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Post & Beam, Govind Armstrong's New Baldwin Hills Restaurant, Is Good -- But It Could Be Even Better 

Thursday, Jun 7 2012
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Roasted salmon with smoked tomato butter

PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN

Roasted salmon with smoked tomato butter

See more of Anne Fishbein's photography from Post & Beam.

It's Friday night, and Post & Beam is jam-packed. While soul music plays, friends and couples and families eat deviled eggs and scoop up pizza, chattering so loudly that even the giant flat-screen TV over the open kitchen is drowned out. Sitting at the corner table is Denzel Washington, his arms draped along the banquette as if he lived here.

This restaurant is a homecoming of sorts for chef Govind Armstrong, whose last L.A. project, 8 oz. Burger Bar, closed last year. Since then, he has opened restaurants in Miami and appeared as a guest judge on Top Chef. But before that, Armstrong was known here as the kid who started in the Spago kitchen at 13, who worked with Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile, who opened his own Beverly Hills restaurant when he was just 32.

click to enlarge ANNE FISHBEIN

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And now, Post & Beam. It's a restaurant that's a little hard to define: part neighborhood bistro, part modern soul restaurant, part pizzeria. It's not pub enough to be a gastropub and not Southern enough to be wholly defined by that cuisine, either — even as Italy has its influence on the food in the pizzas and in many of the appetizers. The restaurant is a mishmash, a combination of the passions and backgrounds of Armstrong and owner Brad Johnson. But mostly it is a purveyor of comfort and the feel-good ethos of local eating.

There's a sense that Johnson and Armstrong are looking to build an oasis here, tucked along the edge of the parking decks and blocky concrete of Crenshaw Plaza. Baldwin Hills, the primarily black, South L.A. neighborhood near where Armstrong was born, hasn't traditionally been a dining destination. But it's a community hungry for fresh options.

Inside the restaurant you're greeted by soaring ceilings, a wood-heavy interior and the smiles of a genuinely welcoming service staff. These days, it's hard to find a new restaurant in L.A. that doesn't tout "farm to table" as a defining characteristic, and Post & Beam is no different. "Have you dined with us before?" your server will ask. "Well, let me tell you a little about our menu. We are a farm-to-table concept. ..." There's even an on-site vegetable garden.

If the menu takes its cues from all over the map, let's start with the South. Those deviled eggs come with smoked catfish on top, and might be better if they weren't still refrigerator-frigid by the time they hit the table. There's also a heavy Southern influence in the way the entrées come together. Diners are instructed to choose two "small plates" to accompany each "large plate." The small plates would be more accurately described as sides, and the construct is like a modern version of a meat-and-three, that classic Southern and soul setup by which you create the makeup of your plate.

Despite all the free will, some combinations seem fated. The thick pork chop, brined in beer and draped with charred onions, lives out its destiny, accompanied by long-cooked greens and a jumble of black-eyed peas, sweet potato and house-smoked bacon. Broccolini with chili and garlic is far better suited to the steak, or the crisp-skinned cast-iron chicken.

A chef once told me that growing his own vegetables put them in a completely different light: You don't blithely overcook something you've seen through from a seed to your cutting board. That seems to be the case here: At Post & Beam, the veggies are where it's at. Those long-cooked greens have exactly the right amount of acid and base, and are tender without succumbing to mush. Cauliflower with braised chickpeas has its roasty goodness brightened by a luminous salsa verde.

The pizza portion of the menu is less successful — the toppings, including house-made sausage and black kale, are first rate, but they tend to slide right off the crust, which lacks any discernible char. As a bar snack with the (slightly watery) cocktails or a glass of wine, the pizza suffices; as the main event, the veggies leave it in the dust.

Plant-based dishes win out in the appetizer department as well. Simple but lovingly constructed salads are presented as quiet tributes to snappy greens and creamy cheeses, while the meatballs are fine but forgettable. A crossover dish, penne with short-rib Bolognese, gets its charm from the generous amount of arugula that tangles with the pasta and strips of shaved Parmesan.

There are straight-up disappointments on the menu, including mussels whose shells shatter when handled, in a paprika-laced broth that does nothing for that smoky spice or the mollusks that swim in it. But the worst is a buttermilk biscuit served with strawberries and cream for dessert. Sconelike in shape and consistency, its density and arid flavor couldn't be saved by the summery sweetness of the strawberries.

I'd love to see this menu veer off the standard pork-chicken-salmon-beef format, as well as offer some wines that are more food-friendly. I get that comfort is the name of the game here, but comfort doesn't always have to equal safe.

During one meal, a final dish of warm chocolate pudding epitomizes everything that's right about this restaurant. It has elements of childhood pleasure, the nostalgia factor made all the better in its slightly bitter, bracing finish.

The best dishes at Post & Beam combine pristine ingredients and a formidable chef's sensibilities with something that tastes like home. The ones that fail seem like they're victim to concept before flavor, or as if the chef were holding back on food that, if ramped up, could wow even the wary.

Judging by those crowds, Post & Beam has a fair amount of goodwill capital to spend. The place has so many winning components — its handsome, hometown hero chef; all the right ideas and practices around community and food; a vibrant but underserved neighborhood — that you really want to love it. But while much of what's on offer is perfectly respectable, it's hardly inspired. I hope over the months they decide to spend that capital, push a little beyond safe and give us something to get really worked up over.

POST & BEAM | 3767 Santa Rosalia Drive, L.A. | (323) 299-5599 | postandbeamla.com | Lunch & dinner Mon.-Fri.; dinner only Sat.; closed Sun. | Reservations not required | Full bar | Lot parking

Reach the writer at brodell@laweekly.com

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