Do you like duck? Then you might be interested in the new Atwater Village restaurant Journeymen, where David Wilcox prepares more parts of the animal than you may have seen outside Beijing. You can usually find grilled duck breast on the menu, usually with a sweet-savory concoction of apples and sage, a dish of crisp, dense confit with roasted beets and pistachio butter, and a grainy, sharply organ-y pâté on toast with half-burned almonds. You will occasionally see a yogurt-smeared duck-heart kebab speckled with pomegranate seeds — the soft, luscious flesh is quite unlike the grizzled things you may have encountered at other local restaurants — or even a handful of simply roasted duck wings.
I haven't encountered a platter of gizzards, duck tongues fried with basil or boiled webs with sea cucumber, but I suspect I may have just come on the wrong days. When Wilcox comes across a resource as precious as Liberty ducks from Sonoma, he tends to use all of it. There is something admirable about that.
You may have been in this restaurant space before, possibly when it was the very good pizzeria Osteria Nonni, more probably during its run as the bistro Canelé, which was the Eastside's favorite romantic spot for years. It is still long and narrow, lighted with dim Edison bulbs and dominated by an open kitchen. You will not infrequently hear an entire P-Funk album on the sound system. There is a small but lovely list of mostly natural wines — I love the funky, stony stuff from Bichi, a cult producer from Tecate, Mexico, whose flavors sometimes seem to fuzz out like an Eddie Hazel solo.
Bowls of vegetables and chickpea salad line the counter — Wilcox, a Gjelina veteran (as is general manager and fellow owner Guy Tabibian), apparently dreamed of opening an informal pintxos bar like the ones he loves in San Sebastián. Most of the hidden back of the restaurant is devoted to the massive loaves of bread he bakes every day — when you accidentally spot the jar holding the muffin-size seed of his levain, it feels as if you have run across a Horcrux, or maybe an Infinity Stone from the Marvel Universe. Wilcox confesses that he tends to bring some of the levain along with him when he travels, just in case something happens to the restaurant.
So bread then, grilled and heaped with barley and pumpkin seeds, pickled mushrooms, or eggplant salad; served as a sliced half loaf with butter; or fashioned into a croque-monsieur with either king oyster mushrooms or ham, a trope you may recognize from places like the Tasting Kitchen or Sqirl.
Journeymen isn't quite a tapas bar, except perhaps on menu-less Monday nights, but the procession of small plates isn't far from the tapas routine either — you mark what you want on a small checklist and the platters keep coming, a delicious dish of pan-roasted turnips with delicate curls of ham perhaps; sliced grilled pork collar served with a smear of plum jam; a salad of various radishes with watercress and a sort of ranch dressing; or oozy, barely spiced blood sausage with sautéed peppers and artfully charred endive leaves.
One night there was a big, delicious stack of herby chanterelle mushrooms sparked with dates and crunchy almonds — Wilcox says he gets the mushrooms from a forager friend up north, whose prices are low enough that he can afford to serve them as the major component of the salad instead of as a garnish. Another night saw ham with goat cheese and grilled pears; chickpea salad with curls of grilled squid; and slices of smoked amberjack with mouse melons, which taste like cucumber but look like watermelons that Barbie would encourage Ken to bring along to the picnic.
Wilcox's idea is to present what he's doing as a craft and himself and his crew as honest craftsmen. The prices on the menu include both tax and gratuity — it is one of the rare places that is less expensive than it first seems. There seems to be little formal differentiation between server and cook, cook and dishwasher, sommelier and manager, head chef and carpenter. The vegetable-centered cooking is presented with competence rather than genius.
Wilcox's cooking, rooted in country French cuisine, hews closer to the old-school Julia Child-style aesthetic than any restaurant I've been to in years, even though dishes like crunchy-skinned grilled daurade with roasted tomatoes or seared scallops with a cheesy Mornay sauce may not be anything Child would have dreamed of making — much less the brilliant dish of whole smoked mackerel with grilled sweet peppers and unpeeled tangerines that showed up at lunch one weekend. You would be happy to eat his food in a small-town bistro in the Languedoc, a place that the locals love but that will never come within 10 kilometers of a Michelin star.
There are usually a few cheeses served with truffle honey and the usual condiments, and a sturdy tarte Tatin, but I'd probably go with a slice of the Basque cake. If the kitchen doesn't look too busy, maybe you could ask them to grill it, something they usually do only at brunch. The crust becomes crisp and caramelized after a moment over the fire, the almondy top note sings, and a spoonful of tart yogurt with pomegranate seeds cuts through the buttery richness like a freshly honed blade.
Vegetable-centered cooking in the old Canelé space in Atwater Village
3219 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 284-8879, journeymenla.com.
Toasts $7-$9; small plates $15-$20; large plates, $29-$39, desserts $12-$13.
Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Street parking. Dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Fridays to Sundays.
Duck heart kebabs; seared turnips with ham; smoked mackerel with clementines; Basque cake.