As far as names go, Redbird is not particularly descriptive. If anything, it might lead you to believe that the restaurant is a nuevo Southern joint, the red bird in question a chicken the chef aims to fry up.
But the story is much more convoluted. Vibiana, the now-deconsecrated cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and one of the city's oldest buildings, has long been used as an events space. Now chef Neal Fraser, his wife and business partner, Amy Knoll Fraser, and restaurateur Bill Chait have built Redbird in what was the rectory, the upstairs quarters of which used to house the cardinal. Get it?
As much as the name nods to the building's history, the part of Redbird that best makes use of that history is the main dining room, which is actually a patio (which often is covered with a newfangled retractable ceiling). It's a glorious space, designed by Robert Weimer, all white walls and potted trees and views of the cathedral next door. There's a sense of the past in the architecture and a sense of the future in the design details.
It's one of the most dramatic and thrilling rooms to house a new L.A. restaurant since, well, République, which is also a Chait project. We should expect nothing less from the restaurateur, who is behind many of the breathtaking spaces constructed in L.A. in recent years. Even if you have a reservation, there's a good chance you'll be seated in the lounge area, a pretty enough room that feels like a swank hotel lobby, but request the main room if you can.
Redbird is a long time coming for Fraser, who's been planning a high-end comeback ever since his restaurant Grace closed in 2010 (originally the plan was simply to move Grace downtown, but that never happened). In the meantime he's continued to run his 9-year-old restaurant, BLD; opened upscale hot dog joint Fritzi Dog at the Original Farmers Market; and done some consulting at spots such as the Strand House in Manhattan Beach. But the impression is that Redbird is his grand statement, the place in which we're supposed to get a sense of the chef's true talent and perhaps even his soul.
To honor all that, there's a fair amount of pomp at Redbird, and service that is rather more formal than is customary these days — pleasingly so. Certain touches go a long way toward enhancing the sparkle of the place. Dinner begins with an “amuse-booze,” a small cocktail, often a lightly fruity concoction with sherry undertones. When bread arrives, it comes in a little cloth sack, of the type prospectors used to carry their gold.
Redbird is a restaurant for when the mood strikes to live high on the hog, a place for eating in a decadent but sturdy fashion. Fraser excels at big hunks of protein, be it an extravagant slab of seared foie gras served with tart quince and cocoa nibs, or a rack of red wattle pork accompanied by roasted apples and turnips, the pig fat crisped just so at the edges, the interior juicy and piggy. The $110, 36-ounce porterhouse could feed a table of four and provides some deeply gratifying bites of beef, tangy and charred and bloody.
The meaty goodness continues with a gemelli pasta bathed in swarthy braised goat and served with rapini and a poached egg, as well as a chicken pot pie, its contents rich and deeply flavored by chicken heart and chanterelle mushrooms.
Seafood dishes are not quite as consistent, though a John Dory with fregola and mussels was quite elegant in its oceanic reduced bouillabaisse sauce, and a tai snapper crudo with yuzu koshu had all the citrus tang and firm flesh we expect from our crudos. But the gnocchi came with shelled lobster claws that were downright mealy, and an uni dish was slightly disconcerting — tiny shrimp were served in little mounds around the plate and topped with wasabi snow (can we cool it with the wasabi snow, people?), nori dust and uni globs. If you didn't know better, the shrimp might have you thinking you were eating grubs, and the wasabi and nori and uni didn't make up for the weirdness.
There is great pleasure to be derived from Redbird's wine program, and the young sommelier, Diane Pandolfini, makes the experience all the better. Request the long wine list when you're seated, and then ask for Pandolfini to guide you. My conversations with her resulted in some of the better (and more reasonably priced) restaurant finds I've encountered recently: a $54 1999 Roche aux Moines Savennières that exhibited all the strange wonder of older French chenin blancs; a light-bodied Teutonic Pinot Meunier from Oregon that was as food-friendly as wine comes.
Amid the lavishness of Redbird, exemplified by the foie gras and the soaring ceilings and the fantastic wine, it's hard to nitpick the restaurant's one great flaw, but nitpick I will: Fraser's menu is a triumph of American luxury, but it lacks any real point of view, and in that sense it seems a little dated, like the menus of high-end restaurants 10 or 15 years ago. There's a dearth of surprises, and Fraser's attempts at true modernity, such as that uni dish, tend to fall flat. Fraser throws in international touches, as with a “Thai-style” Dungeness crab soup, but there's nothing truly Thai-style about the soup at all. Thai-inflected might be a better descriptor (told you I was nitpicking). It's a classic bisque with some curry in it — rich, creamy and very good but without any of the funk and brightness of true Thai food. There's nothing wrong with it — hell, the soup is delicious. But our international influences, in this city at least, have grown beyond that brand of luxe fusion.
I wish I knew Fraser as a person and cook just a little better after eating so much of his food. I wish there was something about the cooking that could take me from pleasure to excitement (the wine list certainly managed that). But Fraser doesn't quite bare his soul in this cathedral of his.
In the end, though, it barely matters. Downtown L.A. needed a major shiny new restaurant to anchor its burgeoning dining scene. It needed a place where the well-heeled would be happy to flock pre-theater, a restaurant for business or pleasure, a one-stop-pleases-all kind of place that nonetheless feels special. Redbird isn't quite a religious experience, but it fulfills those aims and more.
REDBIRD | Three stars | 114 E. Second St., downtown | (213) 788-1191 | redbird.la | Sun. & Tue.-Fri., 5-10:45 p.m.; Sat., 5-11:45 p.m. | Entrees, $26-$110 | Full bar | Valet parking