Sometimes it's easy to forget the profound influence Hans Röckenwagner has had on the Los Angeles dining scene. If you only know the chef-restaurateur from his justly famous pretzels, his farmers market bakery booths or his small, homey, wood-and-orange-decorated shops in Santa Monica and Venice, you might be appreciative, might admire his German-style breads and woodworking skills, but you'd also be missing the bigger picture.
Röckenwagner, who is chef-owner of 3 Square Café and Röckenwagner Bakery and an enormous mothership 10,000-square-foot bakery in Culver City, quietly opened Café Röckenwagner, his third café, in Brentwood in January. Fitted comfortably into the first floor of the BW in Brentwood, a retail and residential building on Wilshire, the new restaurant opened in stages and now serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. ]
What you may not realize, if you've only been trailing the chef from café to café for his pretzels and German-style breads and insanely addictive Bircher muesli, is that this is a return of sorts for Röckenwagner. The chef's fine-dining restaurant (also called Röckenwagner) was one of the city's best in its day, serving, among other lovely things, glorious odes to white asparagus long before anybody had seen the stuff. Because although Röckenwagner's new restaurant is just as happily casual as his other current places, there are stunning touches amid the cozy café chairs and pale wood (the chef is also a master carpenter) that will remind you of the experience and expertise behind the kitchen doors.
Röckenwagner, who is from Southern Germany and whose career has spanned some three decades of cooking in Germany, Switzerland, Chicago and Los Angeles, has put elements of both his current casual cafés and his old, more formal restaurant into the new project. Add the focus on seasonal, market-driven produce that has always marked his cooking, and some of the best baked goods in town, and you get an extremely diverse and well-curated menu fitted into the small, comfortable, airy space.
Another reason to head to Brentwood: the pastries of César Bermúdez, the insanely talented pastry chef whom Röckenwagner brought in last year. Bermúdez trained at El Bulli and worked in the pastry kitchens of Pierre Hermé, the Bazaar and Flores before joining Röckenwagner's team. Bermúdez's gorgeous work is on display on the menu and in the pastry cases that greet you at Café Röckenwagner: salted caramel eclairs and chocolate-peanut butter bombes and raspberry-almond cream tarts and Tropeziennes, all perfectly executed and lined up, as if you've wandered into a Parisian patisserie instead of a cozy café a few miles from the beach.
Since January, the cafe has opened in stages: first dinner, then lunch and then breakfast about a month ago. They're hoping to add brunch by the end of March. Thus, depending on the time of day you find yourself in Brentwood, you can stop by for trout almondine with French beans and brown butter sauce or brick chicken with rapini; the Pretzel Burger (trademarked!) or a plate of roasted marrow bone with sea salt and crostini; or maybe a cup of excellent coffee and a big bowl of that Bircher muesli; or pick up a bag of caneles or Röckenwagner's take on the cronut, what he calls a crö-döugh (because Germans love umlauts) or a loaf of soda bread.
There's also a pretty great cocktail menu to go with those bar snacks (Moroccan eggplant fritters, edamame hummus), with fun stuff such as a thyme-shochu cocktail with muddled cucumber and Lillet Blanc, black muscat wine with Andalo and bitters, and an Altbier with rosemary. It also should be noted that if you're lucky enough to live in one of the apartments in the building, Café Röckenwagner provides room service. Right. Maybe time to move to Brentwood.