Go Away, Gastropub

I ran into a chef friend of mine at my son’s baseball game the other Sunday. I asked him what he was up to, and after a harrowing tale about his time as private cook for an online poker billionaire, he confessed he was putting wheels in motion to open a restaurant.

I asked him when, where and what. He wasn’t sure, but said he was scanning food trends for inspiration.

“Don’t do a pork belly bahn mi,” I said.

Gastropub burger with truffle fries

As serendipity would have it, I had also been discussing the possibility of opening a restaurant with a friend. A unique opportunity had arisen, and we were exploring it. Which got me to thinking about what kind of food I would serve. I would not serve a pork belly bahn mi.

I actually found myself thinking more about what I wouldn’t serve than what I would. And my main epiphany was that I would strictly avoid anything you might’ve seen on a gastropub menu — or EVERY gastropub menu — over the past half decade. What might that include? The most clichéd, overdone food trends ever:

• The aforementioned pork belly bahn mi, or anything in fact featuring pork belly (other than authentic Japanese ramen)
• Anything with sriracha — especially clever applications like srirachi aoili or sriracha ketchup leather
• Eggs where you weren’t expecting them (i.e. on a hamburger)
• Gourmet hamburgers (on brioche or pretzel rolls, with aioli, sriracha, bacon “candy”, bacon “jam”, pork belly, etc., or wagyu or sliders or classic with American cheese and iceberg)
• Fried brussel sprouts
• “House-cured” pickles. Fried “house-cured” pickles.
• Any kind of mac n’ cheese — especially lobster, bacon or truffle
• Sweet potato fries or truffle fries (your choice) served in cute little mesh metal baskets
• Tacos you would never see in Mexico (those served on Chinese steamed buns, those with Korean ingredients, those featuring black cod or pulled pork, ahi-mango combinations, etc.)
• Poké
• Roasted or fried cauliflower
• Wedge salad with bacon and blue cheese
• “House-cured” charcuterie boards (served on a wood plank with “handcrafted” mustard and “house-cured” pickles)
• Pot pies — chicken, turkey, pork belly or otherwise
• Grilled cheese sandwiches with weird cheeses

Not long after my vacation to Quebec a couple years ago, in which I catalogued fondly all the poutine I had tried, I was disheartened to see poutine suddenly proliferating on gastropub menus.

Typical gastropub in Any City, USA

When gastropubs first began appearing with the likes of Santa Monica’s vanguard Father’s Office, I was enthusiastic about the trend. It represented a vast improvement of the collective idea of a bar menu. And I’m not going to claim that I don’t enjoy a pork belly bahn mi or plate of fried brussel sprouts with my limited release double IPA. But people, really! Are there still chefs and restaurateurs out there who think they’ve struck an inspired new culinary vein in their re-interpretation of a deviled egg? Do we need another rustic tavern with gaslights and “Peasant” or “Table” in the name? Have we had enough of housemade tater tots?

No?

Okay… I’m gonna get myself a double IPA.

The bearded hipster who serves you at the gastropub

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A Soft Spot for Bacari

It was a somewhat vulgar term for the pre-opening of a restaurant, my pal Steve pointed out.

“You’re right!” I replied. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

If you’ve never been to the “soft opening” of a restaurant before, the experience can largely be encapsulated in a single sweetly sad moment at the recent preview of a new restaurant we attended with our friends, Steve and Ashley:

A young waitress brought one of our cocktails to the table. The drink was too full, she was nervous, and green tequila-infused juice splashed over the rim of the glass all over her hands and the table as she awkwardly set the cocktail down and apologetically scuttled away.

kswy1211

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A special — the "smokey and spicy PCB" (Plan Check Burger)

The “smokey and spicy PCB” (Plan Check Burger)

Our local Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, Jonathan Gold, named Plan Check #71 in his 101 Best Restaurants in L.A. 2014. It is the poster child of the now overused designation of “gastropub.” A superb restaurant indeed, it served a delicious selection of craft beers — including my current favorite, Ballast Point Sculpin IPA — a variety of fingery bar foods and artisan pickles, and several carefully curated hamburgers. More

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I was sitting at one of the many new gastropubs that seem to pop up in Los Angeles every week, having lunch with my friend and sometime Skinny Girls sidekick, Greg. We browsed the brews and burgers, trying to narrow our choices, when we noticed “Pig Candy” on the menu.

Skinny Girls porkcorn & a pale ale

“What do you suppose that is?” I pondered.

“Something sweet and salty and fatty and crunchy,” Greg replied.

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Lovely Bones

When I was a younger man, one of my favorite dishes was osso bucco. It seemed tantalizingly exotic and exclusive, especially the most carnal part — the scooping of the marrow from the center bone. It was only later that I realized you could have that experience without the meat, tomato sauce and risotto.

Recently while browsing the meat section of one of our local upscale markets, I stumbled upon a package of marrow bones. More