At Melrose Bar & Grill, a savvy new approach

Where else can wine lovers drink so well in such a casual, moderately priced restaurant with a friendly neighborhood vibe?
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

I’M flipping through the hefty reserve wine list at the new Melrose Bar & Grill in West Hollywood and can’t believe my eyes: 23 wines from Alsace and more than 20 Champagnes and sparkling wines at a restaurant where the pub steak is just $17. The more than 600 selections run through a who’s who of top winemakers around the world, everyone from Marcel Guigal and Angelo Gaja to Lalou Bize-Leroy, Álvaro Palacios and Ken Wright. When I ask the wine steward about a Riesling from F.X. Pichler from the Wachau region in Austria or the Pinot Grigio from Movia in Slovenia, he can tell us all about it. Not only that, he recommends a Verdejo from Spain that’s not even on the list yet.

I can’t think of anywhere else in L.A. where wine lovers can drink so well in a casual, moderately priced restaurant with a friendly neighborhood vibe. And Melrose Bar & Grill isn’t a wine bar (though it does have some 14 wines by the glass), but rather a bar and grill where you can come in for lunch, snacks in the afternoon (with free Wi-Fi provided) and supper at night.

For a list of this pedigree, wine prices are very fair too. It turns out the sommelier -- and wine buyer -- is Robert Evans, who owns the restaurant with his sister Paula, another sister, Julie, and Julie’s husband Christopher Bennett, the chef.

I’m impressed, too, that Evans has crafted a short list for people who don’t want to bother poring over the larger one. And the short list is no selection for wine dummies. At all. It’s filled with interesting wines that are not only good value, but delicious enough to turn anybody on to appellations such as Bandol, Priorat or Russian River. Bravo.

Look around, almost everyone is drinking wine, intriguing wines -- Zind-Humbrecht Tokay Pinot Gris, Kalin Cellars Sémillon, Vieux Télégraph Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Regulars linger

ALL this and a swell setting, too. The look is relaxed and way more chic than the price level would lead you to expect, with cream-colored leather booths along the pale walls, heavy framed mirrors, and baskets of artichokes or flowers for decoration. Specials are scrawled bistro-style on large blackboards. And at the far end of the room is the warm glow of the brick fireplace.

The crowd is mostly local, people who live or work in the neighborhood. Some come for the $10 martinis, some for a glass of wine or a quick supper. Others linger over dinner and a bottle of wine, reading a book or talking with friends. It’s not church, but it’s not that noisy either. The bar, which faces the open kitchen, is almost always filled with regulars checking out what’s going on in the kitchen and visiting with the owners.

This used to be, in fact, Doug Arango’s, another restaurant from the same quartet of owners that had moved from Palm Desert to West Hollywood four years ago. It was a much fancier and fussier place, “Fine Dining” in caps. But in part due to the economic downturn, the restaurant scene has changed, and people want something more accessible and casual.

To their credit, the owners saw the light, and a few months ago, instead of slapping on a new coat of paint and calling it a day, they put their heads together and came up with something the neighborhood needed: a bar and grill. Though Bennett may be disappointed that his more ambitious menu didn’t find enough takers, he’s set himself a perfectly respectable challenge: to do casual food well.

House-made pretzels

TAKE the bar snacks. He’s got a warm pretzel and sausage with Creole mustard on the menu. The sausage is juicy and flavorful, better than you’d expect. Then take a bite of the braided pretzel. It’s fresh and with just the right texture. It turns out Bennett makes them himself. He also bakes the pita bread to order. Pull the saucer-shaped bread apart, and inside it’s soft and yeasty. Still warm from the oven, it’s delicious with the Middle Eastern-accented bean dip and a martini, say. The buns that sandwich the duck burger are house-made too.

The service here strikes a balance between warm and friendly on the one hand and responsive and responsible on the other. It’s not intrusive, yet you feel welcomed and comfortable the minute you walk in the door. Julie Bennett has an eye on everything going on in the dining room. It’s her place, and she cares.

Starters include an updated version of the steakhouse sliced tomato and onion: Here, it’s heirloom tomatoes with sweet onion, blue cheese and micro basil leaves with a drizzle of good olive oil. Southwest matzo ball soup is a bowl of clear, nourishing broth with a single fluffy matzo ball floating in the middle. The southwest part comes from the cilantro and lemon that flavor the broth, and those two flavors really do perk up the normally bland soup. Good-quality prosciutto with some sliced caramelized pear alongside makes another appealing starter. The Caesar, though, is too mild-mannered. It needs a kick of garlic. And a special pear-celery soup is diluted and watery.

When you sit down at one of the generously sized tables, hopefully at one of the comfy booths along the walls, your server brings out a small chalkboard written with the day’s specials. That’s so you won’t have to crane your neck reading the big one posted on the wall. Look for oysters, most often Kumamoto, served chilled on a bed of ice. These are delicious, and whoever is back there shucking oysters is fast. You won’t have to wait long for your pretty mollusks.

The kitchen also turns out thin -crusted pizza. And thin here is very thin, so much so that the end of the wedge tends to flop over when you try to pick a slice up. The choices are limited to four, but they’re all quite decent, and include a fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil (for $8!) and a pie wearing a thin blanket of Taleggio cheese, sliced mushrooms and red pepper as well as my favorite, the one dotted with silver dollar-sized slices of Fra’ Mani salametto (a handcrafted salame that’s something like pepperoni) with crushed red pepper. Have a pizza for dinner with a green salad, or order one to share as an appetizer.

Main courses are fairly plain but well prepared. Tops on my list is the Berkshire pork chop, which Bennett brines in cider to give it a slightly sweet edge and serves with house-cured sauerkraut. I love that tangy sauerkraut, so I’m happy that you can also order it as a side. Veal porterhouse is sheer comfort too, a generous, tender cut of veal served with sautéed escarole and a svelte mushroom butter.

Many restaurants at this price level would serve the same vegetables with every dish. Not so here. Crispy roasted chicken breast comes with roasted carrots and the chicken jus, while the pub steak (a culotte cut) comes with sautéed mixed mushrooms. And that steak is possibly the lowest price I’ve seen anywhere in town.

Ribs and pasta

IF you feel more like noshing, get the Mediterranean platter, a medley of sliced grilled chicken, hummus, tzatziki and quinoa tabbouleh with roasted red peppers, olives and some of that fresh-baked pita bread. I’d enjoy the duck burger more if the duck were less finely ground, though. And although the slab of barbecued pork ribs isn’t going to put Phillip’s BBQ out of business any time soon, for a middle-level restaurant, these are pretty good. Sometimes, just gnawing on bones is a comfort, and the good thing is that you can order them by the full or half rack. The sauce is slightly sweet, but nothing like the sugary sauces I’ve encountered at some other places.

The kitchen even manages to cook angel hair pasta al dente, which is quite a feat in a busy kitchen. But if the menu is only going to offer a couple of pastas, why not make it something more gutsy?

As for dessert, check the specials board to see if there’s something you fancy, or go with one of the three on the regular menu. Pick any one, and you can’t go wrong. The chocolate flourless cake is a classic; the cheesecake has a light, lovely texture. Can’t decide? Get the arborio rice pudding brûlée, a dessert that suits this classy neighborhood joint. It’s made with rice, but not just any rice, a decision along with many other small ones like this that makes the new restaurant at the same address more than welcome.

Melrose Bar & Grill

Rating: **

Location: 8826 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (310) 278-3684;

Ambience: Doug Arango’s becomes Melrose Bar & Grill, a smart, casual neighborhood place with appealing American food, moderate prices and a killer wine list.

Service: Warm and welcoming -- and efficient.

Price: Starters, $7 to $12; thin-crust pizza, $8 to $13 main courses, $11 to $25; dessert, $6; bar snacks, $4 to $8.

Best dishes: Southwest matzo ball soup, Berkshire pork chop, house-cured sauerkraut, veal porterhouse, Mediterranean platter, crispy roasted chicken breast, arborio rice pudding brûlée.

Wine list: Eclectic “short list” and terrific reserve list at fair prices. Corkage fee $20 (waived if you order a bottle from the list of more than 600 selections).

Best table: A corner booth.

Details: Open for lunch from noon to 2:30 and for snacks, pizza and salads from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; and for dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.

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.