 50 Office Burgers in my lifetime, I don’t have a single photo of it.  From the moment it arrives on the table, it completely bewitches and consumes me.

Father’s Office is famous for their gastronomy, at times offering daily specials of oysters, grilled rabbit or diver scallops.  Beet salad with walnuts, shaved curly beets and garden greens with vinaigrette is a staple on their menu.

Roasted beef bone marrow with a tangy and salty parsley caper garnish is one of the best in the city, alongside Church and State, Mozza and Caché.  Most everything on the food menu at this lively and energetic joint is pretty good, and most of all you just can’t beat al fresco drinking and grubbing on a warm LA evening.

From classical British style to contemporary American twists, gastropubs are popping up everywhere in Los Angeles, consistently brimming with customers as if there still weren’t enough gastropubs around town.  In this past year new places like District, The Lab, Waterloo and City, Laurel Tavern and Boho have opened up in addition to the Gastrobus food truck to join the ranks of Ford’s Filling Station and Westside Tavern.  The secret to their popularity is perhaps the accessibility and informality in this city that’s equally inundated with fine dining establishments where reservations may be difficult to land and a dinner outing means a 3 hour commitment with jacket and tie.  Sometimes you just want to pop in for a quick drink with friends sans reservations, but you don’t want to compromise on savory food.  These are the times when the familiarity of beer and sausages at a gastropub present the perfect combination of gourmet and comfort.

Random trivia:  Did you know that a beer bottle collector is called a labeorphilist?  A beer mat collector is a tegestologist.

Will you marrow me?

I just realized that within the past 3 weeks I had the pleasure of indulging in veal, beef and lamb bone marrow.  What a treat and how lucky am I?!  It’s truly one of my favorite things to nibble on with a nice glass of wine.

It started off 3 weeks ago when I was invited to my friend’s house to have some home cooked braised lamb shanks. Of course I wouldn’t turn down such an offer, so I went over with a bottle of Paso Robles Syrah simply excited for a lamb shank.  Well, holy cow!  Oops, I meant, holy lamb!  Kyle, you sure know how to please a woman (in this case, 3 women at once.  What a stud!)

Master chef Kyle in the kitchen

Master chef Kyle in the kitchen

These red wine braised lamb shanks were so tender, the meat fell right off the bones.  He accompanied them with garlic and rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes, oven roasted garlic bulbs, cipollini onions with a balsamic reduction glaze, sauteed greens, and a tangy parsley gremolata.

Braised lamb shank in the Le Creuset

Braised lamb shank in the Le Creuset

Delicious meal

Delicious meal

After I cleaned my plate and stripped the lamb shank down to the bare bone, Kyle sensed my next move and provided me with long thin crab picks.  Since lamb shank bones are very thin and long, this apparatus was perfect for scooping out all of the bone marrow.  I spread a clove of tender roasted garlic onto a toasted baguette, and placed the lamb bone marrow on top.  Voila, I was in heaven.  Lamb marrow is dark, with a dense and rich flavor.  It was also nicely flavored with the red wine braise and made for a wonderful treat.

Bone marrow and roasted garlic bruschetta

Bone marrow and roasted garlic bruschetta

A week and a half later I was in Cambria doing the same thing with a large piece of veal osso bucco.  This was at a restaurant called Madeline’s, which is a small and quaint restaurant inside of the Cambria Wine Shop.  Veal shank is obviously larger, so the dish came with a small spoon ready to scoop out the marrow.

Veal osso bucco

Veal osso bucco

I had my veal with another glass of local Paso Robles syrah.  What a coincidence…

And of course we savored the rich veal bone marrow on a piece of toast.

Veal marrow on toast

Veal marrow on toast

Sometimes bone marrow can have a bland taste if at all, so it’s best enjoyed from stews such as osso bucco because of the added flavors.  I remember making a lot of scraping noises at the table that night, making sure that I got every little last bit of marrow out with my small spoon.  Gosh, I can be an embarrassing date.

And finally, the king of all bone marrows, the beef marrow.  I went to Father’s Office in Culver City with some great friends a few days ago.

Father's Office

Father's Office

The night started off  with orders of pommes frites and beet salad, both absolutely delicious.  The red beets here were so sweet and juicy. After 2 wonderful bottles of Spanish red wines (I really liked the 2001 Ribera del Duero Fuentespina) and midway into a carafe, I started craving….marrow.  I could feel it in my….bones.

Beef bone marrow

Beef bone marrow

Oh gosh…this was really good.  This was simple straight forward beef bone marrow, roasted to perfection in the nude, so it looked gelatinous, bouncy and barely opaque.  The baguette was toasted just right, the marrow was rich and fatty but not too heavy, and the parsley and caper topping added that perfect amount of freshness, bitterness, acidity, and saltiness to complement it all.  I thought my friends would go ga-ga over this dish, but they weren’t as excited as I was.  Which worked to my advantage, because I got to eat most of it.

Another great place to have roasted beef marrow is Mozza.  They do it well too.

I love the fact that such a simple yet mind blowingly rich and delicious snack can be made from animals parts that would normally be thrown away.  Same goes for other organ meats.  They are so nutritious (okay, fatty too) and rich in flavor.  Most humans are only interested in the lean muscle meats, but the organs and innards are where the money’s at.  All other animals seem to know that.  When lions and tigers eat their prey, they primarily eat the innards, and don’t waste their time picking at the lean cuts.  I think I know what I was in a previous life…

Random trivia:  Did you know that in 1983 the world’s first animal bone marrow transplant was done on Miki, a lilac-point Siamese cat, to correct a rare genetic disease called Mucopolysaccharidosis VI?