The Independence is well on its way to gastropub glory, but it hasn’t arrived just yet
By Richard Foss
The Independence tavern is named after a rail line that was never even half completed. The Los Angeles and Independence Railroad was intended to go from the sea to a desert mining town called Independence, but never made it any further than downtown L.A. The Expo Line now whooshes over the old trackbed, so the routing was evidently sound.
The restaurant doesn’t celebrate vintage rail in the decor, though an Amtrak poster is tucked in an alcove by the bar. The environment is minimalist, modern and loud in the spirit of buzzy gastro-pubs everywhere, and menu offerings fit the space.
Consulting Chef Craig Hopson, who embraced fusion cuisine at his first U.S. venture and crafted classic French items at Le Cirque, created the menu. Hopson
decided the right fit here would be an upscale eclectic take on popular contemporary items.
Whether groundbreaking or not, the ideas here are sound. Salmon belly and avocado tartare is a combination that works just great, and serving it with house-made potato chips and a dill crème fraiche is a good idea. Mincing the fish very fine and leaving large chunks of avocado is a little shakier — my companion commented that the ratio of fish to fruit was right, but the mouth feel of the large chunks threw off the balance of the dish. We didn’t use much of the crème fraiche because the rich fish didn’t need it, but it was a nice palate cleanser with the potato chips.
The concept and execution of the steamed mussels with caramelized onions in a tomato-chili broth with bacon and olives was on point. I could have enjoyed that thick, rich, spicy broth all by itself. With plenty of mussels and some toasted rustic garlic bread on the side, it was superb. If you like shellfish at all, this is the thing to get here.
We were similarly happy with a kale and quinoa salad, which was not something I would have ordered save that it came with green goddess dressing and a smoked egg. There were also two kinds of grapes, plus walnuts, chopped green beans, sprouts and good feta cheese, but the deciding factor really was the green goddess dressing — a rare find in restaurants these days.
Green goddess was invented five years before the more assertive, peppery and rich Caesar, but has some of the same virtues, and it worked great here. This salad is a powerful argument for bringing it back, because the herbal dressing with gentle anchovy flavor accents everything else without masking it.
I should elaborate on the smoked egg, too — I’d never had one before and found it an interesting addition to the salad, though I might have preferred it chopped up and mixed in rather than in halves on the side.
With our starters we tried two cocktails, a mezcal daiquiri and an amaro spritz, both of which were very well-crafted and worth savoring. This place feels like it is in the middle of the spectrum between being a bar that serves food and a restaurant that pours cocktails, and there is some genuine creativity on both sides.
Unfortunately the flavor balance in our main courses wasn’t quite as assured as the starters.
We had ordered seafood stew in what was described as a chorizo and shrimp broth, and when it arrived we had a moment of déjà vu: It looked and smelled like the bowl of mussels we had as a starter, except with some potato, calamari rings, shrimp and fish added. Our server confirmed that it was indeed the same broth, and we wished she had told us since the menu description led us to expect something different. She said she would keep that in mind if somebody else made that mistake, but did not offer to get us something else.
Our server had recommended against the other item we ordered, the morel mushroom and asparagus risotto, explaining it was very heavily laced with truffle oil. My friend and I both enjoy morels so we ordered it anyway, and soon realized that we should have listened to her. There were a fair number of nice-looking mushrooms mixed into the rice in parmesan broth, but the truffle oil did overwhelm the other ingredients. We couldn’t finish it and even left some morels on the plate, and it’s rare that I do that.
We asked our server to bring glasses of appropriate wine and she surprised us by selecting a Broadside cabernet with the seafood stew. What was even more surprising was that it was a good match, as this wine is softer and fruitier than most from that grape. The Bread & Butter Pinot stood up to the truffle oil as well as anything could, so someone in this establishment really knows their pairings.
We finished with a banana-hazelnut bread pudding that was another good idea marred by unbalanced execution, because the banana overwhelmed everything else. The ice cream on top could have made the difference if a dark chocolate had brought in bitter notes, but they used caramel.
Though not everything at this meal worked, enough did that we were glad we visited. The Independence has an ambitious streak and is going far beyond tourist chow, and based on the raucous birthday celebrations at two different tables they are a celebration spot for locals. Like the rail line the place was named for, they’re on the right path but need to keep going.