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You can laugh at the Bellwether's on-trend menu, but Ted Hopson's cooking is no joke

On the old TV spy comedy "Get Smart," Jack Gilford occasionally played a villain called Simon the Likeable, an operative described as "the most ruthless, cunning, evil and treacherous KAOS agent in the entire world. And a heck of a nice guy." Simon the Likeable could steal secret plans from the Pentagon — and he more or less does — but the Chief finds him far too charming to arrest.

I bring up Simon the Likeable because I tend to think of him every time I visit the Bellwether, a newish American bistro in Studio City. The Bellwether is the dream project of Ann-Marie Verdi, who comes from Father's Office, and chef Ted Hopson, most recently associated with Father's Office and Lukshon. It is full — you need to reserve even on a chilly Tuesday night — and the buzz inside is always cheerful but not too loud. People I talk to occasionally find it hard to believe that a restaurant this good has opened in their neighborhood.

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For the Record
Feb. 9, 6:40 p.m.: This review gives an incorrect address for the Bellwether. The restaurant's address is 13251 Ventura Blvd. Suite A in Studio City.
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Yet when I mention the place to food-world friends from New York and abroad, I know that there will be a point when somebody starts giggling. Because while there is an inevitable overlap among the dishes in a certain kind of restaurant, and farmers-market-driven kitchens here can resemble one another at certain times of the year more than they do themselves in February and in August, the Bellwether menu is what marketing people might call aggressively on-trend.

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By the time you realize that it serves charred Brussels sprouts with a bacon-maple gastrique, roasted carrots with hazelnuts and meatballs baked with tomato and ricotta, the scallop crudo, charred octopus with preserved lemon and tempura cauliflower with fish sauce vinaigrette seem all but inevitable. Are there barrel-aged cocktails? Craft ales on tap? Fried chicken night on Mondays? Do you even have to ask?

It's the instant soup mix for a modern restaurant.

But that scallop crudo — thinly sliced raw shellfish with green apple, chile and soy — is impeccably fresh, arranged in a manner that recalls an expensive Chinese banquet, and zapped with a bit of celery whose piercing green flavor lingers through the next sip of wine. Those roasted carrots are flavored with chamomile and carrot juice, sprinkled with hazelnuts, and strewn with a salad of what turns out to be their own tops, a treatment that falls somewhere between Northwest bistro cooking and Ducasse. The meatballs are simultaneously firm and fluffy, served with grilled bread and exactly the tomato sauce you'd expect. You can get a patty melt — a great patty melt — on super-crisp rye bread with pools of melted Taleggio cheese and sweet caramelized onions; a school of poached shrimp perched on slivers of well-caramelized fennel; and baked purple sweet potatoes slathered with crème fraîche.

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And if you're going to have charred Brussels sprouts — why wouldn't you have charred Brussels sprouts — you could do worse than the sweet, bacony vinegar Hopson serves them with.

Stewed chickpeas at the Bellwether in Studio City.
Stewed chickpeas at the Bellwether in Studio City. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Even the steak fries turn out to be a project — soaked overnight in acidulated water, blanched, frozen, tossed with a bit of their own starch, fried, and tossed with spicy salt — but they are perfectly crisp on the outside and almost liquid within. And when a customer complained that they weren't close enough to the ones at In-N-Out Burger, a waiter confided, he just smiled and comped the fries. He knew.

The fried cauliflower with Thai vinaigrette may be a slightly stodgier version of something from the David Chang playbook, slightly soggy under its coating, and the roasted beets hadn't quite hit that magic level of concentration. The chickpeas with dates, harissa, the strained Middle Eastern yogurt called labneh, and a hint of the spice blend za'atar, are sometimes cooked to a pillowy softness and sometimes a bit firmer than al dente, but I think I have ordered them every time I've been in.

Verdi and Hopson seem to have an almost uncanny grasp of what people want at the moment, and the rhythm of their meals — a sequence of vegetable-based small plates followed perhaps by a shared larger course and then a dessert — cleaves pretty closely to the way a lot of us actually eat. And unlike most of the chefs who put stewed chickpeas or flatiron steaks on their menus because they've heard that's what they're supposed to do, Hopson can actually cook.

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The Bellwether

A newish Studio City bistro is aggressively on-trend.

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LOCATION

12351 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 285-8184; thebellwetherla.com

PRICES

Small plates $9-$16; larger plates $13-$26; desserts $8.

DETAILS

Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. nightly; brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Roasted carrots with hazelnuts; Brussels sprouts with bacon-maple gastrique; French fries with spicy salt; patty melt; stewed chickpeas; Grand Marnier bread pudding.

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