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Wednesday, May 17 2006
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It was not so long ago that downtown Culver City was the closest thing to a slum in the entire Westside. Peppered with thrift shops and sad hamburger stands, shuttered movie theaters and empty parking lots, it was dominated by an abandoned hotel as famous for housing the Munchkins during the filming of The Wizard of Oz as it was for its aerodynamic triangular shape. I had a bike stolen from the front of the Meralta Theater when I was a teenager, and I’ve had a grudge against the area ever since.

But Culver City, so close to so many movie studios, has lately become a poster child for the adaptive-reuse movement, a pedestrian-thronged neighborhood built at a human scale, its streets lined with cafés and boutiques, a performing-arts center in an old Red Car substation that had been occupied by homeless people (and the odd art installation) for decades, and a new gallery district arguably as vital as 6150 or Bergamot Station.

The most popular of the new restaurants is probably Ford’s Filling Station, an intimate, beery, indoor/outdoor café that may be the first Los Angeles restaurant ever to begin with a test run in Oklahoma. Its chef/owner, Benjamin Ford, who used to run Beverly Hills Farm and Chadwick, high-end organic restaurants in Beverly Hills, is the son of actor Harrison Ford, which you probably would have guessed the first time you spotted what looked like a young Han Solo wandering around in a chef’s jacket. The open kitchen is dominated by what was supposed to be a massive wood-burning oven, but was forced by the AQMD or somebody to operate basically as a gas oven supplemented with a couple of logs, out of which issue endless parades of hot baguettes, and pale flatbreads topped with things like duck confit and caramelized onions or grilled shrimp and puréed white beans. The dining room has high, beamed ceilings, stripped brick walls and the occasional theatrical poster — very Tribeca. And Ford’s Filling Station may be too popular by half.

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First, there’s the seating problem. Which is to say, that if you show up one minute past 5:30, you will be instructed to squeeze yourself in at the bar or a tiny bar table or a miscellaneous stool, whatever, because the empty tables on the patio are all spoken for until after your bedtime, and you really should have called first. (The charming woman who answers the phone seems to be unschooled in the ways of flat-out rejection, and she tends to invite people to come down anyway and take a chance at one of the few unreserved tables.) The last time I stopped by the restaurant, I improvised a space at a slender counter in the far corner of the restaurant, clearing away stacks of board games and antique toys and the kind of beat-up volumes by James Beard and the Dalai Lama you might expect a laid-back future chef to amass at college instead of actual textbooks, but one of the piles collapsed a few seconds before the appetizers made their appearance, leaving me covered with half a glass of an unassuming Sangiovese. The bartender found us a table on the patio within seconds.

Ford’s fancies itself a “gastropub,” which is to say a bar that happens to have ambitious food as opposed to a restaurant that happens to have a bar attached. The more popular London gastropubs, as well as American examples of the breed, may have extremely good food, but tend to observe few of the genteel traditions of fine dining — if you have ever enjoyed the braised beef shin or the ricotta gnudi at Spotted Pig in Greenwich Village, for example, or even a plate of Spanish meats at Father’s Office in Santa Monica, you know the sensation of eating Michelin-quality cooking while being bounced around like a pachinko ball. While getting the best out of Valentino sometimes requires the skills of Charles Boyer, getting the best out of Ford’s Filling Station is more a matter of physical agility, like lacrosse. If you manage to power your way to a barstool or to an actual table, the waiters are sweet as pie.

At Ford’s, you will find most of the usual Los Angeles gastropub classics. There is a hamburger, of course, yet another tribute to the Father’s Office burger tricked out with blue cheese and an onion compote but probably too manhandled for actual drippy lusciousness, and there is the requisite butter lettuce salad with bacon and pulverized hard-boiled egg. If you like the fried Ipswich clams at Jar, you will probably like Ford’s rudely indelicate version, which are kind of Aerosmith to Suzanne Tracht’s Rolling Stones, if you know what I mean. What the fish and chips lack in crispness (one of the battered cod pieces actually drooped out of its container, like the cigarette between the lips of the post–Marlboro Man billboard on the Strip a few years ago) they almost make up in flavor, like a really good order of poached fish and prawns that just happened to be encased in soggy batter — the best part of the plate is actually the spears of fried asparagus. The split-pea soup may be spiked with organic ham hocks but bears a certain resemblance to khaki library paste.

A serious small-plates restaurant can hardly open these days without a decent selection of meats to help down the wine, and Ford’s charcuterie plate is an overachiever — without calling much attention to it, he serves the difficult-to-procure mole-tinged salame, coppa and pungent soppressata from Armandino Batali in Seattle. The coarse, pickle-flavored steak tartare is obviously chopped by cleaver instead of in a machine, and comes topped by a runny fried egg whose white has been neatly cut away.

But although Ford may have moved away from the severe aesthetic that marked his last two restaurants, his cooking is still best where he is allowed to indulge his fetishes for great organic produce: juicy asparagus spears roasted black in the big oven; sliced leg of lamb with a complexly smoky compote of Tuscan beans and bitter radicchio; or a delicious salad of smoked trout with tiny fingerling potatoes. And there’s butterscotch pudding for dessert.

Ford’s Filling Station, 9531 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 202-1470. Open for lunch Mon.–Fri., for dinner seven nights. AMEX, MC, V. Full bar. Parking at city lot around the corner. Dinner for two, food only, $28–$74. Recommended dishes: charcuterie plate; steak tartare; flatbread with shrimp and white-bean “hommos”; roast lamb with beans and radicchio; butterscotch pudding.

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