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The Review: The Tar Pit is Campanile chef-owner Mark Peel’s supper club
I've always been fascinated by the photo of my young parents taken at a supper club in New York. They look impossibly glamorous sitting at a small table, my mother, shoulders bared, tentatively sipping a cocktail, my father languidly holding his cigarette. The place? Lost to memory.
But I've found a version of that magical spot at the Tar Pit in Los Angeles. Campanile's chef-owner Mark Peel and general manager Jay Perrin have been brooding over this project for quite a while.
First they had a space. Then they didn't have a space. And finally, in December, the bar and restaurant with the inspired name Tar Pit opened in the former lounge Oasis on La Brea Avenue, next door to Cube and just a few blocks north of Campanile. The location is smart, not to mention convenient for the partners, making it easy for either to pop in from Campanile and keep an eye on things.
It's a promising idea, and a good fit with the neighborhood, but it's still a bit rough around the edges.
From the plain paper bag brown exterior that, of course, references the La Brea Tar Pits, you might imagine a brooding masculine interior, something suitably Pleistocene. And you'd be wrong.
Inside, the Tar Pit is a swell, Art Deco-inspired bar cum restaurant with posh mirrored booths separated by graceful ironwork palm fronds. A good chunk of young Hollywood is already ensconced at the long inviting bar. A blond with something sparkly in her hair waits for a date at a booth. Waitresses, often with a flower behind an ear, are attired in slim black sheaths. The bar and dinner menus are served wherever you sit in the restaurant, so you can mix and match, have a couple of bar appetizers or a multi-course meal.
Of course, if you have any sense, you'll want to start with a cocktail. The partners made a smooth move by bringing in New York's celebrated mixologist Audrey Saunders, founder of Pegu Club there, to create the cocktail menu. Though she's just bowed out, her menu lives on, at least for the moment.
Saunders' drinks have a wonderfully refined sensibility. They're fresh and not too sweet. A good place to start is with her signature Gin Gin Mule, which blends lime simple syrup and house-made ginger beer with gin and fresh mint. But you can pretty much point to any of the dozen enticing cocktails and not go wrong.
The mostly small plates menu weaves Mediterranean dishes with old-school items like deviled eggs, clams casino, lobster thermidor or steak Diane, usually the province of faded temples to past glory. But with nothing on the dining menu more than $17, go ahead and nosh. One cautionary note: While the concept is fundamentally appealing, the kitchen sometimes falters in the execution.
On a first visit, I was thrilled with everything. I loved the fried oysters, nestled in a piquant ginger remoulade and topped with matchsticks of fried ginger. Clams casino, sharp and briny, were terrific with a gingery cocktail. Steak tartare was beautifully dressed, the pair of duck confit sliders luscious.
Weeks later, not one dish we ordered had the sparkle and crisp execution of that first time. But on the following visit after that, the kitchen was back on track. This time, the fried oysters disappeared in a flash and I fell in love with the steak Diane and the steak and kidney pie. The bananas Foster sundae with its flavors of butter, rum and brown sugar ended things on a lovely note.
But then on one last visit, I found the music cranked up to an earsplitting level well before 9 p.m. and the food somewhat off. Shrimp in the shrimp cocktail were slightly funky. A frisée and mushroom salad was so overdressed, each bite coated your mouth. Duck sliders tasted more like duck pancakes the gastrique was so sweet.
I know the kitchen can perform because I've had two meals at the Tar Pit that captured an elusive glamour, when everything — drinks, food, room — seemed to sparkle. It may be too much to ask for that to happen every night. Still, the execution needs to be more consistent.
What I appreciate about this menu is its flexibility. You can start with an appetizer or two from the bar menu, then have a couple of dishes from the dinner menu, or if you'd rather, you can just stick with one or the other.
And the bar menu isn't exactly tiny hors d'oeuvres. The deviled eggs topped with a sliver of Smithfield ham pique your appetite: Even the whites are pickled. Fried artichokes come with gorgeous slices of deep-fried lemon and an aioli spiked with the Italian artichoke amaro Cynar. Yes!
From the dining menu, check the orecchiette ("little ears") pasta with braised pork cheeks and actual pigs' ears cut as thin as angel-hair pasta and served in a green sauce with braised dandelion and beet greens. That steak and kidney pie has a marvelously nuanced sauce (maybe it's the Irish whiskey). It's studded with mushrooms, rosy kidneys and chunks of steak, and crowned with Yorkshire pudding.
Steak Diane is wonderful, too, smothered in sautéed mushrooms in a svelte Madeira sauce. Coq au vin blanc is lackluster, but big wild boar meatballs in a loose, savory tomato ragù, with squiggly spaetzle noodles, are a good bet.
Perrin has an unusual wine policy: Everything on the wine list, which runs to 30 or so bottles, is priced at $38. The hope is that it will encourage people to try oddball wines (and some of them are really oddball, varietals or regions so obscure you'd have to trot out Jancis Robinson's "Oxford Companion to Wine" to read up on them).
Fortunately, Perrin has provided crib notes, so you have some idea of what you're drinking. Some bottles are real finds, such as Domaine Tissot's sparkling Crémant du Jura or a dry Tokaji Furmint from Oremus in Hungary. Others sound better than they drink. But the impulse behind the list, to have interesting, yet affordable wines, is commendable.
Dress up. Have fun. Eat and drink with abandon. All that's missing at the Tar Pit is that roving girl photographer snapping pics to put in an album for your daughter or your granddaughter to find. Instead, everybody's taking their own with their smartphones.
At least, don't let the digital photos disappear into cyberspace. Print out one or two for posterity, to show what a glam supper club looked like in the first decade of the 21st century on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles.
The Tar Pit
Rating: Two stars
Location: 609 N. La Brea Ave. (between Beverly and Melrose), Los Angeles; (323) 965-1300; www.tarpitbar.com.
Price: Bar menu, $6 to $12; salads, $9 to $14; seafood, $9 to $17; meat and poultry, $14 to $17; pasta, $13 to $15; desserts, $7 to $9. Corkage fee, $12, waived with the purchase of a wine from the list.
Details: Open 5 p.m. to midnight. daily, bar stays open til 2 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.