Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tavern: A hair short of birthday bliss

I knew it wouldn't be perfect going in. Birthday dinners never are. In fact, I'd hazard to say that birthday dinners are almost always destined to fail because of either: A. Bill troubles, B. Overly high expectations of the food/fun factor, or C. Poor service due to the large size (and boisterousness) of the party.

I wanted to avoid the whole charade after a less than successful dinner last year (and the year before and the year before), but ultimately, the thought of eating an Amy's frozen spinach pizza at home alone on my birthday left me feeling more than a little depressed. So I corralled together five of my closest friends and made a reservation at Tavern -- Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne's much-praised and occasionally maligned restaurant in Brentwood. I was nervous about trying a place I'd never been to before for my birthday, but my food lovin' friends convinced me that, at the very least, it was worth a visit for the “Snickers bar” dessert and stunning atmosphere alone.

They were right.

And though I don’t regret selecting it as my special occasion resto (I only regret my choice of entrée), it wasn't quite the unequivocal blissful birthday experience I desired.

Walking through the restaurant last Tuesday night in my brand new belted dress (from Anthropologie, of course), I felt flush with excitement. It isn’t often that I cheat on my weeknight meals of quinoa and veggies for a night on the town with my friends. I’m typically only a weekend warrior when it comes to the ingestion of excessive amounts of food and wine, but birthdays are exceptions. I was going for the gold that night – wine, two slices of the freshly baked sourdough bread (with the absurdly hard butter), a shared appetizer, entrée and dessert. My mission? I wasn’t leaving the restaurant until my wallet was empty and my stomach was engorged.

As my five dear friends and I settled around our corner booth in the atrium a little after 8 pm, none of us could get over the beautiful interior.

“I want my apartment to look like this.” Hank commented.

I nodded. I wanted my apartment to look like it too. Though maybe without the trees. And I definitely didn’t think I’d ever get used to the bizarre hand-drying machines in the bathroom. But the rest? Absolutely. The libarary-esque bar would suit me just fine when I feel the urge to drink away the blues at home, and I could certainly go for the muddied grey and earthy tones that ensconced the space of the main dining room. I felt happy to be in such beautiful surroundings with my beautiful friends – the setting provided the perfect tone for what I knew would be a memorable evening.
The appetizer I shared with my friend Anna, the soft shell crab with sweet corn salad and green harissa ($18) seemed an auspicious start to our evening of eats. I loved the freshness of the corn salad and bright kick of cilantro. It paired wonderfully with the crab and I could easily see myself ordering this dish with another appetizer in place of an entrée.
It had been simple for me to narrow in on the crab as a starter, but the entrees proved to be harder for me to navigate. Erin from Dishwasher Ready (a Tavern expert) had told me to get the pork chop with cornbread, chorizo and spiced maple syrup ($27) or the restaurant’s signature dish, the devil’s chicken with leeks and mustard breadcrumbs ($26). While I do love to dabble in pork (it does a body good until the heart attack), I have a policy of never ordering chicken as my main entrée at dinner. It seems so boring – like a last resort order when nothing else sounds appealing.

At Tavern, everything sounds appealing. I wanted it all – the halibut grilled in fig leaves ($27) that my friend Ashley ordered, the market fish with yellow tomato confit ($26) that two of my other girlfriends ordered, and the beef daube with ricotta gnocchi ($29) that the waitress claimed was surprisingly light for short ribs. I was a wreck trying to make my final decision, but when our server told me the grilled lamb with polenta, peppers, currants and pinenuts ($27) would pair excellently with our bottle of Cabernet Franc ($38), I decided to trust her.

When our plates arrived, we were all enamored with the presentations. Even though I typically only photograph my own food (I hate to make other people wait to dig in), everyone at the table insisted I take pictures of their dishes as well. (They later insisted I sample their dishes also.)

My lamb, served on skewers, was tender and cooked exactly as I’d requested – medium. I was primed to love it because I’m the eternal optimist when it comes to food (that doesn’t come in a brown bag with golden arches on it), but ultimately struggled to make sense of how the various components on my plate came together. The eggplant and red pepper overpowered the reserved portion of polenta underneath, and I found them to be too oily for my tastes. My friend Anna described the dish as “woodsy,” before eagerly spooning out a portion of her market fish for me to try (a consolation prize, perhaps?). The flavors in her dish were more reminiscent of the appetizer we shared – bright and clean, but the plate as a whole ultimately still lacked the “wow” factor. I liked it – just like I liked the other entrees I sampled – but strangely enough, wasn’t completely overloaded with envy that everyone else had ordered better.
Maybe if one of them had heeded Erin's advice to order the devil’s chicken, I may have felt differently...

Fortunately, the evening took a turn back toward birthday bliss with the must-order “Snicker’s bar” dessert with salted peanut, caramel and vanilla ice cream ($10). It was everything I imagined it would be – over-the-top decadent in the best way possible. Even though my stomach was screaming at me for an intermission, I made a pointed effort to finish every last bite, because A. It was my birthday, B. I wanted to prove I could do it, and C. It was one of the best desserts I’ve had in LA.

When I rolled home that night – belly engorged, wallet empty, I felt happy with my overall Tavern experience. The setting was right, the people were right (how lucky am I that I have friends who all beg me to eat off their plates?), and the dessert was more than right. Did I wish I’d tried the chicken? Yes. But, I wasn’t completely heartbroken. It just gives me another reason to go back to the beautiful Westside restaurant.

11647 San Vicente Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90049
(310) 806-6464


The Duo Dishes said...

OK. That entire meal was so impressive. The soft shell crab really stands out. We don't even need to eat out! We can just read up on your adventures. :)

Esi said...

Sorry the entree wasn't everything you hoped and dreamed it would be, but glad the meal overall was a success. That snickers dessert...oye!

mattatouille said...

too bad this place didn't live up to expectations. I like how you just describe how the food tasted, and how it just didn't jive with you. I think maybe that's really the best way to describe something that isn't pleasing to you, just saying it like it is. I'm learning that I should veer on this side rather than suggesting what the flavors should be...sometimes i can be a smartass...anyways, I hope you'll give Tavern another try! I still need to make the trip out to Brentwood, but it's so far away.

yutjangsah said...

I do love the interior of Tavern. It's like my fantasy library/restaurant. I'm sorry to hear the food wasn't knock ur socks off fabulous. I'm def going to check it out.

Jenn said...

Sorry about the entree. But I'm glad the birthday bliss came back with that "snickers bar" I want one!!! Plus, that soft shell crab looks pretty good, too.

weezermonkey said...

Good friends always insist that you photograph and taste their dishes!

Cheers to good friends!

Diana said...

Chrystal & Amir - The soft shell crab was really tasty. I'd love to figure out what all went into the corn salad so I could make it at home! (sans crab)

Esi - It left me pretty speechless - best dessert EVER!

Matt - I appreciate your comment. This was a tough review for me to write because I did like the restaurant. I definitely need to go back again for dinner to try some of the other entrees.

Sook - It's so cool! I feel like I could happily live in there. Especially if they keep the larder stocked with monkey bread...

Jenn - You need to go and try the snickers dessert! It's totally worth a trip for it.

Sharon - I guess I'm not a very good friend then... ;)

Food, she thought. said...

Happy belated birthday!

That soft-shell crab looks orgasmic. I too agonize over where to go for my bday every year mostly because the restaurant has to make it special because none of my friends can ever come to my party. (The hazards of being an xmas baby). This year I have already chosen Fig...but this post is swaying me toward Tavern. I am allowed to change my mind a few times, yes?

Ashley said...

If we go again, I'm just getting the soft shell crab. No complaints about the halibut, though.

Anna A. said...

Nice pics.... so that's what everything we ate looked like ;) I'm so glad we got the crab - it def makes do-over status. Where are we celebrating the 27th?

Gastronomer said...

A shame I missed out on Tavern! The Snickers bar does look awesomely insane. You know what? I dislike entrees because it's usually too much food and too much of the same flavors. I'll take two apps instead ;-)

Cinnamon Girl aka Reeni♥ said...

Everything looks interesting and delicious! The mustard chicken does sound so good - I'd go back for it. And for another snickers dessert - looks real yummy.

Diana said...

Lizzie - I almost picked Fig over Tavern! I narrowed it down to Fig, Tavern and Rustic Canyon, but ultimately decided on Tavern because it's better for a group. Have you thought about Rustic Canyon? I did go there recently and had a fantastic meal with my brother.

Ashley - I would have ordered the halibut except someone (who will go unnamed) told me, "You can't get the halibut at Tavern!" Apparently, she was wrong.

Anna - Hmmm... private dining room at the big O Mozza? ;)

Cathy - Normally I like entrees, but I may try that whole two appetizers and dessert thing the next time I do fancy.

Reeni - I'm still dreaming about the Snicker's bar dessert...

SinoSoul said...

FIG for starters, (cuz they are ALL devine), RC for mains, Tavern for dessert.

It can be done, without gorging one self. Tell me how it goes.

breanne said...

i just stumbled across your blog and just wanted to say it is lovely and that i am so happy you enjoy the pastries at tavern. i have been the pastry chef there since we opened. www.bitesofsugar.blogspot.com