The Kitchen Behind the Bar
Firestone Walker makes fantastic beer, but can they cook?
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
Some things are destined never to be called by their real name. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award of Merit will always be called an Oscar, even though that nickname was based on an offhand remark at the second ceremony. The name is pithy in the way that no acronym could touch, and it’s embedded in popular memory.
Have you heard about the new Washington Boulevard restaurant called The Propagator? No?
What about the new Firestone Walker Brewing Co. taproom and restaurant? Thought so.
Surprise, they’re the same place — technically the bar and restaurant are separate operations, even though there’s no clear division between the two.
But what’s in a name? Whatever you call this place, it’s an overnight success. After only six weeks in business, the restaurant and bar is often packed. Firestone Walker Venice, as it’s also called, takes reservations and I recommend getting one, as there can be a crush as the evening progresses.
The industrial interior design is reminiscent of a working brewery and is done with unusual cleverness, with some seating encircled by a wooden wall that is reminiscent of a giant barrel.
The staff is clever, too. A server who demonstrated knowledge of both food and beer offerings was happy to help with recommendations, and we ordered four food items even after being warned that three would be sufficient.
We also ordered a fine English-style unfiltered brown ale and a Berliner Weisse that lived up to the Napoleonic nickname “Champagne of the North.” The wait for appetizers was just long enough that we were ready to order second beers when the plates hit the table.
Our starters were cauliflower tacos and a fried chicken Cobb that stretched the definition of that salad to the breaking point. There were only two ingredients in common with the traditional Cobb, avocado and hardboiled egg — three if you count the chicken, which was Southern-fried instead of the usual roasted. Smoked tomato was an interesting and successful substitution for bacon, and the grilled corn and black beans were a nice addition. The missing elements were the blue cheese and onion, both of which add to the traditional version. Without those the dish feels out of balance, but I might come back to order another, ask that they add cheese and see what happens.
The cauliflower tacos were perfect. The corn tortillas were handmade and fresh, the beer-braised vegetable combined with a good pico de gallo, chimichurri sauce and a bit of feta cheese. The three medium tacos were a fine appetizer and would have been a good light vegetarian meal.
For our main courses we ordered a tempeh banh mi sandwich, paired with a hoppy pilsner at our server’s suggestion, and a slow-cooked brisket complemented by a Union Jack IPA. The beers were excellent, but I had issues with both food items.
Banh mi sandwiches balance fresh, spicy and pickled flavors with simply seasoned protein, but in this one the tempeh had been cooked in a heavy, smoky tasting sauce that overwhelmed the other flavors in the sandwich. I’ve had tofu and tempeh banh mi that were successful, but this one didn’t work for me.
The slaw that came with the sandwich was more successful, with nice touches of vinegar tartness and jalapeno spice. If the kitchen would back off on the heavy sauce, the sandwich and slaw would be fine together.
The brisket was more successful — very tender and slightly smoky — and the fried fingerlings that came with it were unusually flavorful. The only flaw was the grilled asparagus, which hadn’t been trimmed to remove the tough ends and had also been overcooked. Skinny vegetables like asparagus are easy to overgrill, and the problem may have just been a hiccup from a new and busy kitchen.
We were considering ordering a slice of berry cheesecake when my companion noticed a pair of beers on the overhead sign that didn’t appear on the menu. They turned out to be an imperial stout and a barley wine. We were quite surprised that the servers hadn’t mentioned these, as they are styles that are prized
by beer aficionados.
Both beers were superb ways to finish a meal — the barley wine reminiscent of a sherry, the stout chocolatey and fruity and slightly akin to a port wine. These were the best beers we had all evening, and servers should make sure diners know they exist.
Dinner for two at The Propagator (and I had to check the beginning of this article to remind myself of the name) ran $95, including three excellent beers each.
I have visited Firestone Walker’s restaurant by their brewery in Buellton and know the company can support a great dining experience that highlights fantastic beer. They have the start of one here in L.A. — it just needs a little work on the details.