If you are fond of visiting Los Angeles restaurants in their first months, you have run into chef Kris Morningstar a lot, probably more times than you can imagine. He has cooked at Shutters and AOC, Grace, Meson G and Opaline, Casa and the weird rooftop-to-table restaurant Blue Velvet. He was in and out of the Hollywood restaurant District in what seemed like weeks, although people still talk about his term in the kitchen, and he opened Ray’s & Stark Bar, the vegetable-focused restaurant in the shadow of Chris Burden’s lamppost installation in a courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
So it is nice to see Morningstar finally open what seems like his dream restaurant: Terrine, a huge, relaxed place in what used to be the Italian restaurant Pane e Vino. The once fussy dining room has been streamlined into a brisk, airy space, adjoining one of the pleasantest, tree-shaded dining patios in town. The music is too loud — it is always too loud — but conversations are easy enough to follow. The sommelier, François Renaud, whom you may remember from his terms at La Cachette and Palate Food + Wine, has assembled a list of French country wines that are probably too expensive for the informal dining room but suit Morningstar’s sturdy cooking nicely.
And Terrine seems to have been immediately adopted as a clubhouse by the local chefs’ community. Especially late at night, restaurant people sometimes seem to outnumber civilians. Morningstar cooks what chefs like to eat.
What that means, basically, is meat, lots of meat, along with rustic red wine, decent beer and cocktails that actually taste like the spirits with which they are made. When the best salad on the menu is made with crunchy, thick-cut slices of toasted pig’s ear, you know you’re in a restaurant that welcomes chefs.
If you have not had foie gras since the state ban was lifted last month, you may have forgotten how wonderful the transgressive duck livers can be when they are prepared correctly. If you have decided that you want to welcome foie gras back into your life, Morningstar’s terrine is a good place to start: smooth, subtle, served with sea salt and a little cracked pepper, tasting of scarcely anything beyond itself.
If you have cooked ducks, you have some idea of the kitchen afterlife of a duck, the various essences of which will make their way into your cooking for days and weeks to come. This is especially true if you like to prepare confit, which is to duck fat what a breeder reactor is to plutonium. You need to find a way to use it or you’ll float away on an ocean of the stuff.
At Terrine, you may not find vegetables wilted in duck fat or crisp duck-fat potatoes, but there is duck-fat pudding, a dense, oily popover oozing with the delicious stuff. Sometimes the menu calls it duck fat Yorkshire pudding, which is about right.
Garbure, a soupy stew from southwest France, at its best absolutely reeks of the bird. Barbara Kafka includes a quick version in her book “Roasting” because she insists that it is the best way to get a quick second meal from a leftover roast goose. Paula Wolfert calls garbure the soul of Béarnaise cooking; her recipe requires three pages, 19 ingredients and several days to prepare if you are doing it to her specifications, which you should do at least once.
Terrine serves the only garbure I’ve ever seen in Los Angeles, beans, pork, duck confit and vegetables simmered into a dense, pungent mass, almost thick enough to support a spoon upright. As you eat the soup, you become aware that its soul lies in neither cabbage nor garlic but in the duck itself; fat, meat and bones combining into a force as powerful as any 36-hour tonkotsu ramen broth. You will wear this duck essence like a light dab of cologne for a day or so, and you will learn to like it.
When you are almost done with the garbure, a waiter appears with an ounce or two of red wine, which he will instruct you to tip into the soup and drink out of the bowl. The custom is called faire chabrot, a folkloric gesture you see more on postcards in southwest France than you do in restaurants but kind of fun. It turns out to be delicious, the wine swirled into the dregs of the garbure, and nobody seems to be giggling at you, at least not much.
That said, Terrine does fine as a bistro or a brasserie, but the kitchen ranges perhaps a bit further than it might — I’m not sure why you’d choose this restaurant if you wanted to dine on pizza, squid-ink spaghetti or truffled agnolotti, although you could. “The City’s Best Fish & Chips” may rank in the top 10, although that would be a stretch. Morningstar’s version of choucroûte garnie, the Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and cured meats, is the most expensive thing on the menu, but it also may be the dullest; dry and oddly underseasoned.
One week the menu included a section devoted to poutine, the French-Canadian winter dish of sauce-drenched fries, available with bacon and cheddar, duck gravy and even a Thai larb. (I admit, I enjoyed the poutine saturated with gloppy blanquette de veau, but I did order it on a dare.) You are probably better off ignoring the pizzas, which are closer to delivery pies than to tarte Alsacienne or pissaladiere.
But the heart of the menu belongs to the assiette de charcuteries, a formidable board lined with slabs of rustic pork terrine, butter-rich rillettes, shaved head cheese, thick rounds of andouille sausage and liverwurst, and slices of smoked, cured beef deckle that could double as great pastrami. (We’ve seen a lot of local chefs making Italian cured meats in the last couple of years, but many fewer working with French methods.) There are hunks of grilled bread to eat with the charcuterie, sharply vinegared cornichons and a sweet, melting onion condiment. You may want to supplement it with bone marrow with horseradish and beets, pork belly with sweet pickles, or crisp socca, Provençal chickpea pancakes, sprinkled with wild fennel pollen.
“This is a menu,” a friend said halfway into the truffled chicken liver, “for those at ease with death.”
Kris Morningstar cooks what chefs like to eat — and that means meat.
8265 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 746-5130, terrinela.com
Hors d’oeuvres, $7-$16; main courses, $18-$42; vegetables, $8-$9; desserts, $10-$11.
Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
Charcuterie plate; foie gras terrine; pig’s ear salad; garbure.