By Richard Foss (Richard(at)RichardFoss.com)
“I wonder if they sell tickets to watch people take the first bite,” I mused as I contemplated the object on my plate at the Library Alehouse. It was a Hell Burger — a beef patty topped with pepper jack cheese, three kinds of hot chilies and grapefruit, along with a ghost pepper aioli. In a career that occasionally involved eating dubious items, this was right up at the top.
We hadn’t come to this restaurant primarily to immolate my taste buds, but because we were dining with a beer lover and the selection here was reputed to be excellent. That turned out to be true, so when I faced the evil burger it was with an excellent St. Louis Belgian sour beer to help quench the thing.
I should start at the start, with our arrival at what seemed to be a moderately sized establishment with all tables occupied. It looked like we might have to wait, but a hostess showed us to a pleasant rear patio that is screened and heated. We were seated beneath chalkboards announcing the available beers and given menus that had a wide range of gastropub specialties — traditional bar snacks alongside short rib bourguignon, linguini Bolognese and Thai-style sole. We decided to start with carrot-ginger soup, oxtail poutine, tempura asparagus and Main Street salad, which consists of grilled vegetables, kale, quinoa, feta, avocado and pinenuts. The salad was very well-composed, with just enough of a mild citrus-coriander dressing to unify the flavors, and it set our expectations high for the meal. The spicy, gingery soup hit all the right notes, too, and the asparagus hit the table crisp and so hot from the fryer that it could barely be touched. The only item that didn’t work was the poutine. The flavors were good, but the cheese was one big melted lump instead of being spread through the dish, and the gravy was thin and made the fries underneath instantly soggy. We found ourselves picking out the dense, tasty oxtail meat, pulling at the cheese to get manageable bites and snacking on the fries that hadn’t been drenched.
It might come as a surprise that only I partook of beer at a place called an alehouse; the beer lover who inspired the trip saw one of his favorite ciders on the chalkboard and ordered that. Another companion drank only water, and my wife selected a glass of viognier from their very good list. The wine list here is no afterthought, and they have a full bar for those who like the hard stuff.
We continued our meal with an ahi burger, mushroom risotto, fried chicken and the aforementioned hell burger. The fried chicken was excellent — tender meat with a nicely seasoned crispness. My wife lived in Virginia for years and is very picky about broasted bird, and she pronounced this as one of the best she has had in Los Angeles. The fried chicken was served with a nice assortment of seasonal grilled vegetables and traditional mashed potatoes, and it was the highlight of our meal. This isn’t to disparage the ahi burger, a substantial portion of sushi-grade fish plus a delightful Asian slaw with citrus ponzu and just a hint of wasabi heat, because that was very good too. I was slightly less enamored of the risotto: Both the mushroom and red wine veal reduction were heavy flavors, and it lacked the hints of herbal high notes that balance the dish.
As for that hell burger, I braced myself as I took the first bite. There were levels of heat, big chunks of jalapeno sharply vegetal, the habanero slightly acid and the grilled pasilla quite flavorful. I couldn’t quite sort out where the ghost pepper was in all this because the aioli had been thinly spread. If I order this again, I’ll ask for a dab on the side so I can isolate what makes this fierce pepper special. It started hot and got more intense, and I was hitting the beer, water and fries to mute the intensity. The only unfortunate thing about the burger was the decision to slice the grapefruit rather than peeling individual segments — the tough center of the fruit was included on the burger as a chewy and distracting mass. The grapefruit flavor is a good idea, but the kitchen should take another minute to peel the segments to make a better eating experience.
Our dinner for four came to $130, with drinks, and was worth it for a good and modestly adventurous meal in very pleasant surroundings. I have now had a Hell Burger without melting my fillings, but I probably won’t order another — that fried chicken is calling to me. I may not even follow that inclination the next time I’m there, though, as there is much more on the menu that looks so interesting. §
The Library Alehouse is open daily at 11:30 a.m. (except for Sunday, when it’s a 10:30 a.m. start) and closes at midnight. Full bar. Street parking only, but wheelchair access is good and there are some vegetarian and vegan items. Menu is online.
Library Alehouse, 2911 Main St., Santa Monica (310) 314-4855 libraryalehouse.com