Hotel Erwin’s Barlo Kitchen & Cocktails keeps up the eclectic nature of Venice Beach

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

There’s a very practical sort of genius that consists of noticing opportunities that other people have overlooked. It’s common in the culinary world, exemplified by the guy everybody knows who can make a gourmet delight out of the most mismatched, random leftovers. This is an incredibly useful skill, and those who have it will never lack for a good meal.

This skill is also useful when it comes to architecture, as many buildings have odd corners that seem useless until someone comes up with a brilliant way to make them an asset. Both the culinary and design aspects of capitalizing on overlooked opportunities come into play at Barlo, a restaurant in an odd space and at which ingredients are combined with eccentric brilliance.

Though the restaurant has a small conventional café and bar inside the Hotel Erwin, its most pleasant space is shaped like a quarter-oval and bordered by Pacific Avenue, an alley and the hotel’s drive-up entrance. It must have seemed an unpromising space, but the addition of metal mesh curtains and mood lighting makes it a small oasis where one can see but not be seen.

The menu reads like a parade of oddities, and there is an obvious love of unusual contrasts; the burger is topped with herbed chevre, tomato marmalade and bacon caramel, and the venison Wellington is made with blackberry duxelle and raspberry Mountain Dew. As we read the menu it was obvious that someone in the kitchen has a fascination with both sweet and pickled flavors, and we could hardly wait to see what came out of it.

We decided to start with poutine with pork belly, country fried rabbit and (at our server’s suggestion) the house pickled salad. This salad was actually one of the more conventional items on the menu — beets, pickled egg and greens with a mild, tangy dressing and some garrotxa cheese. Garrotxa is from Catalonia and has some of the pleasant funkiness of blue cheese, and it made the difference as a foil for the other sharp flavors.

The poutine had an arresting presentation — a pile of big, crisp French fries was topped with gravy and cheddar, but you couldn’t immediately tell because on top of that were two slices of pork belly and a fried egg. Because the pork belly resembled extra-thick slices of bacon, it looked like an artistic way of repackaging the flavors of a typical American breakfast: potato, meat and egg with cheese. I’m not precisely sure how this was supposed to be eaten — it was a bit unwieldy as finger food and no easier with a fork — but it was tasty.

We tried a trio of house cocktails: a Roosevelt (Sazerac with a dash of Barenjager), Nautilus (spiced rum, ginger beer and orange bitters) and Dr. Livingston (gin, St. Germain, Campari, bitters and grapefruit juice). Balanced and cooling, the Dr. Livingston was everyone’s favorite on the hot evening. The fourth person at our table had a smoked porter from their small, well-chosen list. The beer and wine prices here are on the high side, though, which may dissuade people from stopping in only for a drink.

For dinner we chose the venison Wellington, two flat iron steaks, roast chicken over baby potatoes with white wine, and a side of Brussels sprouts. We had considered the pork belly with Coca-Cola, maple syrup and thyme, but demurred when the server mentioned that it was quite sweet.

I was more than a little surprised to find that the venison that had been marinated in raspberry Mountain Dew wasn’t incredibly sugary. The soft drink sweetness went well with the smoked apples that were also inside the crust, and the dab of blackberry sauce added a welcome tartness. It’s a recipe I would have never come up with, but it works.

The chicken that had been roasted was a small one that had not been doing weight training, but the portion was sufficient for one and the sauce of wine and mirepoix of chopped celery, carrot and onion was delicious. It was a classic recipe and showed that the kitchen knows when to leave a good thing alone. The steak over chevre mashed potatoes with béarnaise was only slightly more unconventional thanks to the “bacon snow” that flavored it, and it was richly delicious.

We decided we had room to split a dessert and decided on a “doughsant” — a fried croissant topped with whipped cream and a few drizzles of bittersweet chocolate. I’m not wild about the fried croissant craze by any name, but the table liked it.

Dinner at Barlo wasn’t cheap; dinner for four people with one alcoholic beverage each ran $166, of which about $50 was for the drinks. The experience was interesting, but I might be inclined to pay corkage and bring a bottle from home next time. Pairing items from the kitchen would be a challenge, but an interesting one.

Barlo is open daily for breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and opens again at 5 p.m. for dinner. Closing time is at 10:30 p.m. Sundays, 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Valet parking is $11.

Barlo Kitchen & Cocktails, 1697 Pacific Ave., Venice  (424) 214-1050 hotelerwin.com