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Something's cooking

ANYONE who grew up in L.A. from the '30s through the '60s remembers running out to the Helms Bakery trucks that trolled the neighborhoods to buy all sorts of baked goods. Most of us too made a school field trip to the hulking bakery complex straddling Venice and Washington boulevards to see the magical transformation of flour, water and yeast into bread. Who could forget the way the scent of warm bread settled in a thick layer over Culver City in the early hours of the morning?
FOR THE RECORD:
Wine shop's name —An article in last week's Food on the Culver City food scene gave the incorrect name for a wine shop and tasting bar opening there soon. It is BottleRock, not Bottle Rocket.

Not since Helms shut down in 1969 has Culver City been known for anything to do with food. But now, when restaurant openings in greater Los Angeles (except in Hollywood) have slowed to a trickle, Culver City is the site of a burgeoning food scene. An inviting collection of restaurants and cafes has cropped up in recent months, and more are on the way. The momentum started when Kazuto Matsusaka's Asian cafe Beacon opened almost two years ago. Now Surfas, the restaurant supply store in business since 1937, has moved into a spot on a highly visible corner and expanded with its own cafe. A cooking school down the block is turning out polished home cooks and aspiring professionals. Two newish bakeries are proofing crusty loaves and whipping up buttery pastries. And a groovy catering truck wends its way through these streets dispensing organic Asian-accented lunches.


FOR THE RECORD:
Wine shop's name: An article in Wednesday's Food on the Culver City food scene gave the incorrect name for a wine shop and tasting bar opening there soon. The name is BottleRock, not Bottle Rocket.



In the past, outsiders might have come to Culver City for a Sorrento's Market sandwich or slipped into George Petrelli's steakhouse (which butchers its own beef), or bonded with a taco stand or burger joint.

But now, serious chefs who made their reputation in other parts of the city have been taking a look at Culver City and a good many of them are deciding to move in.

Michael Wilson, formerly chef at 5 Dudley in Venice, is opening Wilson, which he describes as a high-end wine bar and cafe, later this month.

Why Culver City? Wilson was attracted by the chance to locate in the new MODAA (Museum of Design Art and Architecture) complex on Washington Boulevard, which also houses architecture offices, live-work lofts and a gallery space.

"With Hayden Tract [a hip, revitalized industrial area], the Helms design district, and the studios nearby, we can open for breakfast, do lunch and catch an early evening crowd when people leave work," he says. "The gallery will open right up into the cafe and stay open until we close. It's all meant to be a flow."

Erik Oberholtzer, formerly executive chef at Shutters on the Beach, is opening a high-concept organic fast-food cafe called Tender Greens with two other partners later this month. He's excited about Culver City because "it's a town that L.A. seems to have forgotten. It reminds me of the small town I grew up in with its old American charm, and it's one of the few places that I've seen in L.A. where you can walk down the street and people smile and say good morning to you," he says.

"It's also one of the last places on the Westside that's affordable."

New concept

TENDER GREENS and Wilson are opening hot on the heels of Ford's Filling Station, which happens to be just next door to Tender Greens. The two even share a paseo of sorts. Ford's Filling Station is the new restaurant from Ben Ford, who had the high-end Chadwick in Beverly Hills. But this is an entirely different concept, L.A.'s first official "gastropub," with a kitchen that uses organic and sustainable ingredients whenever possible.

Though Ford has his own following, the Hollywood connection (he's the son of actor Harrison Ford) meant the word on his new place got out early. Since Day One, there's been an excited clamor at the door. He also happens to have a great concept for his "filling station."

And Ford is building on the buzz that Kazuto Matsusaka created when the former Chinois chef chose the old Beacon laundry in the Helms Bakery complex for the site of his Asian cafe, Beacon. Kazuto, as everyone calls him, had done trendy at the Buddha Bar in Paris and Barfly on the Sunset Strip and wanted a place where the food would be more important than any scene.

He scoured the entire Westside for possible locations, but Culver City won out in the end. He and his wife, Vicki Fan, fashioned a sleek, almost loft-like space out of the former laundry, and since its opening, Beacon has done a brisk business.

Wally Marks of Walter N. Marks Inc., the company that has owned and managed the Helms Bakery complex since 1974, says his family envisioned the complex as a center for home furnishings and the arts. They wanted an eclectic mix, and knew food was an important part of that.

The first restaurant to go in was the French cafe La Dijonnaise, which opened six years ago. Marks says he really wanted an Asian restaurant for the Beacon space and held out until Kazuto showed up. A third restaurant project is in the works midpoint along Helms Avenue, which he's working to convert into a pedestrian area.

Speaking as a Realtor, Marks says "it's a fact that in most areas [slated for development], including the Third Street Promenade, the first businesses to go in are restaurants. They're the entrepreneurs today willing to take the risks that general retailers are not." Once restaurants generate enough activity, then retailers move in.

"Culver City is on the map now. We have a very sophisticated audience here," Marks says, "so the bar is set higher. Because of all the mixed-use projects being built, we've seen smaller cafes and restaurants coming in too. The Exposition railway line slated to be finished in the next five years will end at National and Washington, right across the street from Surfas, and in the next phase, will go all the way to Santa Monica. I think the area will continue to grow, which will bring even more good restaurants."

The current spate of openings shows no sign of abating. This summer Sushi Roku chef Keizo Ishiba plans to open K-Zo next to Trader Joe's on Culver Boulevard. A new restaurant is going into the Culver Hotel (again). An Italian wine bar is moving in around the corner from Ford's Filling Station. And a recently posted sign at a storefront at Culver and Main announces, "Opening soon: Bottle Rocket Wine Shop and Tasting Bar. Breaking the rules one bottle at a time."

None of this is an accident. The Culver City Redevelopment Agency's strategic plan to revitalize the downtown area by attracting more restaurants and other businesses has been years in the making, a decade to be exact. Providing ample free parking in city lots and encouraging movie theaters, playhouses, music venues and art galleries to move into the renovated downtown district has helped build an audience for restaurants with something more in mind than turning tables.

Early on, the redevelopment agency even offered incentive loans to restaurants coming into the downtown area, but that's finished now, according to the agency's Elaine Gerety-Warner, because downtown Culver City is pretty much built out in terms of restaurants. The agency will still encourage restaurants that offer a unique experience or are from name chefs.

Another factor in the food scene's emergence is Surfas. Until last November, it wasn't easy to casually come across this restaurant supply and gourmet food emporium. You had to know where it was. Not now. The family-owned firm, which has been around for 69 years, moved to a prominent space on the corner of National and Washington boulevards, a stone's throw from the Helms Bakery complex.

Owner Diane Surfas says they doubled the space and expanded their product lines. "We've been part of Culver City for over 20 years and certainly Culver City has been discovered in a big way."

Chefs and home cooks from all over Los Angeles come to Surfas for ingredients hard to find elsewhere. On the spur of the moment, you can load up on foie gras, demi-glace, almond flour, or Tarbais beans from Southwest France for a cassoulet. Rustichella d'Abruzzo pasta is sold in bulk and if you want the latest infused oil or exotic vinegar, they've got it.

Part of the fun for foodies is that you never know whom you might run into there. And now that they've opened the adjoining Café Surfas, a shopping expedition can be stretched to include lunch, or at the very least, coffee and a snickerdoodle cookie.

Notes Surfas, "Many of the people who live in the area work for the studios and, because of their jobs, have had the opportunity to experience different areas and cultures. They want to reproduce what they've experienced in their cooking."

Young talent

THE Culver City restaurant scene may be eclectic, but it's also very down-to-earth, and restaurants tend to be value-conscious. Where Ford's high-end Beverly Hills restaurant Chadwick had a hard time finding an audience, no problem here. His Filling Station is buzzing at lunch, packed to the rafters at dinner.

It's a smart, contemporary space with open kitchen, Turkish carpets on the floors, both front and side patios, and a riotous clamor of a scene. Two wood-burning ovens turn out flatbreads adorned with four cheeses or shrimp and hummus. I love that you can stop in for a bowl of split pea soup, a platter of salumi, some excellent fish and chips or a crispy flattened chicken, all at very moderate prices.

Next door, two chefs and a food and beverage manager making their getaway from the hotel world are flinging open the innovative Tender Greens. Before Shutters, Erik Oberholtzer put in stints with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Bradley Ogden at Lark Creek Inn, both in Northern California. Oberholtzer says that when he and his partners, Matt Lyman (former chef at One Pico and Casa del Mar) and David Dressler (former food and beverage manager at Shutters on the Beach) came up with the concept for Tender Greens, the idea was what would Alice or Bradley do if they were doing fast-food?

The menu is strong on salads, big and small. Their idea is to do the classics, with organic produce from Scarborough Farms, and to do them so well, they seem fresh again. A grilled chicken Cobb is made with Point Reyes blue cheese and applewood bacon; a grilled flatiron steak salad has breakfast radishes, red and gold beets and horseradish vinaigrette. They'll have sandwiches on homemade potato bread, freshly squeezed lemonade, artisan sodas, micro brews on tap and a short, sweet list of affordable wines by the glass. But no table service: You'll walk up to a counter where you'll see the two chefs and their crew, order what you want, and they'll make it for you right there.

"This is the way I like to cook and this is the way I like to eat," says Oberholtzer.

Actually, Culver City already has another source for organic lunches. It's Café Nagomi, a roving truck that dispenses organic, gourmet Japanese food to different locales around the city. Check the website to find out when and where it'll be.

The menu is mainly seafood and salads (no dairy, eggs or meat). A la carte, you can have vegetable gyoza, fried marinated tofu, seaweed salad or even just a handful of edamame. The scene around the truck is convivial and fun.

Wilson, the upcoming wine bar and cafe, will serve, according to Michael Wilson, "cool appetizers and finger food with global influences." With partners Stefano De Lorenzo and Antonio Muré of Piccolo (the restaurant that took over 5 Dudley), Wilson plans to capture the hordes of workers heading to Sony and other studios and creative shops in the area.

Breakfast offerings will include French-pressed coffee and house-made croissants, muffins and cinnamon toast. Lunch will encompass a "skewer program," salads and sandwiches, including an open-face sandwich section Wilson is especially keen on. Think tea-smoked whitefish with fontina and apple-smoked bacon, rabbit sloppy joe, and pulled pork with African spices.

He has a small kitchen, hence the small plates concept, and this would seem to fit right in with the creative types who live and work in the lofts and offices all around.

In other developments, the gaps in the restaurant scene are filled in with the new Kaizuka, where owner Yoshiyasu Iwamoto mixes traditional sushi fare with his own fusion dishes. Bluebird Bakery, set on a nondescript stretch of National Boulevard, first garnered attention because of its talented baker, nightlife impresario Audrey Bernstein. She's no longer there, but the modest bakery-cafe, which serves breakfast and lunch weekdays, hums along.

The other new bakery is Dolce Forno, on the site of the old Buona Forchetta facility. Owner Celestino Drago turns out breads and pastries in the Italian tradition, enough to furnish the Drago brothers' many restaurants. There's a retail counter, so you can pop in for ciabatta or grissini or pick up frozen ravioli, panini and Italian desserts. But the prosaic setup doesn't invite lingering and the bread's not good enough to warrant a drive across town.

There's more to come, much more. Tempted by the studios, the Helms district and a neighborhood where all sorts of people really do do lunch, chefs longing to open their own restaurants are taking a good look at Culver City. The economics are attractive. And the city's proximity to West Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Marina del Rey means that if the menu is interesting enough, a restaurant can draw diners from those areas too.

In a swift, but not unforeseen, reversal of fortunes, Culver City is closing in on being the most food friendly town on the Westside.

*

Beacon, 3280 Helms Ave. (at Washington Boulevard), (310) 838-7500; http://www.beacon-la.com . Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 9:15 p.m.

The Bluebird Bakery, 8572 National Blvd. (at Hayden), (310) 841-0939; http://www.bluebirdcafela.com . Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Café Nagomi, See website for locations and hours. (310) 923-8515; http://www.cafenagomi.com .

Dolce Forno Bakery, 3828 Willat Ave., (310) 280-6004; http://www.dolcefornobakery.com . Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ford's Filling Station, 9531 Culver Blvd., (310) 202-1470; http://www.fordsfillingstation.net . Open weekdays for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Kaizuka, 9729 Culver Blvd., (310) 253-5038; http://www.kaizukarestaurant.com . Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m.

K-Zo Restaurant, 9240 Culver Blvd., (310) 202-8890; http://www.k-zo.com . Opening mid-June.

New School of Cooking, 8690 Washington Blvd., (310) 842-9702; http://www.newschoolofcooking.com .

Surfas, 8777 W. Washington Blvd., (310) 559-4770; http://www.surfasonline.com . Open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Café Surfas, 8777 W. Washington Blvd., (310) 558-1458; http://www.cafesurfas.com . Open daily, 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Tender Greens, 9523 Culver Blvd., (310) 842-8300; http://www.tendergreensfood.com . Opening later this month.

Wilson, 8631 E. Washington Blvd., (310) 287-2093; http://www.wilsonfoodandwine.com.Opening later this month.

— S. Irene Virbila
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