By Richard Foss
The small restaurant on Culver Boulevard looks somber from the outside, the black building with dark windows suggesting an old-fashioned dark dive with a muted atmosphere. The actual experience at The Tripel in Playa del Rey couldn’t be more different; on almost any evening the bar and shared tables will be abuzz with conversation. It’s a lively place with more than a passing resemblance to the bistros of Brussels, the Belgian city obsessed with gastronomy and great beer.
The Tripel is named after a strong, fruity pale ale that is a Belgian specialty, and a few items on the menu celebrate the famously good food of that country, but most of the menu is modern American, the creations of Top Chef runner-up Brooke Williamson.
Williamson has an amazing resume that includes stints at Michael’s in Santa Monica and Restaurant Daniel in New York, and it’s rare that a chef of her caliber opens a modestly priced place. Nevertheless, that’s what is happening here, and the concept is popular enough that they’re full almost every night.
We started a recent dinner for three with beet-cured salmon, a summer corn salad and charred baby octopus salad over crispy tomato couscous. The octopus divided our party; two of us thought it was brilliant, as the green olives and feta cheese in a spicy vinaigrette was an inspired combination with the seafood and couscous, but my wife found the pickled flavors and red pepper too strong.
There was consensus on the other two items – adding celery-salted popcorn to a salad made with fresh corn, pea tendrils, and heirloom tomato was a stroke of genius. It added a texture and flavor that made every bite a delight, while the fresh cool natural corn and fluffy popcorn went great together. The salmon was a hit too; the topping of shredded zucchini, crunchy smoked fennel and crumbed olive bread was an excellent contrast to the salmon marinated in sweet beet juice.
We paired our starters with drinks from the extensive list – as might be expected from a place named after a style of beer, the Tripel specializes in arcane brews, but they also have beer-based cocktails. I had a Sour Grapes – Belgian ale, Madeira wine, and Luxardo liqueur – while my companions had wine and a concoction of peach beer, peach juice and Spanish sparkling wine. Both cocktails were delicious and unusual, good enough to encourage home mixologists to start experimenting with beer.
We continued our meal with a Tripel burger – made with layers of duck confit, pork and beef, with pecorino cheese and apricot jam; a lamb burger; and a pan of waterzooi – Belgian chicken stew. The half-chicken was partially submerged in a broth containing carrots, leeks, lemon juice and egg, and it was delightful. I can’t figure out why this item isn’t more popular in California, because it’s delicious. It was served with a crisp potato pancake on top, which added another texture to an alluring dish.
The lamb burger was more traditionally Mediterranean, served with cucumbers and a sauce of yoghurt, honey and Moroccan hot sauce – a combination that hit the buttons for spicy, sweet and cooling all at once. As for the three-meat burger, it was extremely rich; if you like full, meaty flavors, this is heaven on a plate, but our appetites weren’t up to finishing it. Desserts were offered, and they sounded alluring, but a starter and main course were ample.
We enjoyed the meal so much that we came back for a weekend brunch, a meal that many of Tripel’s evening clientele doesn’t seem to know is available. The place was empty at 11 a.m., though a trickle of customers arrived while we dined. I was attracted to the Earl Grey oats and amaranth porridge, but decided on duck hash topped with a fried egg instead, while my wife had a Croque Madame – the French sandwich of ham, gruyere cheese and a fried egg.
Croque Madames in France are usually served with a meager portion of ham, a taste rather than a big chunk of protein, but the amount here was a bit more substantial. Along with the arugula salad it was a simple, hearty meal, showing that chef Williamson knows when to leave a good idea alone. The duck hash was a bit more baroque – lobster salted baby potatoes, pancetta and duck, and greens cooked in vinegar, topped with a fried egg and served with drizzles of pumpkin seed sauce as well as a harissa hot sauce for dipping. The vinegared greens and rich duck were a great pairing, and this was one of the best breakfasts I’ve had all year. Along with bellinis and a cup of freshly made and bracingly strong coffee, it was a great way to start the day.
The prices here are very modest – main courses and substantial starters run between $10 and $18, with most toward the low end of that range. It’s a pittance for fantastic food in pleasant surroundings, and this restaurant is a jewel that deserves to be even better known.
The Tripel is at 333 Culver Blvd. in Playa del Rey – open daily for dinner, Fri-Sun for brunch. Beer and wine served, street parking. Menu at thetripel.com, 310-821-0333. §