Barrel and Ashes could use a few adjustments, but chief among them is an expansion. Who knew that Studio City would be so ravenous for barbecue cooked by an ex–French Laundry chef? Who knew the small dining room would be unfit to hold the hordes of diners streaming in from Ventura Boulevard? On these recent cold winter nights, those hoards crowd into the room, standing around the folks who are eating, eyeing them grumpily. Yes, an expansion is already in order. Or at least a holding room with plenty of booze.
Barrel and Ashes was put together by a dream team of sorts, beginning with the two executive chef/owners, both alums of the Thomas Keller empire: Timothy Hollingsworth, who is in L.A. after spending almost his entire career at the French Laundry, and Rory Herrmann, who has a resume peppered with restaurants such as Per Se and Bouchon. Since 2013 Herrmann has been working with restaurateur Bill Chait, who also is behind the venture.
Hollingsworth, who made the trek south from Napa with the goal of opening a taqueria, is quite a score for Los Angeles. His taco plans were put aside at the beginning of last year when it was announced that, instead, he’d run the restaurant at the new Broad Museum downtown, in a joint project by Chait and museum founder Eli Broad. Since then, the Broad’s opening has been pushed back a couple of times; it’s now anticipated in the fall.
In the meantime, Hollingsworth (who is described as a “Texas native,” although he grew up mainly in Northern California) has been traveling, and at some point in the past year he got the barbecue bug. But I also get the sense that Barrel and Ashes is a way for Hollingsworth and Herrmann to remain busy while waiting for the Broad, and perhaps a way for Chait to make good on his (probably sizable) investment in the two chefs.
The feel of the restaurant is suburban barn chic: There are wooden tables and wood-paneled walls, chalkboards over the open kitchen and a wooden sign that says “rodeo.” Sports play on the two TVs over the bar, and the seating is mainly communal, with high-backed metal chairs, plus a narrow dining counter that faces into the kitchen. It’s loud in here — very, very loud — and it’s hard to hear your server when he proclaims that “this isn’t your usual kind of barbecue joint.”
What’s unusual about it? I’m not sure. Like many barbecue restaurants outside of the barbecue belt, the style is kind of amorphous, though Texas is obviously the main influence. Brisket and spare ribs are glazed in pepper-heavy, sticky, Texas-style sauce. The pork is all from Salmon Creek Farms, a natural pork producer out of Idaho, and the rest of the meat is just as carefully sourced. The spare ribs are sometimes not as tender as they could be, but the brisket, thick with smoke, is one of the better examples in town.
The most alluring of the meat offerings has been the pork short ribs, a fatty, juicy pile of meat that got me to that primal barbecue place, where your hands are sticky and your decorum goes out the window and you can only think of shoving more meat in your face.
There is, on occasion, a special that is truly unusual for a barbecue joint, and leans more toward the chefs’ Keller-heavy backgrounds. One of the best things I ate over my visits was an elegant crisp-skinned mackerel, served over roasted celery root and Brussels sprouts, with a charred green-onion vinaigrette. Balanced, light but wintery, the fish a lovely example of how luxurious mackerel can be, it was a dish I would have been happy to eat at practically any restaurant.
And I’d happily eat Barrel and Ashes’ hoecakes just about anywhere anytime, though the presentation, cooked in a cast iron skillet, makes it more like spoonbread in my estimation. They can call it what they please; the hot cornmeal batter forms a delicate crust around the edges but remains pudding-esque inside, and a light drizzle of maple butter gives it a sly sweetness.
The hush puppies would be good as well if they weren’t completely raw in the center both times I had them. The skin on a chicken breast was crispy, but the fat had congealed in such a way as to make it completely unyielding, like a thin sheet of un-biteable plastic.
But the braised greens had the right amount of vinegar pucker, and the Frito pie, while not as sloppy and glorious as the one at HomeState, will cure the nostalgic of their hankering.
Following the recent trend of moving to a more European style of tipping, an 18 percent service charge is included in the bill here. While I applaud such a system at Trois Mec or Maude, where service is unfailingly impeccable, I think people are going to have a harder time with it here. Overwhelmed hostesses will tell you the wait for a table is 30 minutes long, then 30 minutes later point to a table that’s been empty all along and say you can have it — if you eat and leave in time for another party that’sarriving in 45 minutes. Don’t want that option? It’ll be another 30 minutes “at least.” (Reservations are limited, and in no way guarantee a wait-less experience.)
Servers are rushed; they might bring you someone else’s food, then chastise you for eating it. Julian Cox oversees the bar program, as he does at most Chait projects, and as usual his drinks are great, unless you want one fast, or unless you roll the dice on a “bartender’s choice.” I asked for one made with gin and got something that tasted like tangerine pith and rubbing alcohol.
I suppose the forced 18 percent gratuity shields service staff from suffering for the faults of mismanagement — and this much chaos is undoubtedly the fault of management — but still, it stings a little, particularly when the bills are so high.
And the bills are high, especially for a barbecue joint. Look, I get it, they are using fantastic meats and well-sourced vegetables, and are approaching the food with the care (and labor costs) of high-end chefs. But if a meal for three (including three cocktails) rings in at around $200, you tend to want more than a loud, hurried, harried meal where 20 percent of the food was problematic and the hostess and standing guests have been staring you down to get up and out since the moment you took your seat.
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Fine-dining cooking and cooking quickly for masses of people require two very different skill sets. It’s generally accepted that the guy who fries hush puppies at a barbecue joint wouldn’t be able to walk into the French Laundry and successfully cook that type of food, but I’ve seen more than one chef mistakenly think that a journey in the other direction — from fine dining to a faster, more casual setting — is an easy transition.
There’s nothing wrong with the food at Barrel and Ashes, when it’s cooked well and delivered to the right person. The conception is fairly flawless. But the execution, from the minute you step in the door to the time you pay your hefty bill, is the work of kitchen and service staffs that seem to be in over their heads.
Many of the problems here have to do with newness and extreme popularity. But some of it also has to do with the fact that — even for cooks of the highest ability — barbecue is harder than it looks.
BARREL AND ASHES | Two stars | 11801 Ventura Blvd., Studio City | (818) 623-8883 | barrelandashes.com| Daily, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. | Entrees, $9-$37 | Full bar | Valet and street parking