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Restaurant review: Father's Office at Helms Bakery
A European friend has a teenage son who loves ketchup so much that Dad carts home giant bottles of the stuff in his checked suitcase every time he visits the U.S. I know one person I won't be taking to Father's Office the next time he visits, because they don't allow the tomato-based condiment. No how. No way.
"How will I eat my French fries?," the ketchup-addicted might wail. Without the red sauce, that's for sure. Unless, like a couple of rebellious college-age kids I've noticed, you smuggle in a bottle and staff members turn their heads the other way. Otherwise, the lemony aioli that comes with your piping hot and suitably skinny shoestring fries or fatter gnarled sweet potato ones will have to do -- and they do quite nicely. (Note: The miniature shopping carts the fries were once served in seem to have gone the way of the dodo bird. Instead, fries now come in a miniature metal fryer basket.)
The injunction against ketchup doesn't seem to be doing any damage to the new Father's Office in the Helms Bakery complex at the border of Culver City and Los Angeles -- or the original funky locale on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. The 6-month-old venue is crowded all the time, though I'm happy to report that now if you drop in on weeknights after 8, you quite possibly won't have to wait in line to get in.
You will have to pass muster at the door, though. No, no, no, you just don't walk into Father's Office. Someone has to ask if you've been there before and if not, explain the policies -- no table service, no substitutions, order at the bar.
With its rules and regulations and chaotic ordering, this is like no other restaurant in town. On the other hand, Father's Office boasts a killer beer list, sophisticated pub grub from a chef/owner who worked in fine dining, and now, at this new locale, high-class spirits instead of dessert, and that California necessity, an outdoor terrace.
You will have to seat yourself, however. That is, if you can find a table. That might make sense at the original, tiny Father's Office, but at this one, where more than a dozen Parsons-style tables, beautifully crafted in lacquered mahogany, are lined up on the terrace, with more tables crowded inside, it's annoying. You end up prowling in back of tables, hovering as you try to ascertain whether the people sitting there have just come, have just finished or are going to order more. Or worse, you interrupt them, to inquire.
On the other hand, all this jockeying for tables (and sometimes seats) does create a congenial atmosphere. We're all in this together, so to speak. And you can't play passive. You have to engage. Maybe the woman next to you will ask you to watch the purse that's marking her spot while she goes off to order a second round of Trappist ale and some smoked eel. Or you might strike up a conversation with the couple at the other end of your shared table, who it turns out are friends of friends of friends. The policy seems to bring out the best in people: I haven't run into any louts yet.
OK, I did get impatient when the six women in the party in front of me not only wouldn't split the check, but then in addition to ordering individually, insisted on a protracted negotiation over who would order what while the bartender waited patiently.
That's because there's no table service either. And good luck finding a menu. The drill is you order from the bar, a long, crowded counter with taps for draft beer and a whimsical collection of vintage beer taps mounted on the wall behind. The idea is that the bartender starts a tab for you, so you can order your beer or wine first, maybe a few starter dishes and then come back later to replenish drinks and eats.
Note to young chefs: Pay attention to what chef/owner Sang Yoon is up to at Father's Office. The place is a rousing success. He's making money, and lots of it, by "cooking down" in a manner of speaking. With a background in fine dining (he was formerly chef at Michael's), he decided against opening a highfalutin place and instead bought a decrepit beer bar in Santa Monica. And by adding a small menu of good eats -- a signature burger, great fries, so-so tapas and a few other dishes -- he created a venue so popular you couldn't get in the door most nights. The Father's Office burger became a cult item that every member of Chowhound.com and the world at large had to weigh in on.
I'm not the biggest fan of that burger. It's more like a beef patty sandwich. The beef is nice and juicy, but the bun is more like a sandwich bun than a classic burger bun, and spongy to boot. I don't like the sweetness (and sliminess) of the caramelized onions or the embellishment of the blue cheese. No lettuce, no mustard, too rich -- and greasy. But I'm definitely in the minority. Fortunately, that's not all there is to eat. With this second location, a real kitchen means Yoon has been able to expand the menu and get creative with the specials, scratching his itch to do something more than burgers.
I've met regulars who eat there two or three times a week and always order the same thing -- the roasted beet salad, the burger and the sweet potato fries. And others who immediately zero in on the specials. That beet salad is a generous heap of glistening ruby beets, arugula leaves, nuggets of Cabrales blue cheese from Spain and walnuts tossed in a vinaigrette that features Austrian pumpkin seed oil and sherry vinegar. And it's crowned with squiggles of raw beet like the feathers on an eccentric hat -- something the late style icon Isabella Blow would wear. A fine example of the beet salad genre.
More compelling, though, is the plate of smoked eel with poached egg and a punchy horseradish cream -- a wonderful dish with one of the myriad beers, by the way. There's also a fine salad of meaty duck prosciutto ribboned with fat and adorning a pile of peppery wild arugula leaves, toasted hazelnut and dried figs in a sherry vinaigrette that's terrific with a wheat beer or India Pale Ale.
I highly recommend the roasted beef marrow spread on little toasts with one of the richer Trappist ales. Steak tartare, though, tastes like diced raw beef massaged with salad dressing -- too oily.
Specials of the night are listed at several places on the bar. One night, you might find exotic Berbere-spiced lamb, skewered and cooked to a perfect medium rare, and served with a velvety goat's milk yogurt sauce. Or a wild mushroom salad with wisps of frisée and a poached egg with a yolk that runs when you cut into it, enriching the dressing.
Always on the menu, though, is Niman Ranch pork belly braised in Belgian amber ale and served with green-brown lentils and a rocking tomatillo salsa verde. At $16, it's about the most expensive item on the menu. No, make that the steak au poivre in a creamy cognac shallot sauce, but it's a deal at $19, considering it comes with a heap of shoestring fries, which are $5 on their own (and worth every dollar).
Father's Office has a clever website that gives all the facts, hours and policies. Click on the category "office supplies," and you'll find the FO Limited Edition Skateboard for sale bearing the image of a paper clip and several versions of the Father's Office T-shirt, including one called the Periodic Table T-Shirt in which FO2 is presented as an element of life.
Coming soon, MoFo -- mobile Father's Office, "a fully equipped kitchen trailer with capacity to serve up to 300 guests complete with a custom selection of craft beers on tap." One way to beat the line. And get this, Mobile Father's Office will be powered by the vegetable-based oil used to fry their French fries. Is that cool or what?
And it also includes an Evite function -- but I'm just wondering what happens when you invite 10 people to Father's Office. Where will they sit? Will you be able to commandeer a table large enough? The thought of it gives me a headache already.
RATING: * 1/2
LOCATION 3229 Helms Ave., Los Angeles; (310) 736-2224.
AMBIENCE Casual upscale pub with eclectic beers on tap and a menu of hearty noshes, including the famous Office burger. The crowd is mostly young and friendly, tucking in for dinner or an extended conversation at this congenial spot. Aim for a table outside if you plan to do any talking.
SERVICE No table service -- you order at the bar. But the bartenders are awfully nice, despite the clamor and chaos.
PRICE Small plates, $5 to $14; big plates, $5 to $19; cheese plate, $9.50. No desserts.
BEST DISHES Smoked eel, duck prosciutto salad with sherry vinaigrette, organic beet salad, braised pork belly with lentils, the Office burger, frites in a basket, specials.
WINE LIST Beer list is more to the point. Three dozen craft brews, plus specials and a short list of the really rare stuff. The one-page wine list is a keeper, too, with most bottles from small or local producers, or both.
BEST TABLE One on the terrace.
SPECIAL FEATURES "No substitutions, modifications, alterations or deletions. Yes, Really. Table Service is not provided. Please order at the bar. Thank you. All prices include sales tax."
DETAILS Open 5 to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday (bar until 1 a.m.), 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday (bar until 2 a.m.) and 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday (bar until midnight). Full bar. Street and lot parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
See a photo gallery of scenes and dishes at Father's Office.