Jonathan Gold finds surprisingly good food at an Arts District bar

Everson Royce Bar isn’t really a restaurant. To be fair, it doesn’t even try to be a restaurant — the word “bar” is in its name, right after the names of one of its partner’s young twins. It doesn’t serve restaurant food. When you glance at the menu of the year-old Arts District bar, the food takes up slightly less real estate than its shortlist of shots, and if you are a drinker of a certain bent, your attention is more likely to linger on the sherry-cask Japanese whiskey and the wild-agave mezcal than on the shrimp roll and the chicken thighs. ERB may have the most elaborate boilermakers downtown — try the Coedo black lager with a shot of Iwai Blue Label — but its cheeseburger seldom makes it onto the list of the city’s best.

After you hand your keys to the parking guy, walk around to the tall front door and make your way past the bouncer, ERB looks like a bar too: long counter, loud music and the pleasant smack of spilled booze. Might one of the men behind the bar stir you something delicious with tequila and elderflower? Of course, but you are on your way to a different sort of evening. A few steps later you are out the back door and in a broad outdoor space lighted with skeins of tiny bulbs and lined with picnic tables. You find a place, maybe by the bocce court that runs the length of the patio. You are thirsty. You order a beer.

ERB is the boozy playground of Randy Clement, from Silverlake Wine and the splendid Everson Royce wine shops, and of Joe Capella, who runs Everson Royce’s cheerful booze department. Clement, no doubt, would like to think of ERB as a wine bar, and the shortish glass list is pretty strong in the kind of natural and organic wines you might actually want to drink, from wineries like Broc, Tatomer and the Hobo Wine Co. (On wine flight Wednesdays, you can get three thematically arranged glasses and a compatible snack for just $25.)

The roster of spirits is enormous, filling most of a leather-bound document, and includes a lot of old, dead-stock rum and whiskey you may have only read about in magazines: If you have wondered what rum from the long-closed Caroni distillery in Trinidad or 60-year-old Very Old Fitzgerald might taste like, this is probably the place.

In that tiny kitchen, the one that looks like it might have been transplanted from the snack bar at your local public golf course — that’s Matt Molina, a Nancy Silverton protégé who won a James Beard award when he was executive chef at Osteria Mozza. Are you in the mood for a truffled guinea fowl? You’re in the wrong bar.

This is probably the place where you expect me to talk about the ways in which Molina is revolutionizing the idea of bar food, introducing all kinds of rare local produce and taking it to otherwise unimaginable realms. A lot of Ferran Adria’s innovations at elBulli were based around the idea of the bar snack. The modern tasting menu is basically a series of bar snacks. The traditions of izakaya, anju, tapas and even sushi, so influential at the moment, revolve around bar snacks.

At ERB, Molina is more or less serving regular bar snacks, done honestly and well but using readily available ingredients and store-bought bread. Why would anyone become obsessed with a place that is serving the same hamachi tostadas and fries with garlic aioli as every other gastropub in town? Because he does them so well. I sometimes think of his menu here as the equivalent of a band like Metallica doing a covers set just because it can.

You have probably seen hundreds of steamed buns with pork belly by now, but Molina’s version is in its way as good as the David Chang version that brought the dish into the mainstream, roasted slabs of pig slicked with bean sauce and tucked into steamed buns, crisp and meaty, rich but not fatty, with a saltiness almost surgically precise.

Might the taquitos remind you a bit of the fried potato tacos at Eastside taquerias?  Possibly, although the tart, creamy tomatillo salsa is nothing like the usual slosh of guacamole, and the potato purée inside the crunchy tortillas is suave enough to serve alongside the sole at a Michelin-stared restaurant. Does the shrimp roll look like something from a takeout window at McDonald’s? Sure, but the squished brioche bun is gloriously butter-toasted, the carefully poached shrimp inside is dressed with chives and feathery dill, and there are tiny, ephemerally thin potato chips layered over the seafood for a delicate crunch.

And there are his buttermilk biscuits, which may seem a bit out of place. Bar food is supposed to be salty and greasy. Biscuits are a bit of wholesomeness mediating between fried eggs and blueberry jam. But Molina’s biscuits are excellent: tall, crisp and just a little tart, separating into a series of steamy, crunchy-edged leaves like a biscuit form of puff pastry. I’m guessing they are a variant on Silverton’s recipe, which is to say that they are expertly folded and mathematically precise, and are made with about four times as much butter per measure of flour than the ones in “Joy of Cooking.”

They’re not health food. But with a dab of maple butter, they do happen to be about the best things it is possible to eat with bourbon.

Molina and the team are, one hears, opening an Italian restaurant in Highland Park next year. Until then, the biscuits will do.

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Everson Royce Bar

A James Beard Award-winning chef cooks Arts District bar food. 

LOCATION

1936 E. 7th St., Los Angeles, (213) 335-6166, erbla.com.

PRICES

Small plates $5-$15.

DETAILS

5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking. Credit cards accepted.  

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Buttermilk biscuits; shrimp “roll’’; barbecued chicken thighs.

 

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