Jonathan Gold | L.A. restaurant review: At Willie Jane, a local phenom refined
If you follow the restaurant scene in Los Angeles, you have known about Govind Armstrong for years, possibly since he was a teenage cooking prodigy whose mom drove him to stints on the line at the original Spago the way that other moms drive their kids to Little League practice. Or perhaps you know him from his long collaboration with locavore Ben Ford, or from his solo gigs at Table 8 and 8 Oz. Burger Bar. You may have followed Armstrong’s short-lived adventure in New York, which wasn’t well-received, and his appearances on “Top Chef” and on the list of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People.
It is more likely that you noticed his restaurant Post & Beam, which he started a couple of years ago with business partner Brad Johnson and is the most ambitious restaurant ever to open in the Crenshaw District. If you want to understand the power structure of South Los Angeles, you could do worse than to eavesdrop over grits and a Bloody Mary at Post & Beam after church on a Sunday afternoon.
But while Armstrong has been widely discussed as a phenomenon, and his cascading hair still makes teenage foodies swoon, his development as a chef may have been less examined — his style’s evolution from California Mediterranean, his work with organic farmers, his burger-bar perfectionism, his streamlined African American menu at Post & Beam. Much of his early cooking was tasty but undisciplined, overgarnished and underthought. At Post & Beam, with a clientele that expected something close to perfection in dishes that reminded them of home (which is quite different from that of uptown customers demanding novelty), Armstrong finally settled into a groove.
At Willie Jane, the new restaurant he runs with Johnson on Abbot Kinney’s restaurant row, Armstrong’s style has become more refined yet — it’s kind of a fantasy mash-up of Low Country cuisine with farm-driven California presentation, heavily reliant on the sharply tart notes that have become his trademark, and heavily reliant on Geri Miller’s urban farm Cook’s Garden, which happens to be right next door. When the collards and lettuces are grown less than 50 feet from your kitchen, and the farmer is apt to glare if you have treated her peppers with less than total respect, you have to maintain a certain watchfulness. Many of the dishes may have their origins in the coastal Carolinas, but they are grounded in Venice soil.
So in addition to the buttermilk biscuits with soft honey butter, the deviled eggs and the mussels steamed with ham and lemon, there are sliced peak-season peaches with burrata, smoked pecans and a handful of next-door arugula; a heap of milky ricotta with crunchy bits of fried bread and sliced next-door cucumbers; and a spicy watermelon salad with somewhat overcooked shrimp and a scattering of next-door lettuce. You can get a stack of spareribs brushed with a tart hibiscus-flower glaze — Mexicans call the herb jamaica — but it will be sprinkled with peppery yellow arugula blossoms, which is not what they put on the ribs at Bludso’s. You may know shrimp and grits as the saucy, hammy breakfast dish you find everywhere in Charleston. Armstrong’s version involves chile-marinated grilled shrimp, more Caribbean than South Carolina, with a small lake of organic Anson Mills grits and a kind of roasted pepper ragout. It is as close to Low Country shrimp and grits as New Orleans barbecued shrimp is to barbecue, and when you eat it, semantics don’t come into play.
Most of the seating for the restaurant is outside, on patios that back up against the nursery on the other side of the building. The waiters have the ease (and the cheekbones) of models. The bartender rings herb-flavored seasonal variations on classic Southern cocktails like Old-Fashioneds, Vieux Carres and shrubs.
Is the fried chicken crisp, the pan-roasted salmon properly medium rare and the charred carrot as compelling as the hanger steak with which it is served? Indeed. The braised oxtail is compelling in its plainness, little more than fat chunks of tail soft enough to eat with a spoon, served with a lightly curried sauce you may never get around to using (it would be the main attraction at a soul food restaurant in Compton or Willowbrook). The pork chop brined in sweet tea is uncommonly juicy. The cast-iron chicken is sort of a marriage between Tuscan chicken under a brick and Edna Lewis-style pan-roasted chicken, bone out and cooked between two hot cast-iron pans until the juices run clear and the skin becomes about 90% crunch. The greens cooked down with pickled peppers, the black-eyed peas with tasso and kale, and the late-summer creamed corn are at least as interesting as the meat.
You may be tempted by the giant slabs of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, the berry shortcake or the pudding, but the one dessert you must try is the raisin-oatmeal cookie sandwich, as chewy, crisp and buttery as your fondest dreams, and stuffed with cool mascarpone cream.
Kind of a fantasy mashup of Low Country cuisine with farm-driven California presentation
1031 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 392-2425, williejane.com.
Appetizers, $6-$19; main courses $16-$22; sides $6-$8; desserts $8.
Open 4 p.m. to midnight, Tuesday-Friday; noon to midnight, Saturday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
Shrimp and grits; barbecued quail with corn pudding; sweet-tea-brined pork chops; cast-iron chicken; simmered greens with pickled peppers; raisin oatmeal cookie sandwich.
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