Tar & Roses: A Review (and a Half)
I’m a relatively late member of the Tar & Roses admiration society, but not for lack of trying. When the restaurant opened in January 2012 to great general acclaim, I knew it would be one of the tougher tables in town for a while. I kept waiting for the hype and hubbub to settle down, but T&R’s popularity continued to ramp up, making Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list for the L.A. Times earlier this year. Even now, more than a year and a half since they first opened, same-week reservations are still incredibly hard to come by, and forget about same-day! T&R does have a small “dining bar” (four or six seats) which is reserved just for walk-ins. That small window of opportunity is how I’ve managed a few dinners there over the past several months, including last night, when I took my older daughter for her first visit, and my third.
We started off with three items ($15) from T&R’s always terrific Bruschetta, Cheese, and Charcuterie board: the Heirloom Cherry Tomato Bruschetta with burrata and basil, the Duck Rillettes Bruschetta with prune jam and marcona almonds, and the Robiola, a soft Italian cheese made from cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk.
The classic combination of tomato, burrata, and basil never gets old, especially when the ingredients are so fresh. The duck rillette had a great consistency, almost like really tender pulled pork rather than being too pasty. The Robiola was mildly grassy and tangy from the sheep’s and goat’s milk but was also smoother and more mellow than straight sheep/goat cheeses, due to the cow juice.
My daughter ordered the Vietnamese Style Beef Tartare ($12) with quail egg, tendon chips, and jalapeno. True to its name, it had some Southeast Asian herbs and spices–hints of lemongrass, ginger, and cilantro, perhaps–mixed into the tender, chopped steak. The tendon chips added a nice textural contrast to the dish.
The highlight of the meal was the Pork Chicharrones ($10), which I hadn’t tried before and didn’t even order. It was recommended by T&R General Manager Johnnie Jenkins, as a replacement for the Crispy Pig Ears that I had initially ordered, which had sold out.
I really enjoyed the presentation of this dish: mini wooden skewers with cubes of chicharron on the ends, striations of crisp skin, soft fat, and moist meat; a slice of black mission fig to temper the savoriness of the pig with a bit of sweetness; and a pickled pearl onion, the proverbial cherry on top. The combination of flavors and textures worked beautifully.
The Braised Lamb Belly ($12), with minted apple chutney, was a repeat dish for me. It seemed a little smaller in portion than from my second visit, but that could just be memory playing tricks. The top layer of the belly was crisp, with the fatty layers dissolving into the tender meat.
The Moorish Marinated Lamb Heart Kabobs ($9), with banana raita and harissa, which was not on the menu the first two times I dined at T&R, was also very good. Heart is much closer in taste and texture to standard cuts of meat as compared to liver or kidneys. The lamb heart was tender, well spiced (I’m assuming with turmeric, cumin, coriander, etc.), and had a nice char. I liked that I could either kick up the heat with the harissa or cool it down with the raita.
For dessert, we got the Sticky Toffee Pudding ($9) with whipped cream, another repeat for me. I’m not a sweets person, despite my recent Sweet Rose Creamery binge, so I just had a few bites. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed it though, as my wife had as well on our first visit back in June.
Speaking of our first visit, since I didn’t write a review of it at the time, I’ll just quickly highlight my two favorite dishes of that visit, neither of which were on the menu last night unfortunately, but the seasonal changes to the menu keep repeat dining experiences interesting!
The first, likely unsurprising to those who know me, was the Crispy Pig Tails ($8), with sriracha, honey, and cilantro. Not that I’ve had many renditions of pig tails, but if I had to rank them, Animal’s would take third place, Night+Market’s would be a close runner up to T&R’s top spot! I know, I’m a bit surprised as well at the order, but these pig tails were just fantastic, crispy and fatty, with the perfect balance of heat and sweet.
The second, probably more surprising, even to me, was the Wood Roasted English Peas ($8), with mint and sea salt. I am decidedly non-vegetarian, but these peas blew me away! The natural sweetness of the peas, the punches of salinity from the large flakes of sea salt, the bursts of brightness from the mint, and the crisp, roasty-toasty flavors and textures of the preparation method, all came together to form one of the best simple straight vegetable (side) dishes I’ve had.
Of course, that’s not all we ordered on our first visit. In fact, we went a little crazy, since we hadn’t had any dishes there before. Aside from a larger assortment from their Bruschetta, Cheese, and Charcuterie board (5 for $20), we also had the Wood Roasted Peaches ($13), with burrata, arugula, and marcona almonds; the Balsamic Glazed Ribs ($8), with fried basil; the Soft Shell Crab ($15), with green papaya & mango salad, and peanuts; and the Wood Roasted Whole Baby Chicken ($21), with heirloom tomato bread salad.
Being our first time, we also had to try several of the desserts. We had the aforementioned Sticky Toffee Pudding ($9), with whipped cream; the Chocolate “Tar” Bar ($9), with hazelnut and salted caramel ice cream; and a scoop of one of the ice cream of the day ($5), I’m can’t recall for sure what flavor it was now.
(I took some photos during our second visit, but they all turned out pretty poorly, so I won’t subject you to them.)
To wrap up, I just wanted to mention the service has also been excellent across the three visits. The staff was efficient and professional. The GM, Johnnie Jenkins, came by to check on us (and other diners) during each visit. We ended up chatting for a bit on our second visit. I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but he mentioning wanting to try Shunji Japanese Cuisine but finding it difficult since he has to work evenings at T&R. I forgot to tell him last night that Shunji will be opening for lunch Mondays through Fridays from noon to 2 PM starting October 1, 2013 (tomorrow!). Maybe I’ll send a tweet! [Okay, Shunji plug over.]
One last anecdote about the service: On our first visit, our hostess came by to check on us after noticing we had not really touched our whole roasted chicken. We were a bit wary because part of the bird was slightly pink around the bones. The hostess explained that the chicken was brined before roasting and sometimes it retains a bit of pink even when fully cooked, but she offered to have the dish taken away. We decided to keep the chicken, and it tasted fine. (A quick Googling on our phones seemed to confirm that pinkness is more likely with brined chicken, and a little is okay as long as the meat is completely opaque and the juices run clear.) I was very impressed because the restaurant was pretty busy, as it always is, but the hostess, in the midst of seating people, still managed to deduce that we had a potential issue with one of our dishes.
Will we be back? Tar & Roses has replaced FIG and MB Post as my wife’s favorite restaurant, and it’s definitely in my top five, maybe even top three, so, hell yes! Well, if we can get a table… :-)
Tar & Roses
602 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
All photographs © 2013 The Offalo