Wild King salmon at Farmshop in the Brentwood Country Mart. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Before I reviewed Farmshop in Brentwood, I wanted to wait until chef-owner Jeffrey Cerciello opened for dinner. That took a while, almost a year, in fact, while his application for a beer-and-wine license made its way through the bureaucracy. He could have started dinner without it but chose not to. Meanwhile, he continued to serve breakfast, lunch and brunch. Nice, but from a chef of his caliber, you want to have dinner.
And, it turns out, dinner was worth the wait. Formerly Thomas Keller's right-hand man, Cerciello and his team are turning out some wonderful country cooking in the city. The ingredients are impeccable, the execution skilled. Service is crisp and assured, and servers know a great deal about the food. Ask any question about a dish, they know the answer. Wine service under Michel Darmon, another veteran of Keller restaurants, is excellent too, and his list holds some delightful, well-priced finds.
You just have to find your way past closed storefronts to the heart of the Brentwood Country Mart and the front (or back) door of Farmshop. Right now the "shop" element consists of a table in the middle of the dining room selling baked goods, granola and sometimes gorgeous fruit from Frog Hollow Farm. But come the holiday season, the adjoining space reserved for the shop will be open for business selling baked goods, charcuterie and other items dear to a cook's heart.
The dining room is now much cozier in feeling than it ever was as City Bakery, with aquamarine velvet banquettes, beautifully crafted walnut tabletops and, for the giant communal table in the middle, satin-smooth wooden benches. At breakfast and lunch, sun streams in above the cafe curtains. At night, fat candles sheathed in glass set the mood, and the open kitchen pops in the light, the better to watch Cerciello and his team put together dishes. Their moves are a dead giveaway to their training.
When dinner service started, the concept was one three-course menu per night, no choices (except for a vegetarian option) and a fixed price — the same format as Keller's casual Yountville restaurant Ad Hoc. I love Ad Hoc, so I was thrilled. But I wondered even then whether the idea would fly in Brentwood. Everybody has to eat the same thing (radical concept). It's called family dining, but more often than not, in our culture, family dining means every man or woman for him or herself.
On that first visit, the evening's menu is smoked trout salad, prime eye of rib-eye and Etude cheese (or dessert) for $52 per person. There's none of that jostling over who's going to order what, and you can get right down to visiting with friends and enjoying the meal. I've always appreciated that concept at Chez Panisse — and Ad Hoc. Only at Chez Panisse the menus for the entire week are posted so you know ahead of time what you'll be getting before you reserve for dinner. Farmshop posts its dinner menu each morning.
What follows is so graceful in execution. The menu may sound basic, but skill and passion are in the details, starting with the quality of the ingredients. Meals are served family style, again like Ad Hoc, and plated with an artist's eye. The smoked trout salad is presented in a handsome Heath pottery bowl. Jagged arugula leaves, ribbons of yellow zucchini, chunks of moist smoked trout and fresh-picked filet beans in a perfectly balanced whole-grain mustard dressing are lovely against the coral bowl. More dressing is served on the side.
And speaking of more, the waiter mentions that you can have more of anything: Just speak up. The prime eye of rib-eye comes from Snake River Farms in Idaho. The beef is at least 2 inches thick, faintly rosy, laid out on a huge black oval serving dish, also from Heath, with crinkly shishito peppers and strewn chunks of roasted Autumn Flame peaches. Salsa criolla with lots of garlic and a spark of heat pulls the elements together. Magic.
Then each of us gets a wedge of the ivory Etude, a goat's milk cheese in the style of tomme from the Pyrenées, made by Andante Dairy in Santa Rosa. Some dreamy honey and handmade crackers. Dessert is an apple empanada, a hand-sized apple tart hot from the oven with a luscious filling the texture of applesauce and served with a puddle of dulce de leche sauce.
I tried to go a few more times after that September visit, but whenever I logged on to Farmshop's site in the morning to see that evening's menu, it was beef. Or more beef. Or roasted chicken. The beef always sounded similar to what I'd already had. And how exciting could roasted chicken be? I kept trying, and then one day they added an à la carte menu. In addition to a half-dozen first courses and several main courses, anything on the prix-fixe menu is available à la carte. All right! It just became possible to bring those friends who don't want to be told what to eat.