Ironic Chef America
Photos by Anne FishbeinAt Nook, a newish bistro in the badlands west of the Nuart, tiny bowls of boiled peanuts show up at the beginning of the meal where you might expect bread and butter, and there is no getting over the shock of the things — their heat, their oozy-brown appearance, their sweetly funky stench. Sloppy, squishy boiled peanuts may be one of the most emblematic foods of the Atlantic South, scooped up steaming at roadside stands from central Florida through the Carolinas, but in Los Angeles they kind of take some getting used to. No matter how familiar you may be with the anise-scented boiled peanuts that seem to be on the permanent appetizer list at local Taiwanese delis, the Southern-style nuts at Nook seem another creature entirely, soft as pudding and finger-burning hot. Some tables end up going through several bowls of the peanuts. Some people never get around to tasting the second nut. At Nook, that’s just the way it is.
Sometimes you get the feeling that the owners of Nook are running less an American bistro than a joke about an American bistro. As faithfully as they reproduce the fundamentals of the kind of fancily unfancy restaurants that pepper every urban neighborhood from San Diego to Augusta, Maine, they are also poking fun at it with every dried-cranberry garnish and each day-boat scallop, each obscure Belgian beer and each boutique Oregon Pinot Noir. Almost every aspect of the restaurant, from its double-height communal table to the admonition on the menu that cell-phone use interferes with the controls on the deep fryer, is as ironically pitch-perfect as the Neil Diamond songs on a Silver Lake DJ’s iPod.
Do American bistros have interesting industrial architecture? Nook has high, exposed rafters, snaking ventilation ducts and concrete floors, although its bit of adaptive reuse modifies a former Iranian restaurant rather than an ancient auto garage. Is the music supposed to be critical? Nook plays what sound like smoking deep-house tracks, although the level is so far below the ambient roar of conversation in the room that it might as well be old Lou Reed songs. Do hidden locations add cachet? Nook is so obscurely located that it might as well be hidden in your grandmother’s basement; tucked behind an airless corner of a Westside mini-mall, it would be all but impossible to find from the street if not for big arrows with the name of the restaurant imprinted on them in block letters, like the massive Acme-brand signs that Wile E. Coyote used to point the Roadrunner toward his latest pile of nitroglycerin-laced birdseed.
Here is the macaroni and cheese, three or four different cheeses whisked with the pasta into a béchamel sauce, spooned into an oval crock, and baked until the buttered bread crumbs on top crisp and sizzle. It is a good mac ’n’ cheese, if slightly grainy, mellowed with what tastes like a decent Gruyère, like a mac ’n’ cheese designed to ease down a glass of Côtes du Rhone rather than a glass of sweet tea. Here is the flatiron steak, a grilled slab of ruddy flesh topped with a melting nut of garlic butter and dwarfed by a mound of hand-cut, parsley-dusted fries. Here is the token vegan dish, a bowl of sautéed brown rice with oven-dried tomatoes, asparagus and tofu.
If you’ve been to more than a couple of neighborhood restaurants lately, you could probably write the menu yourself, changes rung on dishes that have become as recognizably the standards of American bistro cooking as blanquette de veau and céleri rémoulade are of the traditional bistro in France: caesar salad, fried calamari and braised short ribs with mashed potatoes; sautéed spinach and roast chicken; hamburgers and pork chops.
Still, James Richardson is a fairly clever chef, and his cooking manages to be wholly of itself while winking at its own familiarity. That roast chicken is unusually crusty and as moist as you might expect a half-chicken to be, plopped down on a frisée salad larded with chunks of bacon, toasted pumpkin seeds, and those dried cranberries which add a sweet-tart note that does, in fact, punctuate the richness of the dish. A spicy, Moroccan-accented tagine of chickpeas and squashes on a bed of minted couscous was sweet and delicious. I liked the herb-crusted pork chop served propped up against a great version of the arugula, pear and Stilton salad you’ve been seeing everywhere around town. The mustard-glazed rib-eye buried underneath a giant pile of fried onion rings is by far the most expensive item on the menu at $22, but not bad.
Even Richardson can’t do much to resuscitate tilapia, the world’s most boring fish, although the beets and shaved fennel beneath the fillet were fine in their own right, and the renowned Nook Burger, served on a French roll with braised onions and melted Gruyère cheese, was dry even at medium-rare — a smear of the truffled mayonnaise that comes with the fries does wonders. Insist on it.
Finish with the empurpled dessert that splits the difference between a Bavarian cream and a blackberry “Russian cream.” Nook may be an entire bistro with those waggling-finger quotation marks around it, but when it comes to dessert, there’s no kidding around.
Nook, 11628 Santa Monica Blvd., No. 9, West Los Angeles; (310) 207-5160, www.nookbistro.com. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner Mon.–Sat. 5–10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $30–$60. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: herb-roasted pork chop; roasted squash and chickpea stew; mixed berry cream.
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