Critics of California kitchens, usually East Coast guys trained in the complexities of classic French cuisine, have been known to describe what local chefs do as more assemblage than cooking, as nothing more than arranging superb local produce in Instagram-friendly arrays. Momofuku's David Chang once joked that San Francisco cuisine was a fig on a plate. Bay Area chef David Tanis once wrote a cookbook — a great cookbook — actually called "A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes." And to some extent, the stereotype is true: When a chef can get something like a Weiser melon or a bunch of Coleman arugula at the farmers market, his or her first duty is to get it to the table without messing it up too much.
So when you go to a restaurant like Jesse Barber's new Barnyard in Venice, wandering in from the beach a little more than a block away or dropping your car off with a parking valet who calls you "dude," you are not surprised to be served something like the squash terrine, an assemblage of sliced zucchini and milky fromage blanc that is like something you might find at the best Trader Joe's in the universe or, better yet, like something you might throw together to serve with a bottle of chilled Verdejo on a hot Saturday afternoon.
The dish is perfect in its way, zapped with tarragon, supremely fresh, gently pressed into a terrine that holds its shape when you cut into it with your knife. The leaves of baby kale scattered over it were just plucked from a window box by the chef.
As with Tasting Kitchen, Barnyard makes a specialty out of thick, grilled slabs of bread, crisp and lightly charred at the edges but fluffy and soft within. The terrine is wonderful smeared onto a bit of that grilled toast. Maybe you are having a little dish of warm olives with your vegetable terrine; maybe a scoop of rabbit rillettes, like a soft pâté; a bowl of grilled vegetables in olive oil with farro; or a board of well-sourced cold cuts. It is perfect food on that breezy patio, arranged just so, effortless.
Barber's gift is in his talent for deceptive simplicity — you are fooled into thinking that this is food you could prepare yourself if you had the time, that you are at Barnyard because it is pleasant and because you forgot to go to Whole Foods last night. After a glass or two of crisp Txakolina from the Basque Country or a bottle of sharply fragrant Listán Negro from the volcanic Canary Islands, you may even start to believe it yourself.
Westside foodists have been thinking about Barnyard for a long time. Long before Barber became attached to the project, it was developed as a restaurant for Jeremy Fox, who was chef at Ubuntu in Napa, then generally acknowledged to be the best vegetarian restaurant in the country, and whose cooking at pop-ups and consulting gigs had positioned him just behind Ludovic Lefebvre, now of Trois Mec, on the list of prominent Los Angeles chefs without restaurants. (Fox is now cheerfully ensconced at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica.) When Barnyard finally opened, the food world yawned. Barnyard could be a decent neighborhood restaurant, it was supposed, but it would never be a major destination.
And to be fair, the question remains: Is Barnyard a major destination? Because if your idea of an important meal involves sous-vide, a team of foragers and whole Berkshire hogs purchased from a small farm in Vermont, you're probably out of luck. If you can make do with a plainly delicious Berkshire pork chop served with a grilled peach and a bit of polenta, or seared fresh albacore laid over a tomato salad, or a straightforward, drippy cheeseburger, you're probably in the right place.
There is risotto alla pilota, rice miller's risotto, a kind of crunchy, chewy fried rice with pecorino and dried tomatoes. The grilled half-chicken, skin tart with citrus and reduced vin santo, is almost impossibly juicy, one of the better chickens in town, with succulent grilled figs on the side. And you will want at least one order of the French fries with harissa-laced crème fraîche, a combination so obvious I wonder where it has been all of my life.
The dessert menu at Barnyard is simple: a whisky-intensive sticky toffee pudding or a galette, like a buttery, flaky turnover, stuffed with berries, plums or other seasonal fruit. The easy suggestion: Get one of each.
Sometimes it's hard to appreciate what appears to be effortless.
1715 Pacific Ave., Venice, (310) 581-1015.
Small plates, $3-$10; salads, $9-$11; main courses, $15-$18.
Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays; dinner, 5:30-10:30 nightly; Sunday brunch, noon to 4 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking. Credit cards accepted.
Squash terrine; risotto alla pilota; grilled half-chicken.
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