Which came first: the lobster or the gladiator helmet?
At Barton G. on La Cienega in West Hollywood, it's the latter.
The menu planning process at the decadent restaurant, which this paper's critic described as offering "food in high costume, an experience that is theatrical above all else," doesn't follow any prescribed path but instead bends to the inspirational whims of its owner and his kitchen team. Regarding the genesis of its dramatic dishes, Barton G. Weiss, the Miami-based party planner-cum-restaurateur behind the operation, says via email, "You never know what will stick if we think it through."
Consider the lobster apicius dish, for instance. With the restaurant's film production design-scale ambitions, it's often the "vehicle" — the term Weiss prefers for the inedible items he uses, which look more at home in a Hollywood prop house than in a restaurant kitchen — that drives a dish. Limited prep space isn't a deterrent for stocking the many gladiator helmets, which stand at attention waiting to be presented to diners as lobster apicius, which was envisioned as a sly nod to Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius and includes a lobster tail dwarfed by headgear. The staff cannot vouch for whether the helmet itself accurately reflects what Roman soldiers would have worn during Apicius' lifetime during the first century A.D., but that's besides the point.
"People love to let loose at our restaurants, and that's what it's all about, [being] a fun and truly entertaining dining experience," Weiss says. Irresistible bait for Generation Selfie.
In the case of the lobster pop tarts, the concept started with the idea of baking lobster inside puff pastry, and the decision to incorporate a retro-style toaster followed, since it struck Weiss as an inventive and splashy yet feasible way to "play on a nostalgic childhood favorite."
"Barton loves fanciful things," says Barton G.'s L.A. chef de cuisine, Attila Bollok, a New York City native who has cooked in kitchens such as Scarpetta in Manhattan and David Myers' erstwhile Comme Ça contemporary brasserie on Melrose. Weiss' approach sets up a unique set of tasks in a restaurant environment. In order for metal chicken sculptures and cotton candy–wrapped glass mannequin heads to make their intended impact in the dining room, the staff has "nailed down the science" of the restaurant's specific logistics.
"Operationally it's tremendously challenging. It's very, very controlled chaos," Bollock notes. He's also had to take on tasks such as finding a welder to custom fabricate bases sturdy enough to hold upright a 3-foot-high fork and knife set for the steak dishes. (No injuries or incidents have been reported, thankfully.)
Most of Barton G.'s menu R&D is overseen in Miami by executive culinary creative director Jeff O'Neill, a CIA grad with a resume that includes stints in the kitchens of superstar chefs Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert. Bollok says the menu has changed twice in the eight months the West Coast outpost has been open, and the time from concept to final approval and execution of new dishes takes approximately two months. In other words, an unfathomable eternity for chefs who prioritize ingredient seasonality.
Because the Barton G. operation was founded as an event planning company, its high-end parties and restaurants function as symbiotic experimental venues. No creative spark is off-limits, since, as Weiss explains, "Our ideas are inspired by or sometimes found in the strangest of places." A visit to Home Depot might reveal the aesthetic potential of serving desserts in terra cotta pots, for example. In contrast to current seasonality-focused trends, Barton G. restaurants might be the only venues of trade-show floor–to-table cuisine, since Weiss has been known to source vehicles in this type of unlikely setting. Ideas are exchanged during regular brainstorming sessions that O'Neill and Weiss conduct among team members in Miami.
Weiss admits, "There are some items that are just dreadful, and some items we may think are clever and love, but it's determined that they are not fun or outrageous enough." Where that line is drawn can be highly subjective. Then again, there's no way a dish that references the homeless by incorporating expensive marinated fish, a paper bag and a mini shopping cart could ever be in good taste. (That idea, gone.) O'Neill and Weiss try to keep in mind a virtual MPAA rating factor within a culinary context; some concepts "are simply inappropriate" and "not for all audiences."
Even if customers are willing to pay handsomely for the Barton G. experience, most won't rue the fact that a dish Weiss experimented with dubbed "Bye Bye Bloody Sheep Lamb Tartar" has yet to appear in Miami or Los Angeles. A meat scale, butcher block and full-size cleaver accompanying tartare splattered with seasoned ketchup requires an ample appetite for dark humor. So in the end, Weiss' team left it on the chopping block of discarded dishes.
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Meanwhile, there are some food schemes Weiss can't let go of. His staff has yet to find a way for hot dog beignets to make their way to customers, but they "will eventually make it on the menu. We are determined!" For a crew that manages to have tuna and a samurai sword somehow co-exist on a restaurant table, this doesn't sound like an impossible mission.
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