In recent months I've found myself yearning for more restaurants like Chez Tex. Places that are obviously driven by actual people and their strengths. Places that were not conceived in a marketing meeting. I suppose you might call that a neighborhood restaurant, but even our neighborhood restaurants have fractured into international cheap eats versus loose pretension. The mom-and-pop seems like an outdated institution, or one that's reserved for certain parts of town and certain types of food. Clever conceptualization and gorgeous design and rabid PR are all good and well, but every now and then you just want a nice, simple place to have dinner.
Chez Tex is a restaurant in the old-fashioned model, a mom-and-pop so true to the genre that the couple in question literally became parents within the first weeks of the place's opening in August. The name is an ode to owner Jesse Feldman's grandfather, Tex, who moved to Los Angeles from Dallas in the 1940s.
The former art gallery space is spare — almost too spare, with its gray walls and metal-walled kitchen in back. But the floor-to-ceiling windows in front, which open to the street, give the room an indoor-outdoor feel. Feldman spent much of his upbringing in Europe, and the style of the place is very much in line with a cafe you might find down some out-of-the-way, winding Parisian street. Service is usually provided solely by either Feldman or his wife and co-owner, Hayley Feldman, who both worked in restaurants in the way almost all of us once worked in restaurants — when they were younger, as a means to get to other things — but neither of whom has much professional service experience. There are ways in which this inexperience shows, but the personal nature of the enterprise is obvious. It feels like a labor of love.
Leading the tiny, two-cook kitchen is Scott Ueda Jr., though he only came on board a month ago. The opening chef was Ashkan Ghassemzadeh, who most recently was a sous chef at République, and plenty of Ghassemzadeh's dishes are still in place. Chez Tex's kinda French kinda Californian menu is short, and heavy on salads, and full of small touches that would be easy to miss but that elevate the food considerably.
There may be no food combination more played out in New American cuisine than beets and goat cheese, yet here it's served as a terrine, the root vegetable and creamy cheese layered and compressed, topped with a tangle of pea shoots. It tastes familiar, but the setup is a cute variation. A baby kale salad is just a very good version of a very ubiquitous dish, doused in lemon vinaigrette and a flurry of Parmesan, made interesting by red grapes, which give it pops of bright sweetness.
Where Chez Tex really hits its stride is with the more entree-like dishes. There's a fantastic half chicken, its coating lightly smoky and spicy thanks to a harissa rub. A savory leek bread pudding, like lovely onion-y stuffing, comes on the plate along with braised chard. It tastes like Sunday dinner in the French countryside, like comfort but also elegance. Black-as-tar nero risotto features local squid and large prawns, and is murkily delicious, brightened by a smear of pesto made with lovage along the side of the bowl.
A sausage plate is built to highlight a fat pork sausage from Electric City Butcher, but the most striking element of the dish might actually be the pile of house-made sauerkraut, which is sweet and puckery and funky. A salmon niçoise entree — the fish of the day — was comprised of far too many greens and not enough niçoise, but the salmon itself was cooked beautifully, its skin crisp, its middle meltingly rare. Regardless of how much of Chez Tex's menu is currently new chef Ueda's creation, the man certainly knows how to cook a piece of fish.
Chez Tex bills itself as a cafe and wine bar, somewhere you can stop by in the daytime for a macchiato and a burger (a very fancy burger, made with Huntsman cheese and onion marmalade), or in the evening for a glass of wine and some nibbles. As such, I wish there were more options on the menu that were both small and substantive. In a world flooded with small plates, they're in oddly short supply at this one place where they make sense. Chez Tex serves a lot of salads, and a cheese plate and a charcuterie board, but the most interesting appetizer beyond that beet terrine is a plate of peewee potatoes, served naked alongside salt and Normandy butter. They're fine, the butter is lovely, but it's a little spare.
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The wine list, while obviously as personal as the rest of the place, also could use work. Choices are a bit too obvious and limited for a serious wine bar, and a bit too expensive for a casual neighborhood cafe. There are so many interesting, delightful, affordable wines on the market these days that would seem to fit right in with the ethos of Chez Tex. If I lived nearby, the limited selection at that lower price point would be the one factor keeping me from stopping by a few times a week for a glass of wine and a bowl of Marcona almonds.
Regardless, this is the type of restaurant where it would be easy to become a regular, where you might find yourself happily cooing at someone else's baby, where Hayley Feldman feels like a welcoming proprietor rather than a harried waitress. Chez Tex isn't important or impressive or rule-bending. It's just a nice place to have dinner. Which, these days, feels almost revelatory.
CHEZ TEX | Two stars | 218 Main St., Venice | (310) 314-1314 | cheztex.com | Tue.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:50-10 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. | Entrees, $19-$29 | Beer and wine | Street parking