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RESTAURANTS / THE REVIEW

Clever kitchen, casual scene

August 01, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | 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.

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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.

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