Imagine you've been invited to a dinner party at the home of an effortlessly fabulous artist friend. This friend lives in a comfy Venice bungalow (of course), located just steps from the sand and a few blocks from the action of Abbot Kinney. You arrive to a home outfitted in tasteful but rustic wood tones: Everything is warm and comfy and perfectly unpretentious. The other guests at the party are beautiful and laid-back. The food has been sourced from the farmers market. The wines are interesting and esoteric. You sink into the soft, beige cushions of the couchlike bench seating on the enclosed patio out back and relax. It's going to be a wonderful evening.
If this is the mood the proprietors of Barnyard in Venice were looking to cultivate, they've succeeded mightily. Barnyard is reminiscent of neither a barn nor a yard, nor the meeting of the two. Decked out in many shades of brown (wood tables, brown cushioned seating, roll-down bamboo blinds), the space feels and looks like someone's awesome house, with a cozy, beach-bungalow vibe and that sweet, mellow urbanism that could only exist in California.
Barnyard was originally the Southern California landing spot for Jeremy Fox, the chef most famous for his creative vegetarian cooking at Ubuntu in Napa. But Fox left before Barnyard opened (he has since taken the reins at Rustic Canyon, with fantastic results) and Jesse Barber, who had for a time been sous chef at Tasting Kitchen on nearby Abbot Kinney, was brought on as Barnyard's chef. Celia Barber, the chef's wife, is general manager.
Not surprisingly, Barnyard feels not unlike Tasting Kitchen. The restaurant features a menu that looks almost indistinguishable from most of the city's other new farm-to-table restaurants — roast chicken, kale salad, meat board, daily catch. For the most part, it seems as though Barber's intent is to give us rustic, homey food in a rustic, homey setting, with all the elements — ingredients, surroundings — taken up just enough notches to make the experience feel special.
Eating at Barnyard is very much like eating at the home of someone who cooks and eats well — not a showoff or even an ambitious cook but a food lover who likes to feed others. So a pork chop is big and juicy, served with chopped greens that taste of the warming interlude where vegetables and minerals meet. Grilled chicken, rubbed with harissa and served with seasonal sides, is juicy and fragrant. There are homey dishes like "pilota," an Italian fried rice that's a little bit risotto and a little bit paella, and a house-made cavatelli. And while we'd all be lucky to have friends who might roll their own pasta, if we did have such friends, this is what it would taste like — not mind-blowing but impressive for a home cook.
But I'd be hard-pressed to think of anyone I know who might be able to cook octopus at home as well as Barber does here, though its accompanying stewy, tomato and herb-rich garbanzos taste simple in the best possible way. The octopus itself is tender with crispy edges, and seasoned just right. Clams come in a broth that's stained smudgy charcoal with black garlic. It's a little odd, as if the broth itself is charred, but quite delicious nonetheless. And of course there's a burger, a messy hulk of a thing, which will absolutely hit the spot when you're in a burger mood.
Could Barnyard be more than just the usual imitation of Tasting Kitchen, providing something beyond good cooking that's not quite revelatory? A couple of dishes seemed to have the potential, like a pea tendril and chicken heart salad, or a "lambchetta" — lamb loin wrapped in lamb belly. But the more daring and ambitious dishes at Barnyard also are the ones that tend to fall flat. The salad is a jumble of tendrils, nicely dressed, with slivers of sproingy chicken hearts hiding beneath. Neither ingredient really did much for the other, and neither seemed all that exciting. The lamb dish was severely undercooked; neither the belly or the loin had been given enough heat or time to break down lamb's considerable sinew, rendering the dish a challenge at best (and inedible in parts).
A few other dishes fall just a smidge short. A brown butter and squash turnover was a little too sweet to properly conjure the savory autumn goodness it ought to possess. And some things, like a panzanella salad made with black kale, crunchy seared Asian peaches and croutons, just seemed a little under-thought. Not something you'd complain about if, say, you were served it at a dinner party, but for a restaurant? The salads in general felt clumsy, either one ingredient short or one ingredient off of becoming interest-worthy. Desserts are decent but predictable: fruit galette, flourless chocolate cake.
The thing that appeals most about Barnyard is its effortless feel, its level of comfort. That extends to the food, the (fun, affordable) wine list, and the service, which is genuine and relaxed. There is no communal table here, which comes as a bit of relief, and there is a bar where you might actually hang out and enjoy a glass of wine.
It's worth noting, too, that Barnyard is located neither directly on the ocean nor on Abbot Kinney, with its oversized rents, but rather on an unglamorous stretch of Pacific Avenue. As a result, the prices are altogether a bit more reasonable than you often see in these parts — entrees rarely get much higher than the $20 mark.
Barnyard also lacks the long waiting lists of Abbot Kinney's finer haunts — here, you can actually reserve a table, which feels like a small blessing. Rather than be jostled on the sidewalk, you can settle into the soft beige cushions and eat well. It's like the beach restaurant version of an oversized but stylish wool sweater. For this neighborhood, with so much overpriced beach food and so many "farm-to-table" restaurants of questionable merit, Barnyard fills the need for a place that's casual and dependable and, yes, friendly.
We'd all kill to have friends who treat us as well as Jesse and Celia Barber. If you don't know any fabulous Venice residents who might ask you over for dinner, maybe Barnyard can be your new best friend.
BARNYARD | Two stars | 1715 Pacific Ave., Venice | (310) 581-1015 | barnyardvenice.com | Dinner: Mon.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Brunch: Sun., noon-4 p.m. | Entrees, $14-$21 | Beer & wine served | Valet parking ($7)