When a former L'Orangerie chef breaks ranks with his fellow French chefs, runs a renegade pop-up restaurant and fantasizes about landing the first food truck on the Champs-Élysées, then times, you know, are changing. Over several iterations Bastide has morphed from haute French to casual boite. These days no maitre d' would dare require a jacket in this town. And now two refugees from the world of fine dining, Brit chef Brendan Collins and partner and general manager Carolos Tomazos, have dived into the new dining order with a gastropub on the fringes of Culver City.
Don't know the neighborhood? It's worth discovering, and fast. The two have taken over the former Crest House Family Restaurant and emblazoned the oddball name Waterloo & City on the sign that rides high above Washington Boulevard. The restaurant came with its own parking lot. None of that valet parking nonsense: This is a people's restaurant.
It's big, it's noisy, but it's full of energy and, although every dish doesn't hit the mark every time, it's a great neighborhood find.
The term gastropub originated in Britain to designate a new breed of pub with fresh, real food instead of the usual tired muck served in such establishments. Like the modern bistros in Paris, young chefs and cooks turned their hand to the vernacular, serving delicious fare at affordable prices.
The name (a London underground railway line) should give the clue too that the food is British — and occasionally Mediterranean-inspired.
Bring friends and family and order a charcuterie platter, the pub's trump card (they come in three sizes). Collins has been around, and one of the skills he's picked up in his peregrinations is the art of charcuterie. It's not just something you can learn to do in a few weeks, and his is authentic and gutsy, each pâté and terrine very different from the other and served in generous quantities. You can also order the rabbit and pistachio terrine or rustic duck country pâté, say, individually.
A silky chicken liver and foie gras mousse comes in a little jar; nobody could eat the entire jar because it's so rich. And I loved the "drippings and toast," jelled roast drippings in a similar little canning jar served with toast, each bite suffused with the essence of those roasts.
Pizza? Waterloo & City has got that covered too. But it's not the usual Margherita or pepperoni models. Try the Moroccan spiced lamb with Manchego cheese accented with ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice mixture. Or you could go with slow-braised beef short ribs with Stilton, arugula and malt vinegar for a British twist. Still, though pizzas are fine, and generous for the money, I'd rather spend my eating capital on something else here.
That would be Manchester quail, a roasted quail splayed on a slice of toast and topped with a dainty fried egg, a luscious starter that makes a frequent appearance on the specials board. Or maybe the golden zucchini blossom fritters stuffed with shrimp and served with a swirl of piri piri hot sauce. What direct, punchy flavors!
Salads pack a wallop too. This is food for people who like to eat. I especially like the burrata with juicy grilled peach, a fresh corn salsa and lovely pink slices of Benton's ham, dry-cured and smoked over hickory in Tennessee, draped on top. The Caesar is fenced in by a curved wall of crouton, garnished with dried prosciutto, anchovies and a poached egg. It's got looks, but it's also got taste.
Even the pastas are above average, especially the fresh-cut trenne sauced with tender morsels of rabbit, porcini mushrooms and a little smoky bacon.
As for the big dishes, don't pass up that old Brit standby shepherd's pie. But because this is California, it comes with buttered seasonal vegetables. Now you may have had some dodgy versions of this elsewhere, but this one is carefully made, the lamb well-flavored, the mashed potatoes fluffy. Another main course I'd recommend is the flaky day-boat cod with roasted sweet peppers and lentils accented with ginger.
Despite how busy the place is, the kitchen is inventive, changing out the main courses frequently. Not every one hits it out of the ballpark, but they do enough to make it worth exploring this section of the menu.
Designers Thoreen & Ritter dressed up the interior with church pews painted in bright colors, burlap curtains and black chairs with high spindle backs. A collection of vintage silver platters decorate one wall, a painting of an ampersand another. It's laid back but effective.
The wine list is quirky and sophisticated and filled with some excellent buys. The whites include Kracher Pinot Gris from Austria and Hugel Pinot Blanc from Alsace. Little seen appellations such as Savennières in the Loire Valley or Salice Salentino in Puglia show up, too, along with a good selection of sparkling wines, Talley Chardonnay and Davis Bynum Pinot Noir. New world, old world, it's all mixed up here. Plus, the pub has a fine list of craft beers, including Trappist ales from Belgium, Allagash Curieux from Portland, Maine, Green Flash IPA from San Diego and Bruery Saison de Lente Ale from Orange County.
Dapper GM Tomazos was last seen buttoned up in a suit and tie at Per Se and Le Bernardin in New York before a short stint at Palihouse in WeHo. Here, he's working the room in jeans, sans tie, but he hasn't lost the jacket or any of his deft moves. The kitchen has been slammed since Day One, yet the food comes out in a timely manner and is beautifully executed. That's professionalism at work. That's someone who knows how to run a busy kitchen.
For dessert, get the sticky toffee pudding, a British classic that's hard to describe, something like a steamed pudding laced with dates and soaked in toffee sauce. Lighter and less cloying is the "limey pie," with threads of lime confit and a beguiling ginger sorbet. Lately, too, you can find a tarte tatin for two made with Elephant Heart plums and puff pastry. It's fun to break through the crust and serve out the tarte, but it somehow doesn't sing. Right now, oddly enough, dessert is the weakest course.
Listen up: The noise level is high. Put a lot of people in the room who are drinking and having fun, that's what happens. The only solution if you're planning on carrying on a lengthy conversation is to wait for a table outside on the patio or one next to the open French doors. And yet the appeal of the place is such that even some of my friends who complained most about the noise have come back to dine and happily shout above the fray.
There's something going on here. Waterloo & City is full of life and frenzied fun. And good eats are just part of the equation. It's the closest thing to a really great London gastropub we've got.
And for that, it seems like some kind of miracle set down in the wilds of Washington Boulevard.
WATERLOO & CITY
RATING: 2 1/2 stars
LOCATION: 12517 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 391-4222; http://www.waterlooandcity.com.
PRICE: Cured meats and terrines, $11 to $32; cheeses, $9 to $22; starters, $9 to $14; pizza, $12 to $14; pasta, $12 to $20; main courses, $18 to $27; sides, $5 to $7; desserts, $9. Corkage fee, $15.
DETAILS: Dinner Monday to Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m., Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Happy hour every day from 5 to 7 p.m. Late-night menu Sunday to Thursday from 10 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 p.m. to midnight. Parking in their own lot.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.