If there is an unwritten rule of the New American bistro, it is this: Thou shalt serve a gourmet burger. It probably will arrive on a brioche bun. It likely will include aioli and arugula. It almost always will be pricier than you think it should be.
So you might be surprised that at the Bellwether, a quaint Studio City restaurant run by a former chef at Father's Office — the gastropub that, more than any restaurant in Los Angeles and maybe the world, popularized the gourmet burger — there is no burger offered at dinner, only a patty melt listed near the bottom of the menu. But what a patty melt it is: a gorgeous rare patty smothered in molten Taleggio and caramelized onions, smooshed and oozing between two toasted slices of caraway-scented rye. You will forget about the burgers in your life.
The Bellwether is the brainchild of Ted Hopson, a journeyman L.A. chef who most recently worked under Sang Yoon at Father's Office and Lukshon, and Hopson's sister-in-law Ann-Marie Verdi, a fellow Father's Office alum, who serves as beverage director. The decision to open a casual bistro in a neighborhood clamoring for more ambitious food options was a smart one: The Bellwether has been packed on weeknights.
There are cocktails on draft, including a silky variation on a Blood and Sand made with orange-infused scotch, as well as a handful of well-curated craft beers and wines by the glass. The long wrap-around bar that encircles the kitchen is a fine place to settle in and watch the Dodgers while you sip a kaffir lime mule and graze on crunchy tempura-fried cauliflower.
Even as the dining room becomes filled with families in the early evening and young couples later at night, the noise level never rises above a comfortable din. The lights overhead are bright enough to actually read the menu (call this an “old man gripe” if you will, but it's the type of thing you wish more places would pay attention to). The Bellwether might seem to have the DNA of half the gastropubs in town, but it nails the small details most places overlook.
As comfortable a restaurant as the Bellwether is, it would be a shame to pigeonhole its menu as comfort food. Hopson is what you might call a chef's chef, and he and executive chef John Cho weave solid and inventive cooking techniques into even the most commonplace dishes. The french fries here are brined, steamed, frozen and fried, part of a three-day process that yields long, crispy batons as fluffy as a baked potato inside yet shatteringly crunchy outside. Ruby-red squares of bigeye tuna sashimi arrive crowned with a raw caper-and-olive relish and confit fennel with Calabrian chilies, a small mediation on puttanesca. Humble potato salad is glitzed up with fat coins of Yukon potato, smoked salmon roe and truffle vinaigrette.
I was captivated by Hopson's colorful play on Waldorf salad: A mound of the crunchy-creamy picnic staple was hidden under a cold-poached slab of chicken breast, and a bath of vibrant green apple and fennel consommé was poured over the top. Such balanced elegance is something you expect at a restaurant at twice this price point.
At the top of each menu is a small section labeled “R+D,” which features a few dishes and perhaps a cocktail that are in the research-and-development phase. The idea of a restaurant charging full price for dishes that aren't quite finalized seems concerning, but after sampling a tantalizing, sweet-and-sour rendition of Venetian mackerel in saor, I was sold on the concept.
The sole dud I encountered was a plate of vinegar-lashed pea tendrils and grilled shrimp with small scallion fritters. The shrimp were tender, but the fritters were sad and stodgy. My only other (minor) complaint is with the desserts, which are supplied by Quenelle pastry chef John Park. They're made off-site and can sometimes taste that way — a tangy rhubarb cobbler needed more crispy streusel than was sprinkled atop the gooey fruit filling.
As comfortable a restaurant as The Bellwether is
If you visit during the Bellwether's weekend brunch, you'll find more food that's designed to please a crowd. In our current state of fried-chicken obsession, who can resist a spicy, Nashville-inspired chicken sandwich spread with pimento cheese and crunchy chow-chow pickles? There are, unsurprisingly, toasts topped with smoked salmon and avocado, but there's also a quietly refined frittata. And there's a good chance that you or someone near you will succumb to the temptation of a bloody mary garnished with a miniature BLT sandwich. While Hopson does offer a burger during brunch, stacked with a thick wedge of English cheddar and tart Branston pickle, it's not like many other burgers in town.
It's not always useful to read too much into the meaning of a restaurant's name, but in the case of “bellwether” — “one that leads or indicates trends” — the definition seems an apt description of what Hopson and Verdi have accomplished. The Bellwether is by no means a groundbreaking establishment, but it takes what we've come to expect from a neighborhood restaurant and adds another layer of polish. No hooks, no gimmicks, no conceits. If that's the next big trend, I'm all for it.
THE BELLWETHER | Three stars | 12351 Ventura Blvd., Studio City | (818) 285-8184 | thebellwetherla.com | Daily, 5-10 p.m.; brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. | Full bar | Valet parking