The Independence

IMG_3209There are a few major gripes people have with Santa Monica. First, parking is hell. Second, it’s not really close or on the way to anything (except, like, Malibu). And third, when you go out, you kind of find yourself running into the same kind of person over and over again. Like, I get it. You went to [insert Pac-12 school here], and were in [insert Greek organization here]. Yeah, no, I’m sure it was an awesome experience. And yeah, that’s a sweet button down. It definitely looks better on you than it did on the last three guys I saw it on. In this bar. Sure, I’ll wait here while you go talk to that girl. Yeah, no, I’m sure you “crush all kinds of ass.”

Okay. Maybe I’m getting a little bitchy. But prides of snowflake-unique bros and lady-bros aside, no one should be heard to say Santa Monica’s food scene isn’t absolutely killer (and also in the process of exploding), because it totally, totally is. Even if burgers aren’t your thing, you can go have some southern-kissed French food at Kris Tominaga’s up-and-comer Cadet (get the rabbit and thank me later). Go to aestus and learn why all the patrons at the Royce miss Alex Ageneau. Or go to what is now an old standard, Rustic Canyon, and be assured that yeah, Jeremy Fox still has it. Or just go to Sidecar Donuts (soon, my little ones…soon) and reflect – with warming self-satisfaction – that everyone waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts is as idiotic as they seem. And then eat some fried dough and forget what you were thinking about.

That brings me to The Independence. It’s a trendy new spot in Santa Monica. Located at the corner of Broadway and Second (right where the incalculably sacrilegiously monikered Buddha’s Belly used to be – good riddance), it’s a sprawling, modern restaurant-bar with all the touches one would expect of a spot this hip – one wall is plastered with violently colorful murals, and another consists entirely of windows. It’s bright and fresh, and just trendy enough to make you feel cool but not out of place. Vibe aside, it’s got plenty of culinary cred; Tom Block manages the menu (you might recognize the name; he was the creative nucleus over at BLT Steak too).

As new on the block as The Independence is, the burger has already generated considerable buzz. So obviously, I was drawn there like a carnivorous moth to a delicious, umami flame. Tessa, Alexandra, and Julia made me look really good while I ate it. Which reminds me: if this review seems a little less detailed than usual, it’s because I was really busy being mortified at the terrifying, occasionally scatalogical text messages Julia and Tessa sent from my phone. Don’t ask. It’s personal.

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah, the burger.

The Place
The Independence
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401

The Order: Angus Burger, medium rare

The Price: $16 (before tax)

The Burger
At the risk of being way, way, way too meta, the burger here kind of reminds me of the guys in Santa Monica that I was bitching about earlier. It was an imitation of something else. At its core, it lacked identity. For a restaurant called The Independence, I was stunned by how much this burger seemed to be trying to emulate one of its Santa Monica counterparts (rivals?). Of course, that’s not an indictment in and of itself. Imitation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love it, for instance, when H&M imitates my favorite designers for a fraction of the cost. Or when LL Cool J imitates a naval criminal investigator. Or when Demi Lovato imitates a musician. Okay, so I actually only like one of those things.

Sorry. Got a little sidetracked there. I was talking about the imitation game that The Independence play with their burger. It’s not a photocopy, by any stretch, but the inspiration of Father’s Office is clearly present in this burger.

Background for the unschooled: Father’s Office is the most famous burger in Santa Monica (and Culver City, for that matter). The citizens of that fine town will cite that burger as one of the crowning virtues of their city. Father’s Office, they will assure you, is the best burger in Los Angeles. Who cares that it’s cramped? Who cares that there is no actual wait staff? Who cares that you have to hover around people’s tables like hyenas waiting to steal fresh kills? Not Santa Monicans (Santa Monica-ites? Santa Monicansans?). They will stand by that little shop on Montana so fervently that they won’t even go to the one in Culver City (which, parenthetically, is way bigger and way less frustrating and way easier to navigate and also identical from a quality standpoint).

Suffice it to say, it’s hard to blame them. But this isn’t a review of Father’s Office. The point is, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the new kid on the block (which is funny, because Tom Block…get it?…never mind) is trying to get a foothold by way of imitation. Like I said before, this is no culinary Xerox; there are enough differences between this burger and the one at Father’s Office that no one could accuse The Independence of straight-up pilfering someone else’s idea. But the inspiration is clear. It’s kind of like when bands put stickers on the cover of their record saying, “If you love [insert impossibly popular band here], you’ll love this!” They wrote their own songs, sure, but they stepped into the stylistic shoes of another artist. This burger clearly was designed in the tall shadow of the Office Burger.

Okay, I think I’ve established where I think they were coming from in conceiving this burger, so let’s talk about the burger itself now. There is complex, nutty gruyere delicquesced atop (not within) the harshly charred Angus patty. A coppice of bitter arugula sits in a thick bed beneath the beef, concealing a den of slithering French onions. The bottom onion bun is coated with what they call an herb aioli (but which, really, is pretty much just mayonnaise).

The flavor profile of this burger is odd. It hits hard with bitterness on the front end. The sharp cut of the arugula dominates early, and bleeds into the harsh grill-char of the patty. That bitterness gives way not to the soothing nuttiness of the gruyere, but rather to the sharp, soupy onions. Whatever complexity (not very much) is in the aioli is lost behind that dominantly bitter front-end. The cheese and interior of the patty save the finish; earthy gruyere melting into the tender, juicy Angus. The burger leaves the palate much more gracefully than it enters. The finish was good enough to make me forget that harsh introduction and keep on eating.

Holding everything together was that onion bun, which was an interesting choice given the flavors at work in the burger itself. While I’m all for using non-traditional buns, I don’t know if I back this choice. I think a chalky ciabatta would have neutralized things well. A brioche would have been even better, offering a complementary buttery sweetness that was conspicuously absent from this burger’s flavor profile. The onion bun, though moist, was kind of redundant from a gustatory standpoint. It was a dim echo of the bold French onions that were so present. In one sense, you could make the case that it was consistent with the rest of what was happening in the burger. I don’t really see that as a virtue, though. It didn’t add anything, even though it really could have.

This burger skewed too far toward the brash, bitter end of things. It lacked balance. It’s a rare example of a situation in which the execution actually was superior to the conception. The idea was brought to fruition pretty much perfectly…it just wasn’t a very good idea. It did too much of the same thing – here’s something bitter, then here’s another thing that’s bitter, and then here’s something that’s sharp but not acidic enough to complement the bitterness. Then cheese.

To the extent that The Independence is seeking to emulate Father’s Office, they aren’t doing a bang-up job. They’re incorporating some of the same stuff (gruyere, arugula, beef), but they don’t seem to realize that those are dangerous tools to work with (okay, maybe not the beef), tools that require judicious balancing and careful maintenance. The Office Burger isn’t good because of the ingredients; it’s good because the ingredients are well-harmonized and purposefully proportioned. That wasn’t the case with this burger. This burger felt like someone ate Father’s Office and said, “Yes, that’s good and seems easy; I too will use those ingredients and make money.” Sadly, it’s not easy. The Independence would have been well-served to live up to their name a little bit more. They’re losing the imitation game.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.90 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.70 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.10 / 10.00
Bun: 7.30 / 10.00
Patty: 8.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.40 / 10.00
Balance: 7.60 / 10.00

Total: 76.50 / 100.00

The Tasting Kitchen

IMG_3169The Tasting Kitchen is a Venice mainstay. It’s grown up from its humble beginnings of handwritten menus and a perennially exhausted but always good-natured staff. It bears mentioning at the outset that while a lot of things have changed (for the better, I might add) about Casey Lane’s shop, the service remains absolutely top-notch. Our experience was pretty fantastic (except for an awkward incident with a waiter getting a little snappy with a busboy within earshot of our table).

ANYWAY. The Tasting Kitchen probably is best-known (aptly) for its tasting menu, but its burger has been a quiet staple on the menu for a while now, and I felt compelled to investigate. Rob and I went there on a bro-date, and when we weren’t too busy falling embarrassingly in love with one of the servers there, we ate the burger.

The Place
The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Venice, CA 90291

The Order: BCC Burger (braised bacon, chile chutney, cheddar), French Fries, Japanese Goldrush (Nikka Malt, lemon, honey).

The Price: $17 for the burger and fries. $16 for the cocktail.

The Burger
The Tasting Kitchen’s bill of fare features a diverse array of dishes, running the gamut from traditional (they do a pretty straightforward, slow-hot bucatini all’amatriciana) to more adventurous (grill-charred octopus with earthy Roman beans and brash ‘nduja). Their burger would probably best be characterized as non-traditional. It eschews the conventional toppings in favor of a more minimal approach, but each topping seems to be tailored to bring maximal flavor. Besides the cheese and the (substantial) patty, there are only two things between the rustic buns: a thick, all-business slab of braised bacon and a roasted chile chutney. An unobtrusive aioli was served on the side.

After a little bit of a wait to get things started, there wasn’t much time between courses. The burger came out just after our appetizers had settled. The meat was of obvious quality, and was well-prepped for cooking. The patty was thick and juicy. My main complaint is similar to the one I expressed about the patty on the griddled cheeseburger at Ledlow: it was way undercooked. The meat was essentially rare, and with a patty of that size, two problems result. First, the bottom bun got soaked through – especially since it was much thinner than its counterpart on top. Second, being so undercooked, the meat didn’t cohere well, and the patty kind of fell apart on us while we ate. It tasted good enough, but it wasn’t easy to eat.

The chile chutney was a brave addition, and was given serious prominence. It was smoky and rich, but without a lot of other flavors to complement it, it sort of stuck out. Out there on its own, with nothing to blunt its fierce roasted boldness, it was sort of a lonely renegade on the burger’s flavor profile. The braised bacon, however, was a masterstroke. It was a thick slab of pig, salty and rich, but gorgeously marbled and decadent. It didn’t blend particularly well with the chiles, unfortunately. Had the chutney been a little sweeter (like one customarily would expect chutney to be), it would have played beautifully off the flavor of the bacon. As it was, the burger featured two toppings – one fine, one fabulous – that didn’t quite mesh together. Adding the aioli didn’t achieve much. It cut the richness of the bacon a bit, and didn’t blend particularly well with the chutney. Frankly, the sauce didn’t seem tailor-made for the burger. It went better with the French fries (which, for the record, were stellar).

The bun was great. It evoked a sourdough, being far less eggy than a brioche. The bottom bun was a little thin, which drew extra attention to the fact that the patty was undercooked. Saturated with juices and blood from the beef, it quickly got soggy and flimsy, like wet paper, and lost a lot of its delightful texture. It was a shame, because it was, on its own, quite a wonderfully-crafted bun.

Much like the restaurant itself, the burger featured a wide variety of flavors coexisting side-by-side. That’s cool, but it’s also kind of the problem with the dish. The ingredients didn’t come together in such a way that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The BCC burger presents a few different textures and tastes, but the union doesn’t feel necessary or inevitable. It’s far from conventional, but that alone didn’t make it unforgettable.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 6.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 80.80 / 100.00

Ledlow

Displaying IMG_3154.JPGJosef Centeno rightly has become kind of a local celebrity in Downtown Los Angeles. Over the past few years, he has been opening new restaurants at a furious pace, and has established himself as the preeminent culinary personality in the neighborhood. Between Main and Los Angeles, 4th Street essentially belongs to him. The fantastic young trio of Bäco Mercat, Bar Amá, and Orsa & Winston is deservedly beloved by critic and consumer alike – GQ’s Alan Richman hailed Bäco Mercat as the ninth-best restaurant in America in 2013.

Ledlow is the newest addition to the group. It offers American small-plate fare that emphasizes simplicity, preparation, and ingredient quality. They offer gently modernized iterations of familiar dishes – their deviled eggs and Tasso ham is among their most popular dishes; it takes the workhorse ham and eggs and softens the edges with tarragon and cornichon. THis place has already generated enormous buzz – including a coveted review from Jonathan Gold, and it’s easy to see why. The small plates are simple, fresh, beautifully prepared, balanced, flavorful, and just complex enough to be interesting without getting too zany.

The cheeseburger is one of the most popular items on the menu. My companion Shannon and I put it to the test.

The Place
Ledlow
400 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

The Order: Griddled Cheeseburger and Fries (single), Rye Smile (rye, lemon, maraschino, ginger, soda)

The Price: $14 (excluding tax) for the burger, $12 (excluding tax) for the cocktail.

The Burger
The burger is pretty consistent with Ledlow’s governing philosophy. Rather than challenging the eater by piling on surprising ingredients, Ledlow’s attempts to offer the most sophisticated version of a classic dish. As such, the changes to the traditional diner cheeseburger are, at least nominally, minimal. In a quietly irreverent move, a poppy seed bun replaces the traditional sesame seed bun. Cheddar and American cheeses are melted together on the patty. A Dijon and garlic aioli is the lone condiment. Besides that, only lettuce, pickle, and red onions accompany one four-ounce patty (for an extra $2, diners can get an extra four-ounce patty; an extra $4 will get you a triple).

Sadly, Ledlow’s offering is much better in theory than in practice. While the conception is just fine, the execution was sloppy. When the burger finally did come out (and it took some time), we were disappointed to find the ingredients were unbalanced and the burger did not hang together well. A single, fiercely curling (and maddeningly isosceles) triangle of lettuce was almost exclusively on one side of the burger. Though crisp and fresh, it was too present on one half of the burger, and barely there on the other.

Ledlow’s menu expressly says they prepare their burgers “cooked through.” This begs the question of what constitutes “rare” there, considering our burger was red – not pink – on the inside. While there certainly is nothing wrong with rare meat in general, beef as rare as this is difficult to justify in a burger. The bun was also problematic: it was dry and grainy in the middle, and soggy where it met the contents of the burger.

This burger’s fatal flaw, however, was balance. The assembly of the burger highlighted all of its flaws. The ingredients all fought to get to the front of the flavor profile rather than complementing one another. In the end, the onions and the aioli won out (to the detriment of the burger). They completely dominated the burger; every bite was totally overrun by the sharpness of the onions and Dijon on the front-end, which gave way to a garlicky finish.

Sadly, this really ended up masking some of the burger’s virtues. For instance, even though the golden alloy of cheeses was a subtle touch that really actually did add some complexity and dimension, it was essentially impossible to taste in the midst of the nuclear winter of aioli and onion. Moreover, we couldn’t discern how (or even if) the patty was seasoned (the fact that it was way undercooked likely didn’t help, since the overabundance of juices masked whatever gasping residue of seasoning survived the gustatory onslaught of the onions and sauce).

There are a couple of potential fixes here (I’m not sure how accommodating the restaurant would be of requests like these or how effective they might be, but it certainly is worth a shot). Most obvious would be to order the aioli on the side, and remove a few of the onions prior to diving in. Next, ask for your burger to be cooked medium to medium-well. If they tell you the burger will be cooked through, ask them to go a even shade further on the well-done end than they normally would. Finally, the burger comes with a little tub of ketchup for the French fries (which, parenthetically, were delicious). Add a little. The burger’s flavor profile would have benefited a lot from the sweetness that ketchup imparts. It might have blunted the harsh front-end flavors that made the burger tough to enjoy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the other food Shannon and I had while at Ledlow was delicious. Creamy deviled eggs wedded beautifully with indulgent strips of leathery Tasso ham and misty tarragon, all anchored by perfectly proportioned potatoes, which added just enough starch to keep the dish grounded. It was easy to see why this is another of Ledlow’s signature dishes. Their vegetable crudités also looked stunning, a long piece of wood bearing various and sundry fruits and vegetables – some raw and some sumptuously grill-blackened. The dishes here are brave for their simplicity. It is all about preparation and quality here. When Ledlow hits, it hits hard and memorably. Unfortunately, the burger was simply disappointing.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.10 / 10.00
Value: 6.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 4.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.40 / 10.00
Bun: 6.50 / 10.00
Patty: 7.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.60 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 64.00 / 100.00