So many new restaurants these days seem to be born almost exclusively of concept. That is to say, people build restaurants the same way they pitch TV shows: There has to be a twist, a cleverness, something to sell the damn thing. We in the food media regularly swap out the word "restaurant" for "concept," as if the two nouns were interchangeable — and the dreaming up and marketing of a thought were no less real than a physical location in which people serve real food to real customers.
There's no lack of concept at Terrine. It's part bistro, part brasserie, and there's a heavy focus on meat — hell, there's a giant painting of a pig on the building's facade. And yet, more so than at most other new restaurants, the concept for this place appears to be fairly old-fashioned: Get a beautiful space, decorate it well, and hire a number of extremely talented professionals.
"Hire" is a misnomer, perhaps, seeing as Terrine's two most vital employees are also owners. It's the first ownership venture for both chef Kris Morningstar and business partner Stephane Bombet, who oversees operations. Bombet was for many years the front-of-house ying to chef Ricardo Zarate's yang at Zarate's string of successful (but now defunct) restaurants, while Morningstar has a long history pleasing L.A. diners at restaurants such as Blue Velvet, District and Ray's & Stark Bar at LACMA.
For all the restaurants in which Bombet and Morningstar have taken part over the years, there's a feeling here that the pair has turned back to what used to work, what's always worked, what may have been lost in this rowdy march toward casual concept restaurants. The space is refined but ornate: The white-walled, burnished mirror–bedecked interior would be outshone by the gorgeous patio if it weren't for the fact that the patio's light-spangled beauty is visible from everywhere in the restaurant, and its central Javanese bishopwood tree is basically the main design component of the whole space. The tree looms like a benevolent giant, making Terrine feel like an elegant brasserie that has been transplanted into some kind of magical forest.
The food, too, reflects a brasserie transported, through Morningstar's experience and into a modern Californian context. At its heart this is classic French cookery, with just enough Golden State sensibilities to keep it feeling fresh.
Certain classics are left classic. There's a deep, rich, cheesy French onion soup that is basically a paragon of the form, and moules frites don't deviate from the tried and true wine/cream/shallots formula. There's a braised rabbit leg that is perhaps a smidge too authentic; its baby carrot and pearl onion accompaniment is almost exactly what you'd get at a simple dinner in Paris, but at $34 I found it a little dry, a little small and maybe even a little boring.
As the name and the pig painting would indicate, meat is a major muse here. The charcuterie board is a grand meat palette that showcases Morningstar's deft hand with all manner of rillettes, terrines and pâtés. Elsewhere on the menu, sausages, various forms of foie gras and a $96 cote du boeuf further the chef's meaty bona fides. His boudin blanc, served with parsnip puree, roasted apples, cippolinis and a tart vinegar sauce, gets the smooth texture and mellow flavor of that particular form of sausage just right.
Pigs ears are an ingredient of the moment, but Morningstar understands the nature of this kind of fat and cartilage, and he presents the crunchy strips as if they were french fries, served with creamy, tart sauce gribiche. The result (which comes about by poaching the whole ears in lard, then cutting them into strips and frying them to order) is like crispy pork caramel, chewy and shatter-y and one of the purest expressions of pig I've encountered.
This is a special talent of Morningstar's — creating dishes that get to the very spirit of an ingredient. It's never more apparent than with the garbure, a stew of duck confit and white beans, which expresses the very quintessence of duck, its deep brawny soul, its particular gamey perfume. It's an utterly enchanting dish, if you have a soul easily enchanted by the essence of fowl.
That purity of intention with some of the meatier dishes makes the occasional misstep with veggies a little head-scratching. Beautiful little florets of multicolored cauliflower are completely obliterated by brown butter béarnaise, the tarragon and copious sauce doing nothing for the cauliflower's delicate flavor. It's one of those odd dishes that is less than the sum of its parts. Wood-roasted sunchokes with a pistachio aillade were less problematic, but there was nothing about the preparation that demonstrated their best attributes.
Service has obviously been thought over thoroughly, and there are small touches that reflect things that used to matter in dining but have fallen by the wayside. You may not even notice, for instance, that the cocktails you ordered are carried to the table on a silver tray topped by a white napkin, but subconsciously it will register. Nearly everyone I've brought to Terrine has declared it their new favorite restaurant, and many of them aren't sure why. It's the food, of course, but it's also the extra steps that have been taken to ensure you feel pampered: the champagne coupes, the warm welcome you receive upon arrival, the quietly expert service.
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That service and its tone can be attributed to Bombet, for sure, but also to co-owner and wine director François Renaud, another Frenchman who worked most recently at the Tasting Kitchen and who will talk you through the mostly French wine list with charm and pride. Also here directly from the Tasting Kitchen is Ryan Wainwright, who has put together one of the more delightful cocktail menus in town, with drinks that straddle the line between sophistication and inventiveness. A lime-heavy mezcal drink would be almost margarita-like if not for the hint of pineapple and the slight sting of serrano, giving it a depth of flavor never achieved by a margarita.
If there's a major downside to Terrine, it's that it is far too expensive to make it anything other than a treat, unless you're cool with throwing down $15 for a cocktail and $29 for a charcuterie board on the regular. That said, it's exactly the type of place I'd want to go on a random Tuesday evening, to sit out on that patio under the bishopwood tree and drink wine and eat truffled chicken liver mousse. Terrine doesn't feel quite like a special-occasion restaurant, yet that's exactly what it is.
In every other regard, Terrine is what it appears to be. There's a lack of artifice that's refreshing. There's no gimmick, no twist, nothing other than an exceptionally talented chef and his highly capable staff doing what they do best.
TERRINE | Three stars | 8265 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove | (323) 746-5130 | terrinela.com | Dinner Sun.-Thu., 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m.; brunch Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. | Entrees, $20-$96 | Full bar | Valet parking