Until recently, Beechwood on Washington Boulevard at the foot of Abbot Kinney had fallen right off the radar. The Venice restaurant made a splash when it debuted in 2005 with Brooke Williamson and the Brig's David Reiss as partners. As the former chef at Woodside in Brentwood, Williamson was then a hot property and one of the youngest chefs in town.
FOR THE RECORD:
Beechwood address: In the Feb. 24 Food section, an information box accompanying a review of Beechwood restaurant said it is in Marina del Rey. The restaurant is in Venice. —
But for some reason she soon ceded the stoves to husband Nick Roberts and mostly worked the front of the house. In June of last year she moved on to other projects (right now that's Hudson House in Playa del Rey). After stumbling along for the summer, Reiss brought in a new chef sprinkled in reality-show stardust. She's Jamie Lauren, yet another "Top Chef" alum, who was, until recently, chef at San Francisco's Absinthe Brasserie & Bar.
She seems like a good fit with Beechwood's laid-back vibe and beachy crowd. On the job since October, she's retooled the contemporary American restaurant to function more as a gastropub. That meant introducing some gutsy main courses along with more of the shareable appetizers that draw the happy hour and drinking crowd to the lounge and the big tented patio. Not everything is successful, but there's more heart and soul to the food than it's had in a while.
Walk in on a Friday night and the bar lounge, watched over by a ceramic Elvis piggy bank, has been staked out by groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings sipping wine or cocktails and nibbling on the terrific frites. The huge heap of regular and sweet potato fries, hot and crisped at the edges, comes with three dipping sauces — aioli, ketchup dosed with North African chermoula spices, and the oddball malt vinegar perfumed with cinnamon. Five dollars for all; that is a sweet bargain.
The vital question is where to sit. Though you'd never guess it, there's an entire dining room down a hallway behind the bar where you can retreat from the roar of the lounge crowd. It's quieter, often practically empty and features comfortable leather-clad booths and a cool modernist look with just a touch of Scandinavian élan. It depends on what kind of evening you prefer, though you can also sometimes feel neglected sitting here. One night we had to ask a couple of times for bread: They had run out, it seemed. Run out of bread? Send someone to the store.
Even though I value quiet, the outdoor patio is much more entertaining if you enjoy people-watching. Just don't plan on arguing the virtues of Roberto Bolano's latest novel or dissecting the latest Gustavo Dudamel performance over dinner. It isn't going to happen.
But do order a bottle from the unassuming, California-intensive wine list. And some appetizers to share. Like the Moroccan-inspired crispy fried chickpeas embroidered with parsley or Lauren's mix of olives marinated in herbes de Provence and bright citrus.
Some people are standing. Some are sitting around the rectangular fire pit swept with blue flame. Others are dining at bare tabletops with weathered slatted-wood benches as seating. Not to worry, the patio has plenty of heat lamps and the allure of a swatch of night sky and palms behind the restaurant's iconic sign.
Portions are big, favoring the hearty over fussiness or finesse. There's a rugged cauliflower soup lashed with paprika-streaked oil. A crisp, cold iceberg salad comes with Gorgonzola dressing, house-smoked bacon and miniature cherry tomatoes. Shaved fennel with apples, radish and feta would work better if every element weren't the same thickness, but the dressing is lemony and bright.
You can order a nice rack of ribs, gently smoked, in a tomato-based sauce that pulls its punches in terms of heat. But don't pass up the killer mac and cheese that comes, oddly enough, with tater tots on the side, all buttery and crisp.
Some things don't work as well, namely, the slider variations, either the Sloppy Joe or mini lamb burgers. The lamb is juicy and tender, but I wish the bun weren't so sweet. Ditto for the Sloppy Joes, with the added caveat of an achingly sweet sauce. Pork rillettes are overprocessed and have the texture of sawdust.
Lauren's cooking comes into focus with her main courses. This is one of the few restaurant menus in which the main courses beat out the appetizers — and by a lot. Tops on my list is her Devil's Gulch pork confit with slow-cooked collard greens brightened with a splash of vinegar and fat brown beans, a wondrously earthy melding of flavors. Kobe beef cheeks make another sumptuous braised dish, the rich beef tickled with curry spices and served with smoked sweet potatoes and sautéed heirloom spinach.
Triangular pierogi stuffed with Yukon gold potatoes, leeks and goat cheese are curiously appealing and paired with a tangle of sautéed cabbage dosed with mustard oil. Lauren gets playful with Jidori chicken, which sports a pretzel stuffing. The boned bird is cut in medallions, the better to show off that bread stuffing. Pan-seared whitefish with brown butter is a good bet too, served with Brussels sprouts dressed up in a hazelnut vinaigrette.
There are occasional misses. Sonoma duck confit tacos with dried cherry mole sounds wonderful but comes off dull on the night I try them. And the grilled-cheese sandwich made with inch-thick slices of brioche is no improvement on the classic.
Come dessert, follow the crowd and have a Ding Dong. "House-made" makes all the difference. It's rich, dark and dense with a snowy heart of cream and a coating of high-quality bittersweet chocolate. There's a lovely blood-orange meringue pie to enjoy too. A flight of mini-cupcakes is pretty good, but the frosting is as tall as the cupcake. And while whoopie pie may be a fad, if the special pumpkin version sandwiching a thick wedge of cream cheese is any example, it's not going to be around long.
The service is much more professional as well. Servers with hair pulled back like ballerinas remain unflappable in the noise and the crowd, remembering extra wineglasses, more spoons, all the details. You won't see customers waving their arms frantically hoping a waiter will notice, which is a big change from the past.
The story here may be "Top Chef" makes real food — and stays in the kitchen to do it. No Fabio Viviani theatrics going on here. Instead, it's the slow but steady transformation of a restaurant into one custom-tailored to the crowd that has made it theirs.
Rating: one-and-a-half stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 822 Washington Blvd., Venice; (310) 448-8884; http://www.beechwoodrestaurant.com.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $4 to $14; main courses, $12 to $20; dessert, $5 to $6. Corkage fee, $15.
Details: Open for dinner 6 to 11 p.m. daily (patio and lounge close later); happy hour Monday to Friday 4 to 6 p.m.