Any discussion of Tar & Roses must begin, as your dinner probably will, with what is probably its simplest appetizer, a concoction of popcorn tossed with brown sugar, lardons and chile, like a bowl of Cracker Jack with chewy cubes of bacon instead of peanuts. (Why can't there be chewy cubes of bacon and peanuts? That is an excellent question.) The popcorn falls solidly into a genre new in Los Angeles cooking, something we may call an elevated bar snack, a staple of the many, many gastropubs that have come to dominate casual dining here over the last couple of years.
The elevated bar snack serves a few purposes. It lets you know that you are in a restaurant largely devoted to drinking and that the purpose of most of the food is to play nicely with alcohol — the popcorn tastes great with red wine. It announces the seriousness of the cooking in a playful way (you have to use great bacon, and the kitchen here does), while acting as a cheerful entry point for customers who may be a little skeptical of the bone marrow and octopus that are sure to follow. It lights up your palate like a pinball machine — an addiction scientist probably couldn't come up with a more compelling matrix of sweet, hot, smoke, crunch and salt. And it makes a small profit center from the kind of thing that fancy bars used to serve free with your Chivas on the rocks. Everybody wins.
Tar & Roses is the new small-plates joint from Andrew Kirschner, a skinny local dude, full-sleeve tattoo blazing, who is probably best known for his term as chef at Wilshire, a Westside steakhouse that somehow became famous for its organic vegetable dishes. The restaurant, in a long, narrow space dominated by its picture windows, does the iron-and-wood hacienda thing, but in an understated way, with cotton dish towels as napkins, a potted desert plant on each table and a big wine rack constructed out of what looks like rebar.
The wine is clearly important here — the restaurant is named for the scents that wine geeks look for in Barolo — but nobody is hitting you over the head with it, and if you want to go with Chianti by the glass or half-glass, or bop along with a plain-wrap Nebbiolo from the Piedmontese producer Bovio, a bottle with a couple years of age on it and an affinity for the sweet-sour flavors of Kirschner's kitchen, nobody is going to push you toward a pricey Barbaresco. There's a decent beer list too — a dozen taps ranging from Unibroue to the local Craftsman.
The conceit of Tar & Roses is that almost everything passes through the big wood-burning oven, as at Peasant in New York and Camino in Oakland. I've never before seen a menu that specifies the wood that the chef happens to be burning that day. ("What's burning?" it asks. It's mostly been almond, although walnut has had its day.)
Most of the dishes are inflected by smoke, both those you'd expect — sticky, boneless spareribs brushed with reduced balsamic; those delicious, slippery bits of meat that slip out from chicken backs, "chicken oysters," skewered and grilled; the roast half-artichoke — as well as those you wouldn't: roast beets with horseradish, a charred-lettuce salad with sardines and burrata, and a really great dish of baby carrots charred in the oven and dabbed with thickened crème fraîche scented with the Tunisian herb blend chermoula.
If I had to pick the single most delicious thing in the restaurant, it would probably be the English peas, drizzled with oil, sprinkled with sea salt and roasted until the tough pods collapse into sweetness and the peas inside become smoky little sugar bombs, like edamame as re-imagined in CinemaScope by David Lean. Second might be either the parsnips roasted with crumbled pancetta or that marrow bone, sawed in half and served with the grilled toast called fettunta, a teaspoonful of onion marmalade and a handful of barely tamed Italian parsley leaves tossed with strands of lemon zest. Is the marrow unevenly cooked? Yes, it is — sometimes it's melted, sometimes still clumpy, but it absorbs the smoke gorgeously.
As at all small-plates joints, once the first bottle of wine is drunk, the vegetables passed around, the tough-skinned ricotta gnocchi dismissed and the gooey braised lamb belly carefully portioned between your friends, there comes the question, "What now?" At which point out comes the roast chicken you'd forgotten about, or the giant Kurobuta pork chop with greens, or the whole grilled fish with Meyer lemon risotto, which make sense if you're doing the appetizer-entree thing but probably less after you've snarfed a second order of the cauliflower with anchovies and pine nuts, which: Why not? And please, somebody explain just when in our nation's history cauliflower became more delicious than prime steak, because I am confused.
At such times, you will be happiest if you have remembered to order the "shellfish pot" instead, because the shrimp and mussels and scallops are huge and very fresh, and the Thai-inflected coconut curry in which they have been poached is a gentle end to a fiery meal.
The dessert list is short and to the point: a bready strawberry tart with honeycomb ice cream from L.A. Creamery, rice pudding with almost too many Marcona almonds, and a chocolate budino. Will you have a nice piece of sheep cheese instead? Probably not. But it's nice to know it's there.
Location: 602 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 587-0700, tarandroses.com
Prices: Snacks and vegetables, $6 to $9; small plates, $10 to $12; large plates, $19 to $24.