The best thing to be said about the banal, post-structuralist name of Silver Lake’s new Bar Restaurant is that it is accurate.
A bar and a restaurant do indeed coexist on the premises, separated by a wall but connected in the back by a curving passage. The two words’ etymologies, as I overthink things, offer some culinary clues: “Restaurant” and “bar” share French origins, and the menu is baseline French, though many of the dishes puddle-jump through cuisines.
Here’s the irony, no doubt intentional: Beyond its irritating moniker, Bar Restaurant has eccentricity and charisma to spare. You slip through the entrance from the valeted lot (a boon along a stretch of Sunset Boulevard where it’s maddening to find parking) and every element — the atmosphere, the cooking, the service — absorbs you in its high spirits.
Booths in the long, narrow dining room are separated by partitions painted a minty shade of green. Stubby, Art Deco sconces jut from beige walls; the light after sundown is the color of drawn butter. Dried palm fronds spring out of planters. Towering, textural floral arrangements by Pretend Plants and Flowers brighten the dimness. It’s so 1980s in here you might expect Don Johnson to show up in a white suit and start haranguing a patron at the bar.
Other echoes from the ’80s reinforce the mood. I’ve heard Grace Jones’ “Living My Life” followed by a string of John Mellencamp ditties, including the one about Jack and Diane. The staff often wears monochromatic outfits with billowing shirts and blouses, looking very of the era.
My Gen-X brain, reliving its teenage years in this setting, cues the song from the 1986 Nestlé Alpine White commercial while a server points out the white chocolate-parsnip puree alongside an order of chicken liver mousse; there’s also cranberry jam and a dusting of crushed peanuts. The intensity of the flavors would probably better match the full-tilt richness of foie gras (still banned in California), but the combination works with the milder chicken livers too. The parsnip crucially defuses the sweetness.
Chef Douglas Rankin’s plating hints at the years he spent cooking under Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec and Petit Trois. He has adopted Lefebvre’s aesthetic — layers of grains and greenery and powdered spices, the unbridled energy of a wild garden constrained to a plate — and expresses his own individualism through it.
Lamb tartare is covered in chewy-soft buckwheat groats, with a large, jagged cracker placed on top at a rakish angle. A tangle of frisee, showered with cured egg yolk and bonito, conceals a potato croquette, crisp like an oversize tater tot. Brussels sprouts leaves, sliced pumpkin and nutty shavings of Mimolette circle a blob of aerated labneh like flower petals.
Rankin’s wink at mussels and frites is the wittiest thing on the menu. Tan mollusks bathe in Dijon cream; a submerged slice of milk bread toast manages to retain its crunch. To finish, the kitchen blankets the whole situation with curly fries. It’s weird and triumphant. For $32, it’s also an expensive high-low masterpiece; for the price, the mussels are deshelled and cooked just to plumpness.
Start with radish halves coated in a za’atar-like spice blend arranged among swirls of fromage blanc. The upper-left corner of the handwritten menu has a short list of snacks that veer Spanish: silvery boquerones in piquillo pepper purée, five grades of Iberico ham served wisely unadorned. As you savor its nuttiness the staff trundles over a wine cart, happy to pour tastes of orange Riesling-Pinot Gris blends and Chenin Blancs. If you prefer a cocktail, the Negroni Sbagliato (made with Prosecco rather than gin) makes for an effervescent kickoff.
Home in on the lamb tartare, with its tug between the unusually gentle meat and the assertive buckwheat. Manhattan wine bar Wildair (whose food also advanced the “layered look” ethos) pairs buckwheat with beef tartare as a signature dish; Rankin’s rendition with lamb leans more to Lebanese kibbeh nayyeh — I’m here for it.
Not every dish goes overboard on painterly qualities: A nicely seared piece of rainbow trout over rice curried with vadouvan and brightened with salsa verde is straightforward with visuals and flavors, and it scores.
A few dishes wobble. Something unappealingly sour lurks in the Brussels sprouts-labneh starter. Wakame bearnaise under pork tonkatsu is a brainy idea that doesn’t quite come together — the seaweed’s minerality clangs against the buttery-eggy sauce — and there’s another flavor mingling among the ingredients that brings to mind liquid smoke. A vegetarian-friendly mashup of mushroom and cheesy French onion soups is put forth as an entree; I’d shrink the portion and make it a starter.
Sweets tie up some themes beautifully. Brie anglaise over pain perdu — a supremely ‘80s conceit — has a canny savory angle. French toast should be served as a dinner finale more often. Mont Blanc, built on a cloud of chestnut cream, is making more appearances locally as part of the latest Gallic dining wave. This riff encrusted with hazelnuts does the classic justice.
After dessert at the end of a recent meal, I rounded the corner from the dining room to the cramped bar decorated in rose marble, and the friend with me stopped and blinked at his flood of memories. For the last 15 years the Mexican restaurant Malo occupied the space, but before that the place was a ’90s hot spot and gay hangout called Cobalt Cantina. “We would drive across the city for happy hour,” said my friend. “Imagine 200 guys packed in here. It was amazing.”
Only in this light could I soften my stance against Bar Restaurant’s ridiculous name. It’s also a tabula rasa that leaves plenty of room for reminiscing, and for imagining what might come next.
Location: 4326 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 347-5557, barrestaurant.la
Prices: Snacks $6-$25, appetizers $12-$21, mains $20-$59, desserts $13
Details: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot and street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Recommended dishes: 5J Jamon Iberico de Bellota, radishes and fromage blanc, lamb tartare, mussels with curly fries, pain perdu with brie Anglaise