Monday, April 05, 2010

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles - Mark Peel Keeping It Real

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, the restaurant scene is indeed one that is competitive and dynamic. Aside from the chefs native to the city, there are a good number of chefs that will arrive from places like Chicago or New York to expand their cooking empire. Some make it, some don't. In the new school of chefs, names like Michael Voltaggio, Ludo Lefebvre and Jose Andrés seem to be catching the spotlight with their exquisite techniques and plating, and of course, the eventual Foam Party. Although the food they cook is amazing, I still have an affinity for chefs like Centeno, Becerra and the 2 Dudes Catering. They cook food that for me seems to be soulful and less about bells and whistles. They don't really follow the mainstream trends and you could taste it in their food. These guys are all definitely in the New School of Los Angeles chefs. With all the attention on the New School, it's definitely hard to regain attention especially if you're a veteran of the Los Angeles dining scene. But talent usually never goes unnoticed and it will always draw a crowd. When talking about Los Angeles, it would be a sin not to mention Chef Mark Peel of Campanile. If you have not eaten at Campanile, one look at the menu and you would know that he enjoys cooking traditional food that is comforting and delicious. A lot of the food is pan-roasted or grilled, like his Grilled Prime Rib. When's the last time you ate a prime rib at an haute cuisine?

Naturally, young people will always be bolder and wilder than their seniors, trying out different techniques. But for Mark Peel, I think he is moving at the pace of well, himself... by doing as he pleases. Instead of moving forward, Peel took a ride in the time machine to a New York supper club in the 1930s and 1940s. And he took along with him, a pillar in the New York cocktail scene named Audrey Saunders of the original Pegu Club. I had never heard of her before until hearing many of the 213 Downtown LA bartenders talk about her like she was a deity.

One of the first people Jeni and I met when we first started blogging about food was none other than Yoony of Immaeatchu, who is a solid and curious cook. Over the years, we had become catering associates and of course good friends, and tonight, she was turning one year older. Birthday troupe, cocktails by Saunders and food by Peel. Enter the NYC time machine known as the Tar Pit.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Walking in, you know that they've really nailed the NYC ambiance back then. You've seen it in old movies. Authentic or not, this was something "fresh" for us and definitely interesting. Right off the bat, I think we might have brought down the median age of the clientele. I saw more white hair and shiny heads than those with hair - an indication of loyal Peel followers and more mature demographic. The overall lighting is dim, with small candles all over the tables. There are curtains everywhere and if I remember correctly, the booths seats are high. It is quite comfortable here and easy to doze off if you've had too many Old-Fashioned's and Manhattan's.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

As you can imagine, the name Tar Pit is a reference to the La Brea tar pits and there are quite a few paintings of dinosaur fossils. Or is the name a reference to dinosaurs like me eating in the restaurant?

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

In addition to the restaurant decor, the servers and bartenders have a nice look. The bartenders wear these black jackets that might confuse them for valet tenants and the waitresses with their 30s style outfits and tied-back hair.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

First and foremost, we started out we Saunders' cocktail menu. With a stocked bar like that, you would be hard-pressed to find a cocktail they didn't know how to make.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

And Saunders did not disappoint, the cocktails were SOLID. My favorites were the Little Italy and the Gin Gin Mule. It was easy to have 1, 3... 5 cocktails.

With a group of eight, this was a good opportunity to share and try a big chunk of Peel's throwback menu.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Calamari with Lemon Wheels, Shallot Rings and Rouille
Easily one of the best calamari dishes I've had. Great batter, great texture and great sauce. I've noticed that Peel has a good deep-frying touch in previous dining experiences.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Pickled Deviled Eggs with Shaved Smithfield Ham
I love eggs and this is probably how Deviled Eggs tasted back then. Not that scary, 50s suburban housewife version you see too often on TV.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Clams Casino with Herbs, Butter and Bacon
I loved these for the time and delicate hands required to make this dish. The herbs, butter and bacon went so well with the clams - not even overpowering it. I think we all could have done a few dozens of these. This wen well with the Little Italy cocktail.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Tuna Tartare with Mustard & Cucumbers
I've never eaten tartare with cucumbers and this wasn't bad. I think we're all too accustomed to having a crispy texture to go with the soft, flesh of tuna.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Lobster Bisque Scented with Cognac
Easily the best Lobster Bisque I've eaten. This was DELICIOUS. Chef Peel does not cheat you on the 'lobster' part as you tell by the taste and color of the soup from using a lot of lobster shells. I had to ask for more bread to sop-mop the bowl. I still think about this dish all the time, as it was my favorite at Tar Pit.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Duck Sliders with Orange Gastrique
I found this to be a little rich but this was a favorite amongst the diners. Buns were baked beautifully and the duck was moist though.

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Macaroni & Cheese with Porcini Mushrooms & Three Cheeses
Classic dish after classic dish, the night didn't end without having Peel's simple and rustic version of M&C. I don't like most of the M&Cs I eat at restaurants because they are either (A) dry and overdone with bread crumbs, (B) confuse the palate with X, Y and Z cheeses and (C) way too rich. Here, the pasta is super al-dente and even slightly crisped up under the Salamander oven. This can be rich, so share this!

The Tar Pit, Los Angeles

Chilled Veal "Vitello Tonnato" with Tuna Sauce
This was my first time having a classic Italian dish... chilled veal with tuna sauce. I loved how the egg yolks and cornichons were chopped and plated that way. The veal was cooked perfectly but I would probably like this more if it was hot.

I have to admit that after leaving Tar Pit I was indifferent about Peel's food. But the more and more I thought about the concept behind Tar Pit, I liked it a lot more. Sure the food is simple but that's what Peel seems to be known for. I'm always up for Chefs that don't follow trends. And the cocktails are surely enjoyable. I would go here more for the classic drinks, like the Little Italy, that are mixed purely with other types of alcohol. I love cocktails that don't use simple syrup such as the Negroni or Manhattan. I'll be back here for sure. Thanks for reading.


ila said...

beautiful, beautiful pictures! I was never too interested in visiting Tar Pit until this post... So thank!

Gastronomer said...

Thanks for the report, D. And your photos... AWESOME! The best shots I've seen come out of the tar pit.

weezermonkey said...

I felt pretty meh about the food when I went, but the cocktails were indeed fantastic. I don't know why, but the food at Campanile makes me so much happier. Perhaps the focus at The Tar Pit really is just the drinks.

I'm tempted to go back for that mac 'n' cheese, though. I'd like to sample more of the dinner entrees. We tried mostly bar fare.

e d b m said...

ILA, thank you! Definitely stop by for the cocktails at least. You can eat somewhere after you're buzzed.

Gastronomer, thank you. It was definitely fun to shoot in there.

Weezer, exactly what I thought. But if it weren't for the cocktails, I think it would have been a different experience. Campanile for sure is Peel's baby, this is his 'wild-side'.

e*star said...

So interesting this was posted on the day Kupchinsky is announced to be the new bar manager (Saunders left a little while back/didn't like the marketing). Great write-up regardless - it's definitely a place you must check out or be damned (and your Angeleno pedigree be called into question). :)

From Grubstreet

photohogger said...

Beautiful pics!
-FH & PH

Michelle said...

seriously your photos are gorgeous, i need to ask what kind of lens you use!

That's Ron said...

wow... really cool...

e d b m said...

E*Star, thanks, I didn't even realize that ha. I've never heard of Kupchinsky and can't wait to try the cocktails again at TP. Thanks for stopping by.

Photohogger, thank you.

Michelle, I shoot with a Canon 50 mm 1.4 lens.

That's Ron, great place for drinks.

ro said...

I haven't heard of this restaurant - moving it to the top of my must-try list after reading your post! The photos are just beautiful too.

Tricerapops said...

food's decent, but i especially appreciate the wine list (pricing) and the ambiance (echoing you on that front). i appreciate it when a chef is not resting on his/her laurels, and has chosen to stick around and help advance the LA scene - that definitely earns my patronage (which is limited these days).

Cookie Chomper said...

I really enjoy reading your posts, interesting and easy to follow. You're right about the white hair and shiny heads. I felt the same way last time I went. Definitely not your typical LA "scene"

e d b m said...

Hi Ro, if not for the food, go for the cocktails. I think my next visit will be at the bar mostly.

TriceraPops, I didn't get to try the wine out.

CookieChomper, I think that's why I like it - not a scene.

Amy @ said...

Great post thank you - I am eating here tonight and this information was just what I was looking for. Beautiful pictures too!

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