In many ways, neighborhood restaurants have a harder task than destination ones. While destination restaurants are free to create the fantasy of their choosing, a neighborhood spot must provide a particular kind of refuge — one that fits in with the street and the culture of the community. If we look to destination restaurants to pamper and impress, we look to neighborhood restaurants to comfort and provide social release. It's a specific place you want to end up, on that day when work beat you down and cooking feels impossible and dinner with friends just up the street seems like the only thing that might restore your good spirits.
It was on just such a day that I ended up at L&E Oyster Bar, the newish seafood restaurant on Silver Lake Boulevard. Grumpy and exhausted, I dreaded the inevitable wait for a table (no reservations accepted) and all the other possibilities of a bad night out. What I found instead was direct, affable service, a bracing glass of rosé and some very cold oysters. On that evening, in particular, those things added up to a damn near perfect neighborhood restaurant experience.
L&E's vibe is a mix of Parisian bistro and Brooklyn funk — the small, curved bar, ornate, round light fixtures and sidewalk seating all Paris, and the friendly, hipster staff and plastic-letter light-up signs displaying the oysters of the day all Brooklyn. Before 7:30, tables are easy to come by, as is a seat at the bar. After that, the place has a serious bustle, with people a few deep at the bar and waiting on the sidewalk. Last week, word came that the restaurant is set to expand to the space upstairs, which will just about double its seating capacity.
L&E is owned by Dustin Lancaster, who also owns Covell Wine Bar, and Tyler Bell, who was a regular at Covell. By chance, both had been wanting to open an oyster bar, and they decided to collaborate. They felt a need in L.A. for the type of oyster bar that's common in Europe and the Northeast, and they chose Silver Lake despite its location on the landlocked side of this coastal city. The chef is Spencer Bezaire, who worked at Cafe Stella and then Heirloom L.A. before coming to L&E.
What did it take for L&E to rescue my day? A selection of oysters — 10 varieties to choose from, $28 for a dozen of their choice (four each of three kinds). Saline, slightly floral Mermaid Cove oysters from Virginia, the clean, cucumber snap of Kachemaks from Alaska — L&E now has a rotating list of oysters from both coasts, as well as Canada and New Zealand. After that, a house-smoked trout salad with pristine greens, the one-two sweet/sour punch of kumquats and Marcona almonds. And then, a whole branzino, its sweet, white flesh imbued with the fistfuls of rosemary and thyme stuffed inside. It was a meal that was bracingly fresh, simple and well executed.
Along with the friendly hubbub and a couple of glasses of wine from the short but smart list, I was restored.
Another night, eating solo at the bar, the oysters Rockefeller came draped in hot, lemon-rich creamed spinach so good, I wish they served the stuff as a side. Wild salmon, cooked to a melting medium-rare, was a smidge underseasoned, and the romesco with it tasted a wee bit like that red pepper hummus you don't really like but can never stop eating. But ah, the stone-fruit crisp, piping hot and with a wild and overbearing rosemary zing, perplexed and then delighted me.
With friends, sitting on the sidewalk in the early-evening Silver Lake sunshine, I discovered the kitchen's skill with more modern food — small plates such as smoked mussels in a jar of fragrant olive oil. Fish them out of the jar and pile them on top of the toast, which has already been topped with crumbled chorizo. It's like a study in smoky, oily fun.
Slabs of juicy watermelon in the watermelon salad burst with summery bravado, amped up by fresh basil and then reined in with French feta and cumin-roasted pumpkin seeds.
Lobster spaetzle, which frankly sounded like a terrible idea, turned out to be a riff on a classic gratin, baked in a cast-iron crock with cheesy crust and a creamy, binding sauce inside that still somehow allows the spaetzle to retain some of its crisp/soft dichotomy.
For the carnivores, there's a fantastic steak sandwich, its personality almost burgerlike but a bit richer. The sandwich comes with hot, oily, thin fries and aioli. We ordered it for the kid at our table and then promptly tried to steal it from him.
There are nods to the old school of ostentatious seafood dining here that miss the mark. Crab salad with mayo-rich Louis dressing is a tasty, gloppy throwback that belabors its own shtick. The crab, like all the seafood here, is immaculate, though it's hard to tell through all that goop; what's gained in crab-dip fatty fun isn't worth what's lost in true crustacean flavor. And while I applaud the attempt at a bourbon pecan pie, this thing is a mess — the nuts unwieldy over a too-sweet filling and a slightly leaden crust.
But these flaws are a small price to pay for a neighborhood restaurant that does simple luxury incredibly well. The salmon is nice, the lobster spaetzle fun. But it's the branzino, fresh salads and oysters I'll return for.
The oyster selection continues to offer surprises — one night, teeny, nutty metallic Olympias show up; another, something special and weird from Massachusetts. A dozen of those on a plate, frigid and gleaming, a glass of rosé, and the laid-back nightlife of Silver Lake swirling around you, it's hard not to feel soothed and renewed, and immensely grateful for a neighborhood restaurant done right.
L&E OYSTER BAR | 1637 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake | (323) 660-2255 | leoysterbar.com | Mon.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. | Entrées $15-23 | Reservations not accepted | Beer and wine | Street & valet parking ($5)