It's the type of dish that might make a vegetarian weep: vibrant green, ultra-fresh stalks of late-spring asparagus, topped with a pert, sunny-side–up egg and surrounded by a smattering of croutons and a pool of bone-marrow gravy. Both gravy and bone marrow are, in their own way, the very essence of meat — to make one from the other is a distillation, the essence of essence. To see this dish coming from the guy who was once the most famous vegetarian chef in the country? Fascinating.
That chef, Jeremy Fox, was himself never a vegetarian, but he was a vegetarian chef in that he ran the kitchen at vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu in Napa Valley.
It takes quite a lot for us meat-loving food writers to take note of a meat-free restaurant, but notice we did. Fox's Ubuntu earned accolades and gushing coverage from all over the country for his careful, creative elevation of vegetables and grains.
In early 2010, Fox left Ubuntu after two and a half years. He's been attached to a lot of rumored and real projects since then, but none lasted very long and some never came to fruition at all.
After coming to L.A. for some consulting jobs, he was tied to Barnyard for most of last year but left before that Venice restaurant's January 2013 opening. He did a series of dinners at This Is Not a Pop-up.
Then, in December, he began talking to Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, who were looking to hire a chef for their beloved, 9-year-old Rustic Canyon Wine Bar in Santa Monica.
Rustic Canyon also had been going through a period of transition. In recent years Loeb and Nathan have been growing their small empire, which includes Huckleberry, Sweet Rose Creamery, and the most recent addition, Milo and Olive.
But Rustic Canyon has remained the most ambitious of their ventures, the fertile foundation from which everything else sprang. For a long time, chef Evan Funke kept the restaurant steeped in praise, but he left early last year to open his own venue, the forthcoming Bucato in Culver City. In the intervening year a couple of chefs had helped to run the restaurant, but by December Loeb and Nathan were again searching for the right person to fill the chef role.
Despite the fact that they'd known Fox for years and were already friendly, it was a careful courtship. No one wanted to rush into an arrangement that wouldn't work out.
To regulars of the minimalist, intimate restaurant, it might appear that not much has changed since Fox came on board in January. The food is still market-inspired, intensely seasonal and engineered to be enjoyed with the thoughtful wine collection.
Rustic Canyon has always showcased exactly what's so fantastic about this part of the world: the produce, the wine, the slow, harmonious, beachy way of life. Under Fox, the restaurant continues to honor all those things.
That said, there is less of an Italian undertone than in the days when Funke was chef, fewer pasta dishes and more food that's Californian first and foremost. Fox has lightened the menu and simplified it. He's also brought his own aesthetic, one that, not surprisingly, focuses on subtle and stunning roles for the fruits and vegetables on the plate.
Ricotta gnocchi with short ribs gets a burst of lively spring fruit thanks to strawberry soffrito, an intense sauce that's as rich as a wine-heavy ragu, made from cooking down strawberries with pine nuts and onions for hours and hours. It's an utterly beguiling dish, one that's at once weighty and intense yet buoyed by the purity and zing of its ingredients.
A clam and mussel posole is also an ode to spring, its zippy bright notes due to green garlic. Amberjack crudo is sparsely dressed with a smattering of preserved lemon and caper shoots, which include the whole stem and leaf of the caper plant rather than just the familiar, round green bud of the flower.
This is restraint and simplicity at its best; your attention is allowed to linger on the freshness and sweet flesh of the fish, the perfume of the lemon and the vegetal balance of the caper shoots.
This seems to be Fox's modus operandi for fish in general: Give the fish itself the limelight, providing just enough interesting and contrasting flavors to elevate the experience. This certainly was the case with a halibut entree served with spring onion, fava beans and peas. Yes, the delicate green of early summer was well represented, but the fish — crisped and sweet and tasting of the cold, clean ocean — was the star of the show.
There's not a lot of fatty excess on this menu. Fox's style is clean and fresh and restrained, which makes the small touches of opulence all the more indulgent. Peewee potatoes are roasted in chicken drippings. Gougeres burst with mornay sauce, the delicate pastry exterior giving way to the luxurious, creamy, hot interior. The all-domestic cheese plate is one of the best in town, each cheese matched with a beautiful, small accompaniment — a fruit puree, a touch of honey, a few tiny edible flowers.
Rustic Canyon has a hamburger with a dedicated following, and for good reason — it's one of the few gourmet burgers I've ever had that lives up to the hype and price. As of a couple of weeks ago it's no longer on the menu, though a limited number will be available every night for in-the-know customers who ask for it.
The nixing of the burger from the printed menu follows the overall direction Fox is taking this kitchen, one that's less reliant on heaviness and fat — though the open secret of the burger's existence and its limited availability are likely to make it even more of a cult item.
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Great burger aside, Rustic Canyon has plenty else on offer worthy of cult status. That strawberry soffrito is likely to haunt my taste memory for years, while the collision of the essence of spring and the essence of meat on the plate of asparagus with bone-marrow gravy is a stroke of quiet genius.
Because of the seasonal nature of these dishes, no one thing is likely to stick around long enough to gain such a following, but I sincerely hope that Jeremy Fox does.
RUSTIC CANYON | Three stars | 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica | (310) 393-7050 | rusticcanyonwinebar.com | Sun.-Thurs., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30-11:30 p.m. | Entrees, $27-$32 | Full bar | Valet parking