At Melrose Bar & Grill, a savvy new approach
The former Doug Arango's wakes up and goes casual, with down-to-earth prices and a terrific wine list.
Where else can wine lovers drink so well in such a casual, moderately priced restaurant with a friendly neighborhood vibe? (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
I can't think of anywhere else in L.A. where wine lovers can drink so well in a casual, moderately priced restaurant with a friendly neighborhood vibe. And Melrose Bar & Grill isn't a wine bar (though it does have some 14 wines by the glass), but rather a bar and grill where you can come in for lunch, snacks in the afternoon (with free Wi-Fi provided) and supper at night.
For a list of this pedigree, wine prices are very fair too. It turns out the sommelier -- and wine buyer -- is Robert Evans, who owns the restaurant with his sister Paula, another sister, Julie, and Julie's husband Christopher Bennett, the chef.
I'm impressed, too, that Evans has crafted a short list for people who don't want to bother poring over the larger one. And the short list is no selection for wine dummies. At all. It's filled with interesting wines that are not only good value, but delicious enough to turn anybody on to appellations such as Bandol, Priorat or Russian River. Bravo.
Look around, almost everyone is drinking wine, intriguing wines -- Zind-Humbrecht Tokay Pinot Gris, Kalin Cellars Sémillon, Vieux Télégraph Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
ALL this and a swell setting, too. The look is relaxed and way more chic than the price level would lead you to expect, with cream-colored leather booths along the pale walls, heavy framed mirrors, and baskets of artichokes or flowers for decoration. Specials are scrawled bistro-style on large blackboards. And at the far end of the room is the warm glow of the brick fireplace.
The crowd is mostly local, people who live or work in the neighborhood. Some come for the $10 martinis, some for a glass of wine or a quick supper. Others linger over dinner and a bottle of wine, reading a book or talking with friends. It's not church, but it's not that noisy either. The bar, which faces the open kitchen, is almost always filled with regulars checking out what's going on in the kitchen and visiting with the owners.
This used to be, in fact, Doug Arango's, another restaurant from the same quartet of owners that had moved from Palm Desert to West Hollywood four years ago. It was a much fancier and fussier place, "Fine Dining" in caps. But in part due to the economic downturn, the restaurant scene has changed, and people want something more accessible and casual.
To their credit, the owners saw the light, and a few months ago, instead of slapping on a new coat of paint and calling it a day, they put their heads together and came up with something the neighborhood needed: a bar and grill. Though Bennett may be disappointed that his more ambitious menu didn't find enough takers, he's set himself a perfectly respectable challenge: to do casual food well.
TAKE the bar snacks. He's got a warm pretzel and sausage with Creole mustard on the menu. The sausage is juicy and flavorful, better than you'd expect. Then take a bite of the braided pretzel. It's fresh and with just the right texture. It turns out Bennett makes them himself. He also bakes the pita bread to order. Pull the saucer-shaped bread apart, and inside it's soft and yeasty. Still warm from the oven, it's delicious with the Middle Eastern-accented bean dip and a martini, say. The buns that sandwich the duck burger are house-made too.
The service here strikes a balance between warm and friendly on the one hand and responsive and responsible on the other. It's not intrusive, yet you feel welcomed and comfortable the minute you walk in the door. Julie Bennett has an eye on everything going on in the dining room. It's her place, and she cares.
Starters include an updated version of the steakhouse sliced tomato and onion: Here, it's heirloom tomatoes with sweet onion, blue cheese and micro basil leaves with a drizzle of good olive oil. Southwest matzo ball soup is a bowl of clear, nourishing broth with a single fluffy matzo ball floating in the middle. The southwest part comes from the cilantro and lemon that flavor the broth, and those two flavors really do perk up the normally bland soup. Good-quality prosciutto with some sliced caramelized pear alongside makes another appealing starter. The Caesar, though, is too mild-mannered. It needs a kick of garlic. And a special pear-celery soup is diluted and watery.
When you sit down at one of the generously sized tables, hopefully at one of the comfy booths along the walls, your server brings out a small chalkboard written with the day's specials. That's so you won't have to crane your neck reading the big one posted on the wall. Look for oysters, most often Kumamoto, served chilled on a bed of ice. These are delicious, and whoever is back there shucking oysters is fast. You won't have to wait long for your pretty mollusks.
The kitchen also turns out thin -crusted pizza. And thin here is very thin, so much so that the end of the wedge tends to flop over when you try to pick a slice up. The choices are limited to four, but they're all quite decent, and include a fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil (for $8!) and a pie wearing a thin blanket of Taleggio cheese, sliced mushrooms and red pepper as well as my favorite, the one dotted with silver dollar-sized slices of Fra' Mani salametto (a handcrafted salame that's something like pepperoni) with crushed red pepper. Have a pizza for dinner with a green salad, or order one to share as an appetizer.
Main courses are fairly plain but well prepared. Tops on my list is the Berkshire pork chop, which Bennett brines in cider to give it a slightly sweet edge and serves with house-cured sauerkraut. I love that tangy sauerkraut, so I'm happy that you can also order it as a side. Veal porterhouse is sheer comfort too, a generous, tender cut of veal served with sautéed escarole and a svelte mushroom butter.
Many restaurants at this price level would serve the same vegetables with every dish. Not so here. Crispy roasted chicken breast comes with roasted carrots and the chicken jus, while the pub steak (a culotte cut) comes with sautéed mixed mushrooms. And that steak is possibly the lowest price I've seen anywhere in town.
Ribs and pasta