It must feel obscenely gratifying to be a certain breed of bartender these days, those who believe in the craft and take it seriously, whose parents likely despaired that their progeny threw away bachelor's degrees to pursue baffling, boozier aspirations. Bartending hitherto seldom made anyone famous, or rich, or even particularly successful. But look at them now: kings and queens of Los Angeles.
In the world of powerhouse bartending, money and success are now wholly attainable — make a name for yourself, and the opportunities come rolling in. But the possibilities have still been limited mainly to running bars, creating bar programs for other people's restaurants, and consulting on other people's projects. Julian Cox — one of L.A.'s best known and most talented bartenders — oversees the cocktail programs at many of the city's most exciting restaurants: Picca, Republique, Bestia, Rivera. But until now, bartenders have opened bars, while restaurateurs and chefs have opened restaurants. Even riding high on the recent wave of fame and respect, bartenders have typically not become restaurateurs.
Enter Brilliantshine, the new project from Cox and Josh Goldman, who between them run the drinks consulting group Soigné. Located down a breezeway in an older building just blocks from the Promenade in Santa Monica, the compact warren of brick-walled rooms containing bars and kitchens and patios feels as if it belongs in another city, one that's more cramped and therefore encourages culture to pop up in its nooks and crannies. It has the vibe of a laid-back college-town eatery.
Brilliantshine is certainly a bar, but it's also very much a restaurant, and is perhaps the first indication of a new breed: one where the drinks come first. Here is a place owned and run by bar professionals but with ambitions to be more than a drinking hole, more than a cocktail lounge with nibbles.
In pursuit of that aim, Cox and Goldman have hired Richie Lopez, a Peruvian chef who worked most recently as chef at Paiche, executing the vision of Ricardo Zarate, and before that at Picca and Sotto. The menu is described by the servers as New American with Peruvian influences, and, of course, the plates are meant for sharing. But more than anything, they are meant to pair well with cocktails. This might be food for sharing, but more importantly it's food engineered to complement drinking.
And man, is that drinking excellent. Who would expect less from Cox and Goldman — Cox alone is responsible for a sizable chunk of the L.A. cocktail scene's most thrilling assets. The list here is less focused than at somewhere like Picca, but that broadness allows for a roster of drinks that touches on many different booze tropes: tiki, classic-with-a-twist, seasonal, creative.
And so you might find a buoyant meditation on fall with the Autumn Sour No. 2, made with apple brandy, Alsatian peach liqueur, lime and egg whites. It tastes like a California autumn day, infused with melancholy but also reams of sunshine. Or a Zombie variation called the Walking Dead, which arrives at your table flickering blue flames, and tasting both tropical and slightly sinister, the (three types of) rum undercut with the wickedness of clove.
For his part, Lopez has taken his time working with the menus of Ricardo Zarate at Picca and Paiche, as well as his own Peruvian background, and funneled that into this endeavor. But there's also French, Asian, Italian and Californian influences here, and a few dishes that mix up all of the above. For instance, there's a tagliatelle with Korean pickled spinach, veal liver, and ocopa, a traditional Peruvian sauce. It's not quite as confusing as it sounds, but it still suffers from one big "why??": the veal liver. Sitting in leaden hunks on the pasta, it's just as metallic and livery as cow's liver can be.
That's one of several instances where it seems as though the kitchen is throwing ingredients around more because they're odd than because they're a good idea. Sweetbreads on toast is an intriguing concept, I suppose, but these particular sweetbreads aren't cooked especially well (the bounce factor is disconcerting, especially atop brioche toast), and the combination of the offal with heavily sweet tomato jam and the salty snarl of olive tapenade makes for a dish that's just plain strange, and not pleasantly so. Meanwhile, Santa Barbara uni with raw Japanese sea scallops combines two sea creatures that hide a bitter edge. Usually that note is obscured by sweet flesh, but here an "uni snow" manages to ramp up the bitter finish in a way I doubt the kitchen intends.
Ironically, these dishes falter in the same ways that many drinks did back in the earliest days of the cocktail revolution, when bartenders were throwing ingredients in a glass together with a lot of passion and gusto but without much finesse.
The more straightforward dishes tend to fare better; some of the menu's best items are the ones that sound most boring. Bok choy comes gorgeously plated over cauliflower puree with red onion and tomato. It's one of those vegetable dishes that seems as if it could be a throwaway but turns out better than most of the meatier, more complex choices on the menu. And Lopez is a master of the simple salad. Quinoa with baby oak lettuce is a standout, as is Lola Rosa lettuce with goat cheese fritters. With both of these dishes, the lettuce itself, impeccably sourced and carefully dressed, grabs the spotlight.
This is one of those restaurants where being a vegetarian is a secret blessing — most of Lopez's best efforts are meat-free. But the simple kampachi crudo with white soy and pears was also lovely, and shredded crispy duck legs with pickled daikon and chicharron to fold into butter lettuce wraps is an example of faultless elevated bar food.
Strangely, the artfulness of the drinks might be the very thing that unbalances Brilliantshine. In the past, Cox has created cocktail programs for the city's best chefs, tailoring his drinks to the specifics of the menu, and the combination can be stunning.
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Here, he and Goldman have taken just as much care with their boozy concoctions, and the results are just as fine. But the cooking, by comparison, seems slightly graceless. Ambitious, for sure, but in contrast to the steady, delightful work of the bartenders, Lopez's food is even more starkly what it is: the work of an early-career executive chef still finding his way.
I've no doubt Lopez will eventually find that path, and that Brilliantshine will shine brighter when he does. In the meantime, it's a fun place to contemplate the ever-upward trajectory of our city's barfolk, and look forward to the day when the drinks-first restaurant will be a common beast, as varied and exciting as the cocktails on Brilliantshine's menu.
Brilliantshine | 522 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica | (310) 451-0045 | thebrilliantshine.com | Tues.-Fri. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. | Plates, $8-75 | Full bar | Street parking