WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 1, 2007 RESTAURANT REVIEW
There’s a clever kitchen and a casual scene at the new Foundry on Melrose
Eric Greenspan’s small but changing menu delivers polished California-French, including some especially yummy appetizers.
By S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
IF you live in Los Angeles for any length of time, you begin to collect — and to love — the oddball juxtapositions. When it comes to restaurants, everyone’s got their favorites — the high-end Italian restaurant next to a HoneyBaked Ham store, the lauded American restaurant below a tattoo parlor or the fabulously expensive sushi restaurant in a tacky strip mall. My current favorite is the Foundry on Melrose Avenue, located right next to a hookah parlor that advertises belly dancing under the stars.
Seated in the back garden of this promising new restaurant, I can’t help picturing the view from a helicopter overhead: smoke from the hookahs and a whirling belly dancer in one back garden, and next door, foodies getting down with Eric Greenspan’s polished California-French cooking. The contrast is delicious.
If the pilot could hover over the Foundry long enough, he or she would be able to take in the two girlfriends at the small table under an olive tree savoring an amuse of Monterey Bay albacore sashimi swathed in a heat-seeking ginger-mustard foam, with a few bites of watermelon, pickled watermelon rind and cucumber to cool down the fiery fresh root. Or the couple snuggling with a Mexican Radio cocktail (tequila, Triple Sec and fresh raspberries) on a sofa in front of the outdoor fireplace.
There’s wine and cheese guru Andrew Steiner presenting a platter of some extraordinary raw milk cheeses to one table. At another, a server sets down a bowl of cool cucumber gazpacho garnished with a radish and lemon salad, and espuma, or foam, of pine nuts. I take a bite. The espuma is a veil of rich, nutty flavor that adds some drama to the cool restraint of the cucumbers.
Summer in the city.
My friend Jimmy investigates his tamarind and molasses-cured salmon appetizer, and, gazing up at the hodgepodge of buildings and tangle of wires and switching boxes overhead, says he’d almost imagine he was somewhere in Manhattan. Except that he’s not sweating and there are no mosquitoes biting.
It’s true the patio has an improvised feel to it, but I like the surprise of the leather banquettes, the outdoor lights set in the wall like a row of bright moons and the blond woven rattan chairs with angled metal legs.
MUSIC FOR PLEASURE
FROM the lounge and bar in front, where there’s live music almost every night, I catch a trickle of notes from singer-songwriter Christopher Dowd, a founding member of the L.A. alternative band Fishbone, on piano. Other nights, it’s other musicians, all of them good. It’s music worth listening to, not just as background, if that’s your pleasure. Unusually, though, it’s also quiet enough to talk, if that’s what you want to do. Music lovers generally gravitate to the front of the restaurant, taking one of the tables along the banquette accented with a wagging line of those pointy-leaved plants called mother-in-law’s tongues.
From that vantage point, you can also catch the chef in action. And believe me, it’s action, as he and chef de cuisine Alfonso Ramirez turn out the dishes from the small kitchen, with Greenspan acting mostly as executive chef, inspiring the troops. The 32-year-old chef has a background that’s strictly fine dining. He’s been executive chef at Patina and was opening chef at the now-defunct Meson G when it was still doing high-concept tapas. Since he left that restaurant in 2005, he’s been working to put together this, his own project. For a high-end restaurant, this stretch of Melrose Avenue wouldn’t seem to be ideal, but that’s not his concept. He describes the Foundry as “fine dining for the everyday man.” And I’d say that’s pretty much what it is. The Foundry’s menu is small, just a handful of appetizers and about the same number of main courses on any given night. Greenspan throws in a number of extras too. Sometimes there are two, not just one amuse, if he has something he’s excited about. Early on one evening, a plate of homemade focaccia arrives with something called “grilled vinaigrette.” The makeup is a secret. To me, it tastes like aceto balsamico with liquid smoke. I could be wrong though. It blows out your palate for wine, which means I’ve never been interested enough to analyze it. Midway through the meal, another plate shows up, this time with biscuits and honey-garlic butter, should you be suffering a hunger pang. The idea is that Greenspan will change the dishes frequently, and he does, but sometimes it’s more a change of accessories or accompaniments than a full-blown new dish. He’s taking it slowly. But he’s coming up with some terrific dishes, especially in the appetizer category. Pork belly cries out to be shared; a swatch of slow-braised fresh bacon plays against a vivid chili romesco sauce and velvety avocado and apricot, so that each bite offers a fresh take on the dish. Sometimes that albacore amuse appears as an appetizer — same thing, just a larger portion, but recently it’s been replaced by an ahi tuna tartare. Everybody has one, but this is almost a paste of the tuna, mixed with a togarashi (red pepper) mayonnaise with some heat to it, wearing a topknot of shiso, ginger chips and shaved scallions. Just as you’re about to take a bite, the server pours a moat of chilled melon soup into the bowl. It sounds incredibly odd, but Greenspan pulls it off. I’ve had some dishes I’ve liked less than others, but everything he cooks is well executed. He’s a bit of an intellectual cook, perhaps, and has a tendency to overembellish with too many ingredients. I suspect, though, he’s having a ball — cooking with no one else to tell him what to do or not do. Instead of hanging back in the kitchen, he’s right out front, interacting with customers, cheering on (or wreaking havoc with) the egos on the cooking line. This is a chef who’s used to big kitchens, lots of staff and the best equipment. He doesn’t have all that here. He doesn’t seem to have had a big decorating budget either, but designer Sandy Davidson, who also designed Meson G, has given the Foundry the look of a sophisticated yet casual city restaurant. Greenspan is keeping prices probably as low as you can keep them and still work with these kinds of ingredients. Entrees are $30 or less, appetizers usually less than $15 and desserts $7 to $9, not the $12 or $14 I’ve been seeing around town. And portions have definitely grown since the opening weeks. Now it’s not unusual to see people leaving with a discreet doggie bag. And the bar menu includes some substantial snacks hovering in the $10 price range. On a late July visit, I have one of the memorable fish dishes of the summer: wild striped bass (from Long Island, my fisherman friend guesses, and he’s right) in a light curry sauce. The skin is so crisp and flat it could have been ironed. Underneath, the flesh is sweet and delicious, and that swath of sauce does a lovely pirouette with the striped bass. Beef short ribs are excellent too, topped with beef “cracklings” (shreds of beef fried till they’re crisp) and served with fabulous creamed white corn and collard greens that need a turn longer in the pan to be really tender.
TASTING MENU PICKS
Two of the best dishes this night are from the chef’s tasting menu. One is roasted squab breast on toast fried in butter and topped with the smashed squab liver. The other is veal three ways — the sweetbreads, the loin and the shank, all rosy and tender, with a vibrant tapenade of purple olives and pommes fourchettes (that’s a fancy way of saying fork-smashed potatoes) with saffron. For the full tasting menu, the entire table has to order it; you can order individual dishes off the tasting menu a la carte. The wine list put together by Chris Meeske, the former Patina sommelier who now owns Mission Wine in South Pasadena, is exactly the kind a young restaurant without deep pockets should go for. You won’t find big-ticket Bordeaux or Meritage on the Foundry’s wine list, but you will find delicious wines from small producers and less prestigious regions. The restaurant also offers a wine pairing with the chef’s menu for an extra $25, which is very reasonable. Service, though, is a little schizoid. Occasionally, waiters seem to think they’re at Patina and adopt a stiff, supercilious style. But for the most part, servers strike just the right friendly tone, keeping things moving along and offering informed help when — and if — you ask for it. Wander into the bar to wait for friends and the staff couldn’t be more welcoming. Prices are more welcoming on Sunday nights too, with a fixed-price menu at $29 for entree and dessert; $39 for appetizer, entree and dessert; and $49 for a four-course menu. Every night, though, the relaxed setting, astute cooking and fine music add up to fine dining as fun. What a concept. email@example.com
Location: The Foundry, 7465 Melrose Ave. (between Vista and Gardner), Los Angeles; (323) 651-0915; www.thefoundryonmelrose.com.
Ambience: Smart city restaurant with live music in the bar, a garden patio out back and polished cooking from chef-owner Eric Greenspan.
Service: Varies from very professional and aloof to up close and personal.
Price: Appetizers, $11 to $17; main courses, $23 to $29; desserts, $7 to $9. Six-course tasting menu, $75 per person; wine pairings are $25 more; late-night bar menu, $7 to $18. Sunday night fixed price menu, $29 for two courses, $39 for three courses and $49 for four courses.
Best dishes: Soft-scrambled eggs with roasted pork belly, cucumber gazpacho, ahi tuna tartare with melon soup, poached halibut with leeks and ramps, wild striped bass with curry, veal scallopini topped with a sweetbread gremolata, beef short ribs with collards and beef “cracklings,” caramel- tonka bean crème brûlée with tonka bean ice cream. Wine list: Savvy and full of interesting, well-priced bottles anybody would love to drink. Corkage fee, $15.
Best table: The two-top under the olive tree in the garden.
Special features: Live music.
Details: Open for dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
Late-night bar menu served 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.50.