Review: Rustic Canyon’s Jeremy Fox opened Santa Monica’s hottest restaurant of the year
The eyes, at first, don’t quite know where to land or dart next on Birdie G’s placemat-size menu. Dishes splinter into 10 categories — “hors d’oeuvres,” “soup and salad,” “blue plates,” “Texas toasts,” “West Coast seafood,” “classic meats from California ranches” and so on — amid call-out boxes for made-to-share platters. Matzo ball soup swivels to chopped salad; noodle kugel, beef stroganoff, warm “country club greens” and kasha cakes with schmaltz and gribenes vie for attention in the melee.
“How would you characterize the theme of this menu?” I asked a server one night.
“Well, how would you characterize it?” he lobbed back.
“That’ll work,” he said.
That synopsis doesn’t cover all the motifs, though it pinpoints the family origins around many of the dishes. Chef and co-owner Jeremy Fox grew up in Cleveland; he spent summers in Pennsylvania with his grandmother, Gladys, who made traditional Eastern European Jewish foods that Fox loved. She’s the “G” in the restaurant’s name. Birdie is Fox’s 3-year-old daughter.
His celebrated professional track picks up in California: He was chef de cuisine at the tasting-menu-only Manresa in Los Gatos before leading the kitchen at Ubuntu in Napa; his beer-battered ginger shoots over zucchini puréed to the consistency of yogurt still reads like fresh territory a dozen years later. In 2012 he took over as chef and an owner of Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon, turning the wine bar into a paradigm of Southern California farmers market cooking.
For Birdie G’s, Fox partnered with Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, owners of the Rustic Canyon Family restaurant group, to open the 5,000-square-foot space in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station in June. The opening staff memorized Fox’s bio; at every dinner a server mentioned the project being his dream restaurant.
Ohio childhood, heritage, nods to the South (Fox attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston and worked briefly in the region), California trail-blazing, personal evolution: The cooking at Birdie G’s begins to cohere when viewed as autobiography. Sorting through and weaving together a lifetime’s experiences to make a cogent narrative is the daunting task of memoir. Some uplifting, deftly executed food is coming out of the kitchens; occasionally, dishes need tightening and editing.
Start with the relish tray, an hommage to Midwestern supper clubs. A vintage cut-glass dish with dividers holds five-onion dip mounded in its center, surrounded by eight fresh and pickled vegetables. Before charging in, notice if there’s a spindly green that looks as if its leaves have been frozen or candied. It’s ice plant, which I first tried way back at Ubuntu — another example of Fox cracking the code on modern vegetable cooking. To me it summons the flavor of mulberry. Savor it on its own, and then start swiping vinegary carrots and peppers and tiny, halved cucamelons through the tangy creaminess, which is riddled with sweet-sharp alliums, echoing the soft crunch of the dipping vegetables.
The word “caviar” usually means eggs from various species of sturgeon, so it’s a charming bit of hyperbole to use the term for a platter of bright orange steelhead trout roe set among the trappings of a loaded bagel: crème fraiche, chives, capers, pickled onions, seedy “everything” seasoning. Pile these elements onto warm, torn chunks of waffle enriched with mashed potato. The kitchen could dial back the salt in the waffle; it’s aggressive even for a sodium head like me.
Snacking through these communal starters, one settles into the space, housed in a building that was long ago a train depot and then a celery packing plant. The restaurant’s design plays against the menu’s nostalgia: This is modernism, industrial and clean-lined, loud but not deafening, with an incredible mural across one wall by Nathan Van Hook, its bursts of blue brush strokes erupting like endless, peony-shaped fireworks.
A steely martini vibes with the retro onion dip, as does Sky’s the Limit, a gin-based number with crème de violette, maraschino and lavender bitters that ends up the blue of midcentury-era aftershaves (I say that with delight).
Kathryn Coker and Aaron Day have constructed a refreshingly user-friendly wine list. Options by the glass are arranged by their affinity for different foods; bottle categories break out into amusing but helpful subsets (“I Do Love Merlot,” “What the Kids Are Drinking: Natural and Fancy Free!”), and more than 100 selections are available to be ordered as half-bottles served in carafes. More restaurants should follow this template.
Alongside the priced-within-reach Chiantis and Sancerre Rouges and Scholium Project skin-contact Sauvignon Blanc, follow the Ashkenazi and Italian American cuisine threads through the menu for the most gratifying meal.
Caramelized onion-Manischewitz jam slicked over chicken liver mousse toast has the right tart-sweet edge. One more plate to split: the Hangtown Brei, an amalgam of San Francisco’s Hangtown fry and matzo brei. The matzo gently bulks up soft-scrambled eggs cooked in schmaltz and overlaid with grilled pork belly, fried oysters and, for glorious overkill, hot sauce hollandaise. It is the furthest thing from kosher but wholly ecumenical in its appeal.
In the same vein, the matzo ball soup achieves ethereal textures with a sphere of unleavened flatbread. The chicken broth resounds and the dill sparkles; sneaky carrot miso adds earthy depth. Delis everywhere are on notice.
Among three variations on steak frites, corned brisket is a particular pleasure; taut and fatty, seasoned with a peppery, coriander-sharpened rub meant to evoke the spicing of Montreal-style smoked meat. The exemplary fries, which can also be ordered as a side, show a generous but not excessive hand with the salt.
Many of the Italian-leaning dishes are red-sauce joint invocations, starting with the acidic, caloric chopped salad with ’njuja, chickpeas, olives and cheese. A veneer of simmered tomatoes and chile oil over sausage ravioli doesn’t overly mask the supple pasta.
Chicken scallopine, surrounded by a light-handed rendition of a Caesar salad, pays tribute to a recipe by chef de cuisine Brittany Cassidy’s mother. It’s the kind of dish you could order solo at the bar on a weeknight, turn off your smartphone and be present with.
There’s no overarching pattern behind the dishes that veer off-kilter, but they stick out among the high-performers. The flavors of the “Sloppy Jeremy” toast, likable with strawberry-accented beef Bolognese and horseradish-goat-cheese cream, could use stronger definition and contrast. King salmon crudo borrows riffs on yesteryear’s Continental condiments for smoked salmon — capers, cornichons, Dijon — but strangely it all needs more punch. Scattered crisp dill rice underneath rosy lamb, dolloped nicely with saffron yogurt, alludes to Iranian cuisine, but the crunch is more akin to Rice Krispies than tahdig. I hope that’s not intentional.
And this is curmudgeonly, but I wish the chilled chocolate cake with malted frosting wasn’t refrigerated. It sedates the flavors; I want the frosting airy, not seized.
The rose-petal pie — devised with Fox by pastry chef Deanie Hickox, who made beautiful desserts at Ubuntu and is Fox’s ex-wife — has already drawn plenty of deserved kudos. A trembling, semi-translucent vision in pink floats over a pretzel crust; strawberry, hibiscus and rose-petal jellies vary the flavor and texture of raspberry-rose mousse. It embodies the soul of Birdie G’s: a wink to past Midwest predilections, the conversion of nostalgia into a springboard for germane creativity. When friends took bites of the pie at a recent dinner, I watched the lights flicker on over their heads: “Oh, this is what the restaurant is about.”
With just a handful more revelations like this one — when the personal becomes universal, when Fox mines his repertoire and life to make the culinary themes more profoundly connect — Birdie G’s will be one for the books.
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