Independence Tavern

Independence Tavern opened in early February in the location that used to house Buddha’s Belly.  Named after the steam-powered railroad line that once ran from Santa Monica to San Pedro, it is now a New American style restaurant with an impressive menu and cocktail pedigree.  Tom Block, a friend who used to work at Beelman’s Pub, became the executive chef at Independence Tavern invited me for a hosted dinner to sample their offerings.

The Independence Tavern

The cocktail menu at Independence Tavern is overseen by Vincenzo Marianella of Copa d’Oro, which is conveniently located just a few doors down.  Rumor has it that he has a trap door that allows him to move between bars without having to step outside.  I started off with The Longshore, a bourbon-based cocktail that’s a little like an Old Fashioned and a little like a flip.  It is has an astringent flavor profile, which suited me fine.

The Independence Tavern

First came a wooden plank of oysters on a half shell.  The oysters were accompanied by smoked salmon roe and a delicate cube of apple. The sweet crunchiness of the apple was a pleasant contrast to the briny oysters and roe.

The Independence Tavern

Next came a shrimp and crab ceviche served with a flatbread more like a papadum than a tortilla.  The crisp flatbread worked well as a tool to deliver bites of tender shrimp and crab.

The Independence Tavern

Around the same time we were all digging into ceviche, another bowl of raw fish arrived. This time it was a red snapper crudo with candy striped beets, tangerines, serrano pepper, lime, and puffed rice.  I loved the variety in texture and the heat of the slices of spicy pepper, but the bites that I had were a little too sweet.

The Independence Tavern

Then came a beautifully plated slice of toast slathered with a smoked whitefish mixture that included shallot, apple, fried capers, radish, and garnished with cilantro blossoms. This was a unanimous crowd favorite. The toast was already cut into four pieces, which I was grateful for. There’s nothing harder than trying to divy up a piece of toast in a neat manner.

The Independence Tavern

To refresh our palates from all the fish, a rainbow-hued bowl of chopped salad came out.  Curled leaves of purple kale, an egg, roasted carrots, green beans, smoked white beans, feta, and candied walnuts was delicately dressed with a lemon mustard vinaigrette.  This crunchy bowl of vegetables was both healthy and appetizing, which I know can be hard to accomplish.

The Independence Tavern

Vegetarians will be pleased to know that the roasted mushrooms with the 62 degree egg and yuzu kosho hollandaise was egg-cellent. Yes, I went there. The meatiness of the mushrooms and the rich egg yolk make you forget that there’s no meat in this dish. The sharp fragrance of the yuzu helps keep the mushrooms’ earthiness in check.

The Independence Tavern

Next came one of my favorite dishes of the night, which was the grilled octopus.  The octopus arm was served whole — great presentation which made me think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Not only did this dish look good, but it tasted fantastic.  The octopus was unbelievably tender while still retaining its core texture.  The beans, grapes, celery, and pickled chili sounded like a strange conversation, but each element worked well together to form a cohesive dish.

The Independence Tavern

After that, we were served a tortellini duo: some stuffed with herbed goat cheese and others with spaghetti squash with brown butter, roasted apple, and parmesan.  I did not win the tortellini lotto and only managed to pick out the spaghetti squash-filled ones, but that was fine.

The Independence Tavern

Following that pasta dish was another pasta dish with venison ragu.  The house made pappardelle was good, but I found the ragu a bit salty.

The Independence Tavern

Then came a roast chicken with beluga lentils, leg confit, guanciale, and broccoli di ciccio.  I really liked the sweet, snappy broccoli with its spritz of lemon. I had mistaken a cube of guanciale for a cubed potato in the dim lightning, but it was a great surprise for my mouth.

The Independence Tavern

The dark horse of the night was the spicy cauliflower with preserved lemon and Thai chili.  The colorful cauliflower and Romanesco broccoli was crisp, but not hard, and the preserved lemon dressing was perfect.  If this were served on top of some puffed rice, I could see it becoming a popular vegetarian or even vegan entree.

The Independence Tavern

A dish I’d like to refer to as The Flavorbomb came out to top off the meal. The rack of lamb with Thai red curry rub, smoked eggplant puree, coconut, and bok choy was a memorable way to end the night.  The lamb was cooked perfectly, but what really got everyone talking was the eggplant puree.  Its dramatic black color and intense smokiness really outshone everything else on the plate for the other diners.  Personally, I really liked the combination of the Thai red curry and the bok choy.

The Independence Tavern

Toward the later half of the meal, I ordered a second cocktail: The Smoke of Scotland.  With its cask strength Laphroig scotch, it really packs a punch. The peaty flavor of the cocktail makes it a great sipper, but not something I would recommend to eat before or with a meal.  I was concerned that the elderflower liquor would be too cloying, but I actually didn’t detect any hint of it in the cocktail. Lesson learned: trust Vincenzo.

I may be biased because the chef is a friend, but the menu at Independence Tavern is great, especially the “Sea” section.  The dishes on it manage to be exciting and different while still being accessible to most palates.  What’s even better is that the kitchen is willing to accommodate most vegetarian and vegan diets. I hear with enough advance notice, they can even put together a vegan tasting menu. For those who only  want to stick with what they know, there is also a pretty tame sandwich and burgers section.

 

Independence Tavern
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401
310 458-2500

Beelman’s Pub

When we heard that a friend was the executive chef at a new bar downtown, we knew we had to pay it a visit.  With the baby in tow, we got to Beelman’s pub at the old-person dining hour of 5:30 in the afternoon.

Beelmans pub

The chef, Tom Block, bought us a round of drinks and we ordered the Phantom Limb and Airplane Mode.  The Phantom Limb was balanced, fragrant, and really good. The Airplane Mode, an interesting draft cocktail, was smooth and herbal.  At the time, I thought, “If the drinks are this good, the food must be great too.”

The food at Beelman’s isn’t fussy, but also isn’t your typical pub burger and fries. Yes, if that’s what you want, they do have burger and fries on the menu. The fries were actually really good — fat, crispy on the outside, hot and fluffy on the inside. But I encourage you to branch out and try some of their other dishes.

Beelmans pub

The smoked beet salad surprised both Will and me.  Living in LA, we’ve had our fill of boring beet salads. It’s up there with kale salad as the most overdone type of salad.  But this one was so good that Will ordered seconds.  The smoke flavor was subtle and the dressing was spot-on.  We ordered this with a vegan modification and didn’t even miss the dairy. Our second serving came with grated horse radish on top that made it even better.

Beelmans pub

Then there are the green beans, which were good, but not as exciting as our other dishes. They had a snappy bite to them and the bits of chile pepper were a nice addition.

Beelmans pub

I can never say no to smoked salmon, so I ordered the house-smoked salmon.  It was great!  I loved that the slices of bread were not over-toasted so that they shattered as soon as I bit into them. I loved the slight spice rub on the salmon. It was like eating a delicately smoked pastrami, except made of salmon.

Beelmans pub

I wavered on whether or not to get the spaetzle since I wasn’t that hungry, but Will said I should and I’m so glad I agreed. The spaetzlel was one of the highlights of the meal.  Rich, cheesy, and comforting the way I imagine mac and cheese is to other folks.  The fresh peas and favas was just icing on the cake. I was sad to come back from feeding the meter to see a good portion of my spaetzle was stolen by Robin.

Beelmans pub

The chef then sent out the roasted mushrooms for us to try. These were oyster and hen of the wood mushrooms cooked with a splash of sherry vinegar for brightness.  They were really tasty and I could imagine them going down well with a tall glass of beer.  I wanted to try the grapefruit lager, but it was so popular that it was sold out that night.

It’s amazing how many great dining options are popping up downtown now that it’s being revitalized. If I were working downtown or even lived there, I could see this becoming a regular place to stop by, have a few bites to eat and something to drink.  I’m already planning for another visit there to meet a friend who lives nearby.

Beelman’s Pub
600 S Spring St
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Downtown

Pok Pok (Portland)

What visit to Portland is complete without a meal at Pok Pok?  Although Los Angeles has more than a handful of well-known, authentic Thai restaurants, I had to try this one in Portland. At first, I was a bit skeptical about a non-Thai cooking Thai, but after tasting his food, Andy Ricker is legit.

Tamarind whisky sour and a limeaid.

We started off with some liquid refreshments to help us through the hot and humid weather.  Will got a lime-aid while I opted for a tamarind whisky sour.  The whisky sour hit the spot with a slight sweetness from the tamarind and a whole lot of tang.

Pok pok papaya salad

Next, we shared a vegetarian papaya salad.  While the papaya was crisp and fresh, there was a slight bitterness from the lime. It was also missing that characteristic funk I like with my papaya salad which usually comes in the form of fermented fish or small crab and fish sauce.  I would recommend getting this in its fishy glory instead of going for the vegetarian version.

Pok pok grilled eggplant.

I then had the grilled eggplant salad, which the waiter warned was quite spicy. This was perfect because I love a spicy but cold salad on a hot day.  The eggplant was charred perfectly and kept its smokey aroma.  The pungent and spicy dressing cut down on the rich, yellow, egg yolk from the hard boiled egg. The flesh of the eggplant was a wonderful softness that paired well with the crisp slices of raw onion.

Pok pok curry noodles

Will had the vegetarian curry noodle soup, which had a great flavor.  Slightly spiced from the curry paste, and a mellow sweetness from the coconut milk made up for the lack of meat taste in the broth.  He was tempted to come back another day and order this again. It’s such a simple and wholesome dish, I’m sad that no where in LA has it.

Pok Pok
3226 Southeast Division Street
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 232-1387