Monday, February 22, 2010

True To Its Name - Tavern (Suzanne Goin)

1. a place where liquors are sold to be consumed on the premises.
2. a public house for travelers and others; inn.

1. bar; pub.
(Random House Dictionary)

One's expectation can be a funny thing. Attend a dinner expecting too much and it invariably leads to disappointment. Conversely, going into a restaurant with no expectations, and there's a good chance you'll be pleasantly surprised and impressed. If one visits Tavern - the newest venture from partners Caroline Styne and Chef Suzanne Goin (AOC, Lucques) - and takes its name as a reflection of what the restaurant will deliver (i.e., "a tavern / bar / pub"), then Tavern delivers in spades. It's a place where you can grab a decent cocktail (or 3 :), get some food and chat with friends and family. However, any new restaurant from celebrated chef Suzanne Goin is going to come with greater expectations than just "a local tavern / pub," and that's where Tavern begins to falter.

I remember first getting excited about Tavern (not to be confused with the similarly named "Westside Tavern" also on the Westside, also opened recently) after seeing some early pics of the lavish space on Eater LA. I've generally enjoyed Chef Goin's ventures in the past, and from the moment I stepped inside during my 1st visit, I could tell that Tavern was striving for far more than just a simple "tavern / pub" for the neighborhood. There's a gorgeous larder and bakery area off to the left, simple, well-lit and charming.

From there, we're led past an inner dining room and full bar, equally charming in its clean lines and wood panel floors.

And finally to our destination, the absolutely beautiful atrium dining area, with huge windows letting in the sun and sky, complete with live trees planted indoors.

Tavern offers a variety of fresh juices for Breakfast and Brunch, and during my 1st visit, I begin with Fresh-Squeezed Grapefruit Juice, which is spot-on perfect in its balance of bitterness and sweetness.

The first thing that catches my eye is the Pecan Sticky Bun, Suzanne-style (with Bacon). After all, a fresh-baked Pastry with Bacon? How can you not order it? :)

What arrives is nothing short of impressively decadent on every level: It's this visually stunning large Cinnamon Sticky Bun, covered in Candied Pecans and Bacon. Taking a bite, the fresh, mouth-watering Bacon coated in a Rum Caramel Sauce gives way to the crunch of Candied Pecans and the Cinnamon succulence of the Sticky Bun itself, and it's thankfully *not* too sweet, despite its looks. It's absurdly delicious and has become my favorite Sweet from Chef Goin and Pastry Chef Breanne Verela. :)

We also start off with a simple Croissant.

During my 1st visit, the Croissant is flaky, crispy and not overly buttery. It's surprisingly good. But on subsequent visits, the Croissants have been overcooked (one time on my 4th visit, it was overcooked to the point of being burnt on the edges), which is frustrating, considering how good it was the 1st time I had it.

We continue on with their Wild Mushroom Frittata with Spinach and Cheddar.

The Frittata turns out to be quite nice: The iron-y notes from the Spinach melding well with the earthy Mushrooms, but it's the perfectly cooked Eggs that steal the spotlight. Visually it may look messy, but the Eggs are very soft, supple, moist and provides a silkiness with each bite.

The side of Fried Potatoes are golden and crisp, with a soft center and seasoned just right.

Being a huge Duck fan, I had to order their Warm Duck Confit Salad, Frisee, Crumbled Potato and Fried Egg.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work nearly as well as the previous dish: The Duck Confit tastes old and reheated, and is dried out. :( The Frisee, though, is clean and vibrant, and when mixed with a bit of Italian Parsley, it really comes alive. And while the Duck Confit disappoints, the combination of the oozing Egg Yolk, Frisee, Italian Parsley, fresh cracked Black Pepper and Potatoes is spot-on. But if given the choice, I'd rather have Huckleberry's Duck Hash which is similar to this, but much better in terms of the Duck and combination of flavors.

I remember reading some positive Chowhound posts for the Turkey Burger, so I couldn't wait to try that as well. :) Their Organic Turkey Burger with Tomato Confit is served with Herbed Fries (or an Arugula Salad).

It looks innocent enough, with some heavy grill marks and nice charring, but then you take a bite and the little bit of initial disappointment from the too dry Brioche Bun gives way to this completely juicy, salty-sweet Organic Turkey patty that's simply excellent! :) Hints of Sage and Pepper dance around the mouth with juicy chunks of Turkey and Tomato Confit that's been mixed into the burger patty itself. Brilliant. It's easily the best Turkey Burger I've had in L.A. (^_^)

Sadly, however, on my 5th visit, I excitedly order it again for another guest and it turns out to be totally different: Dry and burnt with very few bits of Tomato Confit mixed into the patty, which resulted in a much more typical Turkey Burger that was far removed from the amazing experience I had previously.

The Herbed Fries are disappointing, though, with them being fried at the wrong temperature: They're completely soaked and saturated with oil.

For my 2nd visit, I had some dear guests visiting from out-of-town, and I thought dinner at Tavern might be the right fit. We arrive a few minutes early for our reservation and we're seated immediately. As obvious as it may sound, it's amazing what a difference the lack of sunlight makes on a dining room, and Tavern is completely transformed into a more mood-soaked, elegant space at night.

We start off with their Cipollini and Fourme D'Ambert Tart with Roasted Grapes and Saba.

I'm normally not a Blue Cheese fan, but the Fourme D'Ambert provides just the right amount of mild pungency to the delicious flaky crust from the Tart. The Roasted Grapes help to round out the dish, giving a light sweetness. This was everyone's favorite dish of the evening.

Their Seared Scallops and Bacon Squash Soup arrives next.

The Scallop tastes very fresh, bursting with a natural sweetness and cooked just right. The Bacon is waterlogged from sitting in the soup too long, and the Squash Soup itself is too dense and thick, getting closer to a thick stew than a soup.

Up next is the Branzino, Shellbeans, Haricots Verts and Gremolata Butter.

The Branzino has a great crust, helping establish a beautiful interplay between the crispy Branzino skin and the mild, herbal, succulent, juicy fish beneath. I found the Gremolata Butter to give just the right amount of accent to this dish, while 2 of my guests found the Branzino to be underseasoned.

Those wanting something bolder might consider the next dish: Braised Chicken Basquaise, Prosciutto, Polenta and Green Olives.

The Roasted Sweet Red Peppers and Green Olives complement each other well for a good balance of sweet and piquant, but if you get a mouthful of Chicken, Prosciutto and Olives (without the Polenta and Peppers), the dish quickly becomes too salty and pungent. The Chicken itself is moist and has a slightly crisped skin to help partially save this dish.

One of my guests is a huge Lamb fan (as well as myself :), so we were most looking forward to their Braised Lamb, Torchio, Rapini, Tomatoes and Ricotta Salad.

Sadly, this turns out to be the worst dish of the evening: The Lamb is dense, chunky and dry. The very rich Red Wine Sauce that the Lamb is braised in, covers and overpowers everything else in the dish. And the Torchio Pasta is undercooked (not even al dente).

The side of Gnocchi fare better.

Mixed with Swiss Chard, Parmesan Bread Crumbs, Thyme and Lemon, the Gnocchi taste rather straightforward; nothing to really set one's heart on fire.

The last of our dishes is the Pork Confit, Sweet Potatoes, Spinach, Bacon and Romesco.

Normally just the idea of "Pork Confit" (Pork slow-cooked in its own fat :), should be enough to set people's hearts aflutter and should automatically equal "instant winner" for a great dish, but unfortunately, like the Lamb, their Pork Confit falters as well. The Pork Confit is surprisingly firm and chunky, with no signs of long, slow-cooking at all. It's also overly salty and the Romesco doesn't help (it only seems to accentuate the sodium factor).

Sadly, the highlight of this dish are the Caramelized Sweet Potatoes which have this perfect crust and pure, natural sweetness shining through. Excellent.

During another visit, my guest is craving an Almond Croissant, and I'm curious how this will turn out.

The Tavern's Almond Croissant looks like decadent overkill. I suppose it shouldn't surprise me since their Pecan Sticky Bun with Bacon is far more extreme than this, but my guest and I were both hoping for something more toned down (and normal) for an Almond Croissant.

But we press on and sadly our fears become reality: The White Sugar Frosting is even thicker than it looks, and when added with the intense and sweet Almond Paste filling, it results in pure saccharin overload. :(

The first of our brunch items arrive at this point: Pumpkin Pancakes with Toasted Pecans and Spiced Syrup.

The Pancakes are soft, pillowy mounds infused with Pumpkin and topped with cooked Pumpkin and Pecans. The nutty and earthy flavors of the Pecans and Pumpkin, along with the Maple Syrup, make this a pretty decent version of Pancakes worth considering.

Hoping for something as good as their Turkey Burger (during my 1st visit), we order their Pork, Pork, Pork Burger with Machego and Romesco.

The Pork Burger (made primarily of Ground Pork Shoulder) looks absolutely delicious when it arrives, with the Manchego Cheese melted and oozing down the side of the burger. :) But it's surprisingly bitter(!), which I guess is the kitchen using burnt Garlic in the Romesco perhaps. Overlooking the bitterness, the Pork patty itself isn't very porky; it's flat, slightly dried out and crumbly.

The Arugula Side Salad turns out to be too astringent, with too much lemon and vinegar.

One nice surprise at Tavern is their selection of premium Teas. Their Lemon Chamomile Tea is noteworthy: Fragrant, floral, soothing with a smooth mouthfeel.

The Ham and Cheese Croissant turns out to be (thankfully) normal, and not bathed in excess (like their Almond Croissant). It's light, flaky with a decent Ham and Cheese combination; nothing amazing, but it satisfies a craving if you're in the mood for one.

But if there's one must-order item for brunch, it might very well be their House-made Sausage Patties.

The fresh-made Sausage Patties are truly unctuous, oozing with flavor and beautiful aromas. The Fried Sage Leaves add a nice finishing facet to a great brunch item. :)

The Brisket Hash with Fried Eggs and Horseradish Cream arrives next.

The Brisket Hash is served in a Red Wine Reduction and leans on the saltier side of things. Some pieces of the Brisket are quite tender and very juicy, but the edge pieces are completely dry and overcooked.

And like some of the other dishes at Tavern, this dish only comes together (partially) when you mix all the components together: Breaking the Egg Yolk, taking a more tender piece of Brisket along with the delightfully smooth and creamy Horseradish Cream really helps to even out the saltiness and unevenness.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is their The Tavern "Benedict" with Prosciutto and Meyer Lemon.

It's light and creamy, and while the Poached Eggs are cooked just right and complement the Prosciutto and Frisee, it's the brilliant use of Meyer Lemon that adds a real brightness to a normally heavy dish. Delicious. :)

We finish off with a simple Oatmeal Raisin Cookie from the bakery. It tastes fresh, but is far too sweet.

During my 5th visit, my guest is feeling like a burger, so we decide to stop in and try Tavern's Niman Ranch Beef Burger with Fontina.

The Niman Ranch Burger arrives medium-rare to medium in doneness and is juicy, but there's not very much beefy flavor coming through. Even worse, though, is that the Cheese is unmelted. :( Ultimately, it's not going to topple Father's Office, The Golden State or Umami anytime soon.

Over the course of my 5 visits, service has been consistently slow. Even on visits where there's only ~20% of the dining room full, our servers have seemed content to take a relaxed, painfully slow pace throughout our meals. When we do see our servers, they are generally cordial and address our needs in due time. Pastries run from $3 - $6; Breakfast and Brunch from $3.75 - $24; and Dinner from $11 - $39. We averaged about ~$38 per person (including tax and tip), with dinner being naturally higher than daytime visits.

When looking at Tavern, one should consider expectations: Are you looking for a neighborhood "tavern" or "pub" to grab some food and drinks, where the emphasis is more on company and alcohol than great food? Or are you looking for the Westside's version of Lucques since Chef Suzanne Goin is attached to the project? From the lavish (but understated) space, with a larder and bakery, full bar, inner dining room and beautiful atrium, along with serving breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and bar menus, it's clear that partners Styne and Goin are looking to go beyond a typical tavern establishment. And in that regard, Tavern is ultimately disappointing.

It's ultimately on the level of food execution and consistency that Tavern disappoints the most. I've had the best Turkey Burger I've ever had in my life on one visit, and on another, the Turkey Burger is burnt, dried out and a shadow of its former self. On one visit, their Croissant is flaky and airy, and on other visits they're overcooked and slightly burnt. Some dishes show flashes of brilliance - The Tavern "Benedict" with Meyer Lemon is excellent! And the Pecan Sticky Bun Suzanne-style with Bacon is sexy decadence worth celebrating - but too many dishes fail to match those highlights (such as their Pork Confit, Braised Lamb and Pork Burger). One of my servers confided that they have "a few chefs" rotating and working the kitchen on different days. That may be one of the reasons for the unevenness. And sadly, like other new ventures from celebrated chefs who aren't in the kitchen cooking the dishes themselves, Tavern is in need of greater quality control from its creator (Chef Goin) and a better protege to take care of the restaurant when the founder isn't around.

Rating: 6.7 (out of 10.0)

Tavern (by Suzanne Goin)
11648 San Vicente Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Tel: (310) 806-6464

Hours: Sun - Thurs, 8:00 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 8:00 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.


dave -nibbleanibble said...

The fried potatoes look perfectly golden. And the turkey burger is simply too good to be true.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi dave,

The Fried Potatoes were definitely tasty, and the Turkey Burger - the 1st time - was great. I hope they get better with consistency this year.

gourmetpigs said...

Wow, I thought about this place many times before but somehow have not yet made it there. That pecan sticky bun with bacon makes it sound pretty worthwhile though, although it may be heart-attack-worthy :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

The Pecan Stick Bun with Bacon is definitely worth it. (^_~) You can then decide if you have any room for anything else. :)

weezermonkey said...

This place looks damn good. Sad to hear about quality control issues.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

It's a beautiful space, especially having brunch in the Atrium. There are some highlights that are worth going for - Tavern Benedict, Sticky Bun of Goodness :) and few other items. Let me know if you end up trying it. Thanks!

Eddie Lin said...

Too bad about the inconsistency and quality control. Alas, it sounds like a symptom of Chef Goin spreading herself too thin. Focusing on the empire rather than the food. Such are the pitfalls for celebrity chefdom.

Excellent post!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eddie,

Thanks. :) I'd definitely agree that it seems like Chef Goin is spreading herself too thin across these restaurants. I hope they can find a better protege to improve the food quality.

Gastronomer said...

I couldn't concentrate on the rest of the post after reading about the Pecan Sticky Bun! OMG. I can't believe it's real. Screw consistency, I'm gonna go get me a bun and leave ;-)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

Hehehe. :) Yes, the Sticky Bun is amazing. :) I'd recommend you stop in and just get that. :)

Kung Food Panda said...

Sorry to hear the food and here were semi subpar. Especially when the food wasn't amazing, I'm not sure if I should bother taking a trip to the Westside to eat here. And unmelted cheese on the burger? WT......??

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

It's definitely a little sad. There are some highlights here if you find yourself in the area. If nothing else, getting some premium Tea, their Pecan Sticky Bun w/ Bacon and enjoying the gorgeous atrium dining room might be worth a stopover (and then you can go somewhere else local for the rest of the meal :). I'm hoping they improve in the coming months.

Glennis said...

Surprising, about the consistency and quality control. Those are serious problems for a restaurant.

Is this the old Hamburger Hamlet space in Brentwood?

I've had Goins' food at catered events, several times, and I am sometimes surprised at how good it is once, then meh another time.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi g,

Yes, it's the old HH space in Brentwood. I totally agree: Consistency is quite important and something that's disheartening to see when it's not there for a restaurant.

CTH said...

My wife & I have been going to Tavern the last few months for breakfast & lunch (she works in the area) and we have found the same problems with inconsistency & quality control. I've had the butter crumbed eggs with polenta and thought it was the best breakfast in LA then I had it a month later and found the polenta watery & the argula old. Priest's pancakes are perfectly light & beautiful on another diner's table when I had them a week before, they were brown & heavy.

You can have some great food here & the larder is wonderful space for bite with your spouse but the inconsistencies at this price point is absurd.

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