By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I have visited several pop-up restaurants over the years — the temporary installations where chefs show off their ideas to court investors or keep their fans engaged until a permanent space becomes available. The staff strive to turn out their best work in borrowed kitchens for extremely demanding diners. Sometimes these succeed and sometimes not, but there is always a high level of excitement about the undertaking.
I visited the most interesting such event in years this week.
Barbershop Ristorante is open inside Local 1205 on Mondays and Tuesdays through November, and Chef Walter el Nagar shows off for 18 people each night. He is a visionary with a flamboyant take on Italian cooking who has embraced futuristic techniques for his multicourse small plate meals. The labor-intensive preparations usually occupy three chefs, but the night I was there one called in sick, so I observed Chef el Nagar and helper Aaron Ziegler under unusual pressure.
There was an amuse-bouche to start, a smoked oyster in Lambrusco wine foam along with a “caprese salad in miniature”— a cube of fresh mozzarella inside a bubble of tomato water. Both were slightly goofy ideas that tasted great, and they set the tone for the evening.
The first course was visually astonishing — lobster crudo (Italian sushi) topped with dots of red onion ice cream, tomato coulis, lobster sauce and micro-greens. Served on a black plate, it looked like a solar system of food and tasted amazing. Lobsters are tough when raw unless absolutely fresh. This paper-thin meat was fork tender and delicious.
The item that followed was conceptually stranger: a terrine-style tartare of raw Moulard duck and duck liver, chicharron, green apple and shallots, topped with an oyster sorbet and a thin sheet of vegetable aspic. I have been served very rare duck before, and while I like the tinge of smokiness it has, this was splendid. The combination of flavors alongside the meat was astonishing, the apple and chicharron adding tart crispness and a dash of salty crunch, the shallots some oniony bite, and the oyster sorbet … I have been writing about food for almost 30 years and don’t have words for just how perfectly this worked.
Following this complex dish with something simple made sense — a pair of ravioli stuffed with sea urchin, accompanied by slices of fresh scallop. The presentation was theatrical: the raw ravioli were served in a bowl, and boiling scallop and squid ink consommé were poured in so it cooked right there. If you liked your pasta soft you could wait a while, but it smelled so good that I dug in the second I could do so without burning my tongue. It was a light, fresh change of pace after the rich terrine.
Next was the only item I didn’t enjoy — poppy seed spaghetti with dried Asian pears, gorgonzola cheese and duck liver. This didn’t come together for me; the pear was so sweet I thought it might have been candied, and it didn’t harmonize with the other items.
Things were back on track with a delicious risotto of crabmeat, Mexican huitlacoche mushroom and Oaxacan cheese, followed by a dish of poached john dory fish with beets and celery root. Small discs of red and gold beet had been placed on the triangular filet so it resembled a little Christmas tree, a delightful presentation with a winning flavor. The pureed celery root topped with a dash of prawn reduction was delicious and a perfect accompaniment.
The final savory dish was another high note — Scottish wood pigeon with chestnut puree and mushrooms. Wood pigeons and other game birds have very little fat and go from raw to jerky in minutes, so it takes the full attention of an expert to avoid ruining them. The presentation here was unique: the breast was sautéed, then smoked over a warm, aromatic fire for a few minutes. Chef el Nagar obviously loves working with raw or rare meats, and he is a master at it.
Dessert was candied eggplant topped with hot chocolate foam and cider ice cream. I hadn’t considered combining eggplant with chocolate, and certainly not adding tart apple flavors, but now I know it can be done. Last was coffee and whipped cream but, being Barbershop, the coffee had been frozen into a granita with liquid nitrogen while I watched.
The extravaganza cost $95, including mineral waters — they have no wine license so don’t serve anything stronger. Like everyone sitting at the counter, I had been able to converse with the chefs and watch them work, and it was a fascinating two hours.
Barbershop is open through November and may stay longer. Chef el Nagar would like to find a kitchen where he can put down roots. Since that establishment could be miles or even states away, you should go now and enjoy a unique meal in intimate surroundings.
Barbershop Ristorante is open Mondays and Tuesdays through November starting at 6 p.m., with reservations highly recommended. Street parking only. Advise food allergies when booking.
Barbershop Ristorante, 1205 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice (424) 272-5849 barbershop-ristorante.com