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Braised lamb belly with minted apple chutney; photography by Carin Krasner

Something to Talk About

by Lesley Balla | Angeleno magazine | May 23, 2012

It’s rare that a restaurant can bowl me over with chicken, which is why I almost never order it when I’m dining out. It’s mundane, often not cooked right and something I could probably do better at home. But when Tar & Roses chef Andrew Kirschner, not one to brag, says the roast chicken at his new Santa Monica restaurant is as good as the storied bird at San Francisco’s Zuni Café, if not better, I know I have to order it.

And he’s right: This is quintessential roast chicken, golden skin, full of flavor, the juices pooling with a lovely vinaigrette from the tomato and crouton salad that accompanies it. Apparently it’s a three-step process—simple is never easy—that starts with brining and ends in the wood-fired oven. It’s nearly perfect. I was still talking about it four days later.

After manning the stoves at Wilshire Restaurant, a sprawling, mostly outdoor space not too far from Tar & Roses, Kirschner’s new restaurant is probably the type of place he has been dreaming about since he started working in professional kitchens. Maybe it’s the soulfulness in each dish, or the staff he’s plucked from some of the best restaurants around town. Perhaps it’s the bustling space that’s neither too haute nor too casual, filled with groups of beach-chic women, first dates and people the Santa Monica-born chef has probably known since he was a kid. It all just fits.

The room, a long and narrow space with a banquette on one side and a bar and semiopen kitchen on the other, feels bigger than it is. Tables in the front can be crowded—we made friends with our neighbors quickly—but the “patio,” a former alleyway turned dining room in back, is quiet and cozy. And I like looking through the Italian pastas, jams, and custom-bottled oils and vinegars along the wall in front. It makes waiting for a table more enjoyable.

Having grown up just a skateboard ride away from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, Kirschner has always had a penchant for local produce. He knows each farmer by name, but doesn’t force-feed it to you on the menu. Just know that the bright green English peas that he roasts in the wood-fired oven—a clever table snack to order as soon as you sit down, to be popped in your mouth like edamame—were probably still on the farm the day before Kirschner served them to you.

This is a nice change from what he was doing at Wilshire, which somehow felt more like dining by committee. You knew the menu was Kirschner’s—it was still very seasonal—but it felt tempered in some way. At Tar & Roses, he lets his rustic flag fly, serving an array of small plates and entrées that have hints of Italian and Mediterranean influences, with a few wisps of Southeast Asia thrown in. In short, this is Los Angeles cuisine.

The menu is large, but have some fun. Let the servers guide you; they’ve tasted everything, they have favorites and aren’t afraid to tell you when you’ve ordered too much (we did, twice). I also appreciate their command of the wine list, a collection that traverses the globe from Italy and Spain to Santa Barbara. The beer list is good, too, which is probably why the bar is almost always full. A lot of people stop in for a quick drink and a snack, like bruschetta topped with duck rillettes or charcuterie (La Quercia Berkshire Lonza, or cured pork loin, is dynamite).

There’s little not to like: luscious braised lamb belly with minted apple chutney; lamb tongue with super-creamy polenta and Peppadew pepper relish; charred baby broccoli with a sort of Parmesan flan and breadcrumbs on top; a simply seasoned, perfectly cooked hanger steak with little duck fat-roasted potatoes. Among all of the dishes, only the duck didn’t wow—it was cut a little too thick, and wasn’t as flavorful as the rest.

I think what I like most are the items coming from the wood-burning oven, especially because there’s nary a flatbread pizza in sight. It obviously inspires Kirschner, who throws whatever he can in the flames. It could be whatever vegetable is in season, like those English peas or even pea tendrils, both simply drizzled with a little olive oil, fired and sprinkled with sea salt. Or the charred baby gem lettuces topped with a piquant Dijon mustard dressing and pickled sardines, sort of like a Caesar sibling. The octopus is one of the best versions I’ve had in town, here just a scroll of a charred tentacle embedded in stewed chickpeas and tomatoes in a little Staub cast-iron pan. The meat is as tender as can be, perfect with the vegetables. And of course, there’s that chicken.

A note at the bottom of the menu reads: “Did you clean your plate? Go ahead and get something sweet. You deserve it.” So do. The chocolate hazelnut pudding hits the spot, as does a simple scoop of L.A. Creamery ice cream. The point is that no one’s judging. Enjoy yourself. Indulge.

Kirschner definitely knows his audience. It’s that attitude that’s packing them in. The place feels sort of familial, but still professional. It’s comfortable and very Santa Monica, very of the moment. But this is a place I imagine will be here for a good long while.

Tar & Roses
602 Santa Monica Blvd.,
Santa Monica, 310.587.0700, tarandroses.com

Dinner: Tue.-Sat., 5:30-10:30pm; Sun., 5:30-9:30pm

Snacks: $5-$10
Smalls and sides: $7-$12
Entrées: $19-$59
Dessert: $4-$9

About the Name
Tar & Roses is a phrase often used to describe intense Italian red wines from Barolo grapes which, coincidentally, you’ll find aplenty on the list.

What to Wear
Just about anything goes, but leave the beach attire at home.

Where to Sit
Angle for a seat along the banquette, or, even better, on the back patio where it’s cozy and quiet.