By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
There’s a natural relationship between restaurant and farm; almost nothing we eat is hunted and gathered in the wild, so cafés with rustic décor celebrate the primary source of our food. They usually evoke family farms of an earlier age that seem wholesome and pure. We imagine the barn smelling of clean straw and animals, the cattle and chickens in the sunshine outside. It simulates both the imagination and appetite.
One might expect a restaurant called Barnyard to specialize in country fare – nothing fancier than chicken fried steaks, corn on the cob and apple pie. Instead Jesse and Celia Barber’s Venice restaurant offers modern Mediterranean preparations that include Caesar salad with figs and pine nuts, Italian style fried rice, and grilled chicken with vin santo and pistachio mint salad.
Their sign proclaims, “Local hangout place since 1985,” though Barnyard opened only last year. The mixed messages that confound your expectations.
We were seated at an outside table and offered menus and good advice by a server named Kat, who recommended a meat board, beet and burrata salad, and poached octopus with spicy garbanzos.
I was glad she mentioned the octopus because that item brought me here in the first place. I did a phone interview with Jesse Barber for The Argonaut a few months ago and he mentioned it was a surprise hit. I now understand what the fuss is about, as it’s marvelous. The octopus is wonderfully tender and well paired with garbanzo beans in a sauce that includes pickled chili – and that’s high praise from me because I usually don’t like garbanzos. Here they were lightly cooked in a sauce with a delicate, smoky heat and slight vinegar tang, and it all worked together.
The salad hit the mark too – it’s made with mild golden beets instead of the earthier red, with hazelnuts and soft burrata cheese in subtle lemon vinaigrette. The meat plate was a stylistic contrast – slices of house-made wild boar, sopresata, and spicy pork sausages with fresh pickles and olives. This starter showed that chef Jesse knows when to just let quality ingredients speak for themselves.
We paired the starters with wines from a list heavy on obscure European bottlings; glasses of Basque Txakolina and Spanish Bierzo, plus cider for our friend who doesn’t drink wine. The Txakolina was unusual, a very dry, slightly effervescent white that went well with the notoriously difficult-to-pair beets.
We continued with rabbit loin rolled porchetta style, a pork chop with fresh corn polenta and grilled fruit, and a daily special of halibut over lightly curried cauliflower with rice and currants, topped with crème fraiche. The halibut was the only dish of the evening that was out of balance due to an abundance of the unctuous crème. I think it might have been better without any cream, since the grilled fish harmonized fine with the other elements without it.
I ordered the pork at our server’s suggestion despite the fact that it was one of the more conventional items, but again, her judgment was excellent. Pork steak with polenta is a pairing that any steakhouse might offer, but this was perfectly done and the wholegrain soft corn contrasted nicely with the delicate fruit sauce.
The rabbit was by far the most ambitious item and the most successful. This meat is often dry, but here the lean loin had been wrapped in belly meat before cooking so that everything remained moist. It was topped with a Spanish Picada sauce with hazelnuts and served over Brussels sprouts, and we devoured every morsel and wished for more.
We accompanied our main dishes with glasses of good French wine and a strange Austrian grapefruit beer – if any of you already knew that Austria produced anything at all using grapefruit, you were ahead of me. We found it odd and refreshing but not a good match with food – it would have been better as an aperitif.
To finish, we had sticky toffee pudding and strawberry pie, both made in house and up to the standards of the rest of our meal – neither was oversweet, which is a real rarity with both of these items. I hadn’t expected to like the pudding at all, so to say that this was the best I have ever had is faint praise; it says more that I would seek this out again.
Our bill for three was $150, very reasonable for a meal of this quality. If Barnyard was a few blocks away on Abbot Kinney Boulevard instead of Pacific Avenue, it would have cost much more and still been worth it. Barnyard is a marvelous addition to the bayside dining scene that is worth a special trip to enjoy excellent food and service in a casual atmosphere.
Barnyard is at 1715 Pacific Ave. in Venice. Open Wed-Fri for lunch, Su brunch, and for dinner daily except Sunday. Parking in adjacent lot, wine and beer served, patio dining, wheelchair access OK to most areas. Menu at barnyardvenice.com. 310-581-1015.