Every generation of L.A. restaurateurs has had its own idea of what a useful restaurant might be, from Musso and Frank through Swingers. The late coffee shop Ship’s was a useful restaurant, with quality-obsessed American food served 24 hours a day. Spago was designed as a useful restaurant, a place where owner Wolfgang Puck could drop in for a glass of wine and a bite of pizza after he finished his shift at Ma Maison, but it turned out to be more useful for Billy Wilder and Irving “Swifty” Lazar than for the schmoes who had to reserve six weeks in advance.
BLD, the bustling new café from Grace’s Neal Fraser, may be the most useful restaurant of our time, open for quick breakfasts of croissants and cappuccino and for sybaritic brunches of fluffy ricotta pancakes and eggs Benedict, for salady lunches and meaty feasts, for serious date-night dinners and after-movie snacks of burgers and beer and butterscotch pudding. (The berry shortcake is crisp and oozy.) When the bouncers at Simon won’t let you within 50 yards of the restaurant, the wait at BLD, a high-turnover place that takes no reservations, is probably about 15 minutes; when the brunch line at Authentic is unthinkable, the Tuscan-baked eggs and French-pressed coffee at BLD are just a few blocks away. BLD is a curious mash-up of Eat Well, AOC and a chef-centered brasserie, one part vegan-friendly brunch place, one part deluxe wine bar, and one part dinner house with a kind of casual menu that reads as homey to people who spend most of their working hours elbow-deep in lamb carcasses.
In BLD’s function as a wine bar, you can choose from a decent selection of wines by the glass, a selection of charcuterie that includes both the well-aged Italian-style salamis from Paul Bertolli’s cult Fra’ Mani line and the pungent Spanish-style chorizos and hams from L.A.’s own La Española. An assortment of perfectly ripe cheeses could function as the cheese board of any of the best restaurants in town. (Even a single six-buck sliver of Humboldt Fog comes on a granite slab with a few different kinds of grilled bread, sliced apples, a handful of Spanish almonds and a sliver of almond-studded pressed fig cake big enough to serve as dessert.)
One of the best salads, a tasty composition of grilled asparagus, shishito peppers and hemp-seed-crusted tofu, is vegan enough to bring a smile to Woody Harrelson’s face. I like to order it with a few slices of La Española’s superbly sanguineous blood sausage on the side, which gives the salad the balance it needs.
Neal Fraser has long been a bwana of complexity in fourth-stage Los Angeles restaurants, rarely content to settle for one garnish where three will do, mixing so many national idioms on a plate that his customers are never quite sure whether they are reading a menu or looking at a departures board at LAX. Los Angeles is a complicated place, and Fraser’s cooking tends to reflect this.
But you don’t go to BLD for an aesthetic experience — you go to eat supper. And freed of the formal requirements of the destination-restaurant menu, Fraser turns out to be a genius as a short-order cook, churning out exemplary, drippy hamburgers made with ultraprime Wagyu beef and even juicier burgers made with Berkshire pork, moistening sandwiches with aioli, using smoky house-made ketchup where he can and Heinz 57 where he must, greasing home fries with La Española’s chorizo, and dropping coleslaw bombs like a 40-year fry cook with canola oil in his veins.
To civilians, a pork-shank sandwich is a pork-shank sandwich, no matter how closely the braised meat may resemble decent Carolina barbecue or how sharp the grainy mustard troweled onto the roll may be. To a chef, the pork-shank sandwich — and the superrich short-rib sandwich, and the al dente cavatelli pasta tossed with shrimp and mascarpone and whatever vegetables may be lying around the kitchen — is a staff meal raised to a high level of art, the kind of cheap-ingredient food that cooks make for each other when they think nobody else is paying attention. Chefs prefer chewy, gamy hanger steaks to filet mignon, because you can really taste the meat. A chef is delighted to griddle a giant scoop of crab salad and slap it on a grilled hamburger bun, because back-kitchen overkill can be the best kind of luxury. Unless you work in a restaurant, this is the kind of food you rarely get to taste. But in Los Angeles, this is what we get to eat after the show.?
BLD, 7450 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 930-9744. Open daily 8 a.m.–11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $26–$66.