By Richard Foss
Restaurant names are usually chosen to send messages about what to expect in terms of cuisine or style. If you see a café called Lunch you know what meal they specialize in, and a place called Casablanca must serve Moroccan food, right?
Wrong. When it comes to the Westside, you can get breakfast at Lunch, and Casablanca serves Mexican seafood. Another local eatery shatters more subtle expectations: Waterloo & City in Culver City is named after the shortest line on the London Underground, suggesting a transport-themed old time British pub. One might expect Union Jack kitsch on the wall, banger sausages and fish and chips on the menu, and Fuller’s and Carlsberg handles behind the bar.
Instead, the walls are sparsely decorated with tasteful art, though the restaurant is so dark at night that you can barely see it. Belgian and American craft brews dominate the beer list, and though fish and chips does make an appearance, it’s only in the children’s section. Instead, they focus on the cuisine served in modern upscale British eateries, like duck and walnut pate, sea bass with gnocchi and pork cheeks, and Indian butter chicken pizza. Waterloo & City is a gastropub that celebrates what the British eat now, not a century ago.
That said, there were echoes of older recipes in the starters we selected: quail stuffed with bacon, served with plum chutney and English pea soup with goat cheese agnolotti and prosciutto. Both used flavor combinations that would have been familiar to an Elizabethan courtier. Game birds like quail have very little fat and were cooked with bacon to keep them from drying out and to add a layer of texture and flavor; serving cooked fruit with meat was a common medieval technique.
Even the sprinkling of arugula fit the flavor profile, though Tudors would have used dandelion or mustard greens. The old ideas still work, and the boneless bird with slight smoky and fruity overtones was a hit. So was the pea soup, a naturally sweet potage made with fresh rather than dried peas. This was nothing like the usual split pea soup, and all the better for it.
I was preparing to order a glass of wine when my wife noticed a cocktail called “My Darling Lemon-Thyme.” She loves puns and also enjoys fruity herbal cocktails, so she had to try it. I had an “After Eight,” made with rye whisky, mint liqueur, orange zest, and chocolate bitters. Hers was a refreshing alcoholic lemonade, while mine was out of balance – I liked it at first, but after repeated sips the mint and chocolate became cloying. I would have liked it better with a lighter touch on the liqueurs.
She continued the meal with capellini pasta with shrimp and lobster Bolognese, and I had the most old-fashioned item on the otherwise modern menu – beef Wellington. I can’t remember when I last saw this dish of a rare steak wrapped in paté baked in a pastry crust on a local menu, and I had to try it. It’s a good test of a kitchen – the meat has to be cooked perfectly before wrapping in dough or it will either be soggy or dry, and there is no room for error. In this case, a mushroom and asparagus mix substituted for the paté, and it worked very well – each layer had its own flavor, and the pastry was neither hard nor soggy on the bottom. If you’re a beef eater who wants to try a classic, this is the place.
Our server, Kurt, recommended a glass of a Central Coast Syrah to complement it, and since his suggestions had been spot on I agreed to try it. The staff here know their pairings and it was a solid choice.
I was skeptical about my wife’s pasta because of the name – Bolognese is a meaty sauce made with beef or lamb, and I doubted that you could get a similar effect with seafood. I was partly right – this wasn’t a Bolognese by any conventional sense of the word, but it did have a more full seafood flavor than other tomato-based shellfish sauces. I might quibble about the name, but not the effect – it was a rich dish that any high-style Italian place in town might be proud to serve.
We considered dessert but were too full – the portions were substantial and we were replete. The bill for two was $105 for a fine and full meal. Along with their quirks of naming and style, Waterloo & City has another eccentricity – on Sunday and Monday nights the menu is almost completely different from the rest of the week. We will return on a Tuesday through Saturday to learn more about this kitchen, where modern British cooking is handled in a masterful way.
Waterloo & City is at 12517 Washington Blvd. in Culver City. Open daily at 5 p.m. for dinner only, late hours on weekends. Full bar, corkage $20, valet parking, wheelchair access good. Menu at waterlooandcity.com. 310-391-4222.