On a Tuesday evening, the back patio of Tar & Roses is packed. It was packed at 6 p.m., it is packed at 9 p.m., and it will be packed practically every moment the restaurant is open all week long. For a place that opened almost three years ago, this level of popularity is no fluke. There's something about Tar & Roses that inspires devotion.
Food criticism is a funny game. The aim is to give an impression of a restaurant that will age well, one that might ring true throughout the life of the business. At the same time, you must depict a place accurately at the time of the the writing.
The most common clash that arises between those two aims is a restaurant that shows great potential, but isn't quite there yet. In a perfect world, perhaps we'd hold off and come back in a year or two, when the chef has found his or her style and the staff has settled into a well-honed routine. But to remain relevant to the conversation, we don't have that luxury. Hell, it's hard enough to wait the six weeks after a place is open before reviewing. People want information, and they want it quickly.
This is a particularly acute problem with star ratings. A restaurant that's worthy of two stars in its first year might easily evolve into a three-star restaurant in its second year. A chef who is enthusiastic and present upon opening might lose interest or become invested in other projects and let things slide after the reviews come out. And while it's impossible to keep track of the subtle changes in quality at every restaurant we've ever reviewed, there are some that deserve a second look, and perhaps a change in star rating.
There are also restaurants that never got a star rating in the first place. In my first six months on the job here at L.A. Weekly we did not have a rating system. Occasionally I'd like to revisit some of the places I reviewed during that period to bring them into our current rating system.
Tar & Roses falls into both of these categories. My September 2012 review came out before we had a rating system, and while I found chef Andrew Kirschner's food tasty, there was something about it that lacked distinction. From that review:
Tar & Roses could be a fiction, a well-placed detail in a Jonathan Franzen novel, which stands as a metaphor for the tastes and aspirations of a generation of locavore diners with a yen for small plates.
Twenty-four hours after my first visit to Tar & Roses, I had a pleasant lingering memory of my meal there, but I could barely remember anything I'd eaten. The food wasn't forgettable in the sense that the flavors were unremarkable; it just tasted and felt like so much else of what's out there that it was hard to distinguish. It's done very, very well, though, and Kirschner imparts more playfulness than many chefs of his generation and genre.
Two years later, a meal at Tar & Roses is anything but forgettable. Flavors have been distilled, and nothing I ate had that pleasant but unremarkable quality that marked so much of what was presented in the months right after the restaurant opened.
More risks are taken. Kirschner used to do a kabob made of chicken oysters — cute but hardly life changing. Now there's one made with tender hunks of lamb heart, singed at the edges and deeply flavored, served with banana raita and harissa.
Kirschner has a way with contrasts, on the vegetable portion of his menu and beyond. A serving of Jerusalem artichokes seems almost ludicrously generous in nature, dotted with goat cheese and showered with hazelnuts. It's stunningly delicious. Crostini with sardines and lush avocado comes topped with fistfuls of cilantro and pickled onion for tang.
That playfulness Kirschner exhibited in the early days has expanded and grown up a little. Many dishes are downright elegant, like a crab cake that's a play on Singaporean chili crab, the cake itself all delicate sweet flesh, sitting in a pool of fragrant chili sauce, scattered with golden pea shoots.
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And I was thrilled to see venison on the menu, a meat that should be far more popular but likely isn't because of how easy it is to cook badly. Kirschner doesn't seem to have any problems with that, and the venison exhibited no signs of toughness and was brawny and rich with its accompaniments of sweet potato, brussels sprouts and dried cherry.
Tar & Roses is still a hard restaurant to get into, though the host staff seem to be dealing with it far more graciously than a couple of years back. In fact, everything about the place seems more grown up, less trendy for the sake of the obvious of-the-moment benefit. The people still crowding into the restaurant know something that we previously didn't: This is by far one of the best places to eat in Santa Monica.