Last August, I wrote a review of Flores, in which I wondered if there wasn't more talent in the kitchen than the owner was willing to allow free rein. Flores has had a change in kitchen staff and since been rebranded as the Ladies' Gunboat Society, but one member of the original food team is now flexing some of his talent at the new Café Röckenwagner in Brentwood. At Flores, pastry chef César Bermúdez was turning out simple desserts such as blackberry cobbler, and sliced peaches with ice cream. But in his new position at Röckenwagner, he's proving to be capable of much, much more.
This is the third cafe for Hans Röckenwagner, after 3 Square Café and Röckenwagner Bakery. The chef has a history of fine dining in Los Angeles but has now turned his attention to these more casual endeavors, as well as a strong focus on baked goods. He's probably best known for his pretzels, and in fact the new café just started a “pretzel happy hour” this week, wherein from Tuesday through Saturday, from 5 to 7 p.m., you can get a pretzel burger, pretzel pizza, pretzel grilled cheese, etc., for $5 a pop.
But what really makes Café Röckenwagner (which opened in January) noteworthy is its European-style desserts, courtesy of Bermúdez. Tarts, bombes and eclairs line up inside the pastry case, and they're the type of sweets that usually look beautiful but taste old-fashioned — too stiff, too sweet. Not so here.
A coconut mango bombe had the most outrageous texture, as buoyant as a marshmallow but without any of the spooky wobble, as creamy as creme anglaise, but much more airy — not too sweet, not too sticky. It was a marvel. Bermúdez was brought to the United States by José Andrés to work at the Bazaar, and before that worked in Spain, where he trained with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. This was not a guy destined to make blackberry cobbler.
Beyond the pastries, Café Röckenwagner is an exceedingly pleasant place to have lunch or dinner. It's the type of restaurant where you can get silken chicken liver mousse on crusty toast, with a thin layer of strawberry jam between the bread and mousse to sweeten it just slightly, and pickled onions on top for contrast. A citrus salad topped with crispy pork schnitzel made for a fantastic lunch that was light enough but not insubstantial. There are salads and sandwiches, and larger entrees such as roast chicken with lemon mashed potatoes.
Just don't eat so much you make the grave mistake of becoming too full to try one of Bermúdez's creations.