When I was growing up my mom often needed to resort to sly methods to get me to eat certain foods. She’d cut my sandwiches into fun shapes, give me lamb under a sweet coating of mint jelly, and serve me the cute tender pieces when we were having chicken for dinner. She didn’t compromise the integrity of her food to please my picky tastes – she simply presented it in a form that was more accessible to me, and more times than not, I’d eat up whatever was on my plate without (much) protest. (It also helped when she’d tell me I could have dessert after I finished.)
Part of being a great chef – whether a professional or amateur like my sweet, obliging mother – is knowing your dining audience. Chef Jamie Lauren from “Top Chef: Season 5” and the upcoming “Top Chef All-Stars,” is proving that she knows just that in her new gig as the Executive Chef at Beechwood restaurant in Venice. Lauren has revitalized the restaurant/bar’s classic New American menu with her unique take on familiar, crowd-pleasing foods. She is cooking her way while still being mindful of the context of her location – a neighborhood hangout that attracts post-work drinkers/nibblers and locals looking for a satisfying bite.
For the nibblers, Lauren offers a host of dishes that go far beyond typical bar fare, but that are not too far-out for her diners. Toasted edamame is thoughtfully enriched with togarashi, garlic, Japanese lime, and sea salt ($6) for an addictive and relatively healthy snack. A surprisingly refined housemade pimento cheese spread is served with pliant flatbread; Beechwood chicken nuggets are made with sous-vide slices of chicken mousse, seasoned with curry and accompanied with raita and whipped vindaloo oil ($12); and bruschetta is artfully topped with beet puree, marinated white anchovy, basil, lemon oil, and indulgent pillows of burrata ($10). While seemingly over-the-top, the latter is a bright, unobtrusive bite even to those who are usually repelled by the assertive flavors of anchovies and beets. Despite the intimidating list of ingredients, the bruschetta is comfortingly familiar – it tastes somewhat similar to garlic bread.
Other inspired bites include shots of a silky pumpkin soup with vanilla cream and pumpkin oil ($6); grilled lamb meatballs with piquillo pepper, pistachio, cucumber and dill yogurt salad, and smoked paprika oil ($10); and a crispy oyster trio topped witih horseradish crème fraiche, cocktail salsa, and long pepper mignonette foam ($12). The soup oozes warm fall flavors onto the tongue, and the lamb meatballs present themselves on the palate like non-vegetarian falafel balls. There’s no need for my mother’s coy mint jelly here.
For dinners looking for a cleaner bite, the shaved fennel salad with honeycrisp apples, radish, Persian fetta, chives, tarragon, and meyer lemon ($11); and hiramasa crudo with kaffir lime-lemongrass oil, pickled jalapeno, crispy shallots, and micro cilantro ($12) are not to be missed. The fennel salad bursts with freshness from the herbs, meyer lemon and seasonally-apropos components, and the crudo is clean and precise. Both leave a memorable mark on the tongue and are the perfect palate cleansers before digging into the restaurant’s hearty entrees.
The Sonoma duck confit tacos with dried cherry mole, queso fresco, and grilled seranos ($14) are sure to become an instant favorite among tacosessed Los Angelenos who are looking for a little refinement stuffed into their tortillas. The pretzel-stuffed Jidori chicken with braised red cabbage and a genius housemade Guinness mustard sauce ($19) similarly showcases Lauren’s slyness in the kitchen as she reconceptualizes soft pretzels with mustard and beer as a refined entrée.
The braised kobe beef cheeks with curry spices, masala spiced smashed potatoes, and sautéed Bloomsdale spinach ($19) is perhaps Lauren’s biggest trick to her audience. While the plate presents as a typical boring short rib dish, the supple ribbons of beef and pleasantly lumpy mashed potatoes are infused with cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, and other Indian spices that transform it into a completely unique menu item. It’s a confident, bold entrée that perfectly sums up what Chef Jamie Lauren is doing at Beechwood.
She’s giving people exactly what they want and exactly what they didn’t know they wanted.
I have no doubt she will quickly become a fan favorite in the neighborhood -- even without the promised of lemon ricotta beignets ($9) for dessert.
822 Washington Blvd.
Venice, CA 90292
Note: Menu items mentioned above were hosted.