In the patio garden, strawberry plants in flower spill over round galvanized tubs. Favas and sugar snap peas climb a trellis, and thyme and sage scent the air. Old-fashioned lawn chairs covered in a sunny summer print are set out under a tree. At an outdoor table, three women share a couple of hand-stretched pizzas from the wood-burning oven and debate what to get for dessert -- blackberry biscuit or chocolate pot de creme.
Some rural idyll? Not exactly. But that's what's so great about this new restaurant. It's in Baldwin Hills, historically one of Southern California's wealthiest black neighborhoods but an area that's long been underserved in terms of independent upscale restaurants.
Yet here is the new Post & Beam, a free-standing farm-to-table restaurant at the edge of Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza with celebrated chef Govind Armstrong, dreadlocks trailing down his back, cooking his take on California comfort food. Best known for Table 8 on Melrose and appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Top Chef" and more, Armstrong at age 43 is making a strong comeback at this casual spot. His partner in the new venture is restaurateur Brad Johnson (Georgia, Windows, the Roxbury, Sunset Room, etc.), who seems to know everyone who walks in the door.
Come on a weeknight or weekend, the place has a happy, energetic buzz. Pizzas slide, smoking, from the oven. Chicken sizzles in a cast-iron skillet. Fresh lettuce leaves from South Central Farmers Cooperative arrive slicked with good oil. This is real food, California in spirit with a sassy Southern accent.
The crowd reflects the neighborhood but with a good mix of other folks crowding in to see what's up with this promising newcomer.
As it turns out, a lot.
First of all, hand-stretched "pies" from the roaring wood-fired oven, a nice mix of classic toppings with the more inventive. Milky mozzarella with crushed tomato and basil comes out fresh and true. House-made sausage makes a terrific hearty pizza with fire-roasted red peppers and grilled onion. But the dark horse is a wild mushroom pie dotted with fresh goat cheese and swatches of black kale.
To start, try the vinegary deviled eggs garnished with a sliver of house-smoked catfish. Tender pork riblets get a sticky, charred honey glaze. Rustic turkey sausage meatballs come in a fiery, wood-roasted tomato sauce, and mussels baked in the wood oven are bathed in paprika butter.
You could make an entire meal of these "intros." Grilled octopus with garbanzo beans, preserved lemon and cracked olives is as good as it gets. But the surprise is oven-roasted penne in a shredded short rib Bolognese sauce.
Waiters aren't shy about offering suggestions, but it's done in such a natural and friendly way it reinforces Post & Beam's mission to be a neighborhood clubhouse of sorts. Each main course comes with a choice of two "small plates," including velvety long-cooked greens with smoked ham hock, creamy mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas with house-smoked bacon, to name just a few.
Half a Jidori chicken arrives crisp and golden in its cast-iron skillet, bursting with juices. Boneless short ribs in all their beefy goodness are served simply with grated fresh horseradish root. And that grilled beer-brined pork chop tastes like itself, not just salt. For something on the lighter side, there's a thick cut of roasted salmon in a gentle smoked tomato butter.
The brief wine list has some good bottles (but nothing less than $30) and close to 20 wines by the glass.
Crave something sweet to finish? That would be the Braeburn apple crisp with just a hint of cinnamon, served in a cast-iron pan and crowned with a ball of excellent vanilla ice cream. Spoons all round.
In a landscape of the inevitable chain restaurants, Post & Beam stands out on all counts -- a dedicated chef and solid farm-to-table cooking, sharp front of the house and warmly welcoming setting. Every neighborhood should be so lucky.
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Post & Beam
Govind Armstrong makes a strong comeback at the new Baldwin Hills restaurant Post & Beam, offering California comfort food with a sassy Southern accent.
Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, 3767 Santa Rosalia Drive, Los Angeles;
(323) 299-5599, www.postandbeamla.com
Starters, $2.50 to $14.50; pizza, $10.50 to $13.50; larger plates, $20 to $23; sides, $4 to $6; desserts, $6.
5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lunch and weekend brunch to come in late March. Corkage fee, $20. Lot parking.