At 5:28 p.m. on a Wednesday, the doors of Tar & Roses are locked. One by one, men in suits and groups of women in cocktail dresses approach the doors on the corner of Wilshire and Sixth Street in Santa Monica and pull, with no luck. Inside, behind the host stand, the hostess gazes at the reservation book with a concentrated quietude. At 5:30, she glides down the short ramp to the door and allows us inside.
Some of us will be turned away. It's hard to get a table at Tar & Roses these days.
This might be because, apart from a handful of notable exceptions, Santa Monica has fewer quality restaurants than you might expect. It might be because the wooden tables and rustic farm accents here are lit beautifully, the warm glow shining up somehow rather than down, creating a flattering light — to both the room and the customers. It could be because the wine list is both inviting and exciting. Or maybe word has spread that chef Andrew Kirschner has taken everything we love about kinda-Spanish, kinda–New American food and made it especially appealing.
It's not because the hostesses are super welcoming. They stare fastidiously at the screen as you approach. "How are you?" I asked one after I said hello and she said hello and then there was silence.
"Excuse me?" she responded, seeming distracted and perhaps perturbed.
"Oh, nothing," I said, feeling I had interrupted her. The awkward silence returned.
She sighed, as if I had done something wrong. "Do you, like, need to check in or something?"
Thankfully, the evening got better from there. Kirschner is a Santa Monica native who has received recognition at many spots around town over the years: After serving as sous chef at Joe's in Venice and Chadwick in Beverly Hills, he was a chef/partner at Table 8 in West Hollywood and then Wilshire in Santa Monica.
His menu at Tar & Roses, where he is chef and owner, stops at all the stations we've come to expect on this small plate–heavy, farm-to-table ride: Meat-and-cheese plate? Check. Clever little "snacks"? Yup. Small plates, creative veggies and a small selection of large plates? Ding, ding, ding.
At Tar & Roses, the journey is more cleverly curated than at many other restaurants traversing the same path. The meats and cheeses are better sourced (don't miss the chorizo, its fat slick and coated in smoky/sweet Spanish paprika); the snacks, more playful. If chicken oysters-on-a-stick sounds like a silly gimmick, it's a silly gimmick that works — the chicken's most tender orb of flesh highly spiced with Moroccan-type spices and served with a tamarind-heavy sauce. Three cubes of deep-fried pork belly make up the pork chicharron kebabs, the crisped fat set on skewers along with grilled figs and sweet spheres of onion. Bone marrow is presented as it should be — with salt, grilled sourdough bread and very little fanfare.
It would be easy to make an entire meal of the veggie portion of the menu, but don't make the mistake of thinking that would be a particularly healthy option. The corn is dotted with goat cheese, the eggplant smothered in burrata. Slick, soft egg swaddles the rosemary-tinged trumpet mushrooms. If there's a loser on this list, it's the cauliflower, which doesn't cozy up to its white anchovy accompaniment as well as it should — neither ingredient really does the other any favors. But it's nice to see veggies prepared with as much thought as their protein counterparts and presented with as much love.
Braised lamb belly, swimming in its own juices and topped with a minty apple chutney, is as rich and fatty as it sounds but also warming and delicious. It's by far the heaviest of the small plates, which otherwise tend toward salads and light, summery pastas. The best, and perhaps my favorite dish of any at Tar & Roses, was the soft gnocchi with asparagus and breadcrumbs. It's not surprising in any way. It's simply a showcase for good ingredients presented at their best: The gnocchi swims in a cream sauce that is imbued with the fresh flavor of asparagus.
With so much fun to be had in the almost 30 snacks, veggies, small plates and bruschettas (try the duck rillet version), it's hard to save room for the entrées. If you come to Tar & Roses with a hankering for a seafood curry, by all means hold out for the shellfish pot, full of maitake mushrooms, scallops, mussels and prawns so fresh, their flesh is actually creamy.
But the bread-and-tomato salad under the roast chicken was unwieldy, the bread too oil-crisped to soak up the tomato, the tomato too overripe to impart the fresh pop the dish required.
Better to play with the smaller dishes, which also lend themselves to exploration of the very cool wine list, which focuses on Spain, Italy and the more unexpected regions and varietals of the United States.
There's a familiarity to dining in a place like this, a lack of surprise that extends from the service, which goes by the standard script ("My name is so-and-so and I'll be taking care of you this evening. Have you dined with us before?") to the menu. 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.
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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.
Kirschner is doing the food of right now, with better quality and more honesty than most. But Tar & Roses is no game changer — whether that matters to you will dictate how much you care about this restaurant. Regardless, if you can get past the hostess, you'll most likely enjoy it.
TAR & ROSES | 602 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica | (310) 587-0700, tarandroses.com | Open Mon.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-9:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. | Beer & wine served. Street & valet parking. | Small plates $6-$12, entrées $20-62 (for a rib-eye for 2).