It's not often that someone begs me to refrain from writing about a place because, as one friend put it, "I don't want everyone knowing about our bar." But more than one person has said something along those lines about ERB Bar, even as it barely steps out of its infancy. Friendship be damned; ERB deserves the hordes.
That description — "our bar" — ought to please owner Randy Clement. Months before ERB Bar's opening, Clement told me he was aiming to create "the bar we always wanted to go to." He envisioned an industry hangout, a place that chefs and bartenders from out of town would make sure to visit, a destination disguised as a laid-back neighborhood spot. Clement is the co-owner of the wine stores Everson Royce in Pasadena (ERB stands for Everson Royce Bar; Everson and Royce are the names of Clement's two sons) and Silverlake Wine, and his background in upscale front-of-house service has informed much about the style and success of his wine shops. The idea is always to give the neighborhood and the customer what they want.
When Silverlake Wine opened a second location in the Arts District earlier this year, occupying a large space on the corner of Seventh and Mateo streets, an opportunity was presented to fulfill one of Clement's old ambitions: to run an eating and drinking establishment of some sort with a former colleague, chef Matt Molina.
Clement and Molina worked together in the heyday of Campanile and have remained friends. As friends are wont to do, they had sporadic wine-fueled conversations about someday opening a business together, perhaps the bar or restaurant they'd always wanted to patronize themselves, the fantasy space into which they could pour their combined passions.
In the years since Campanile, Clement went on to the retail wine business while Molina went on to run the kitchen at Osteria Mozza for Nancy Silverton, to great acclaim. In 2012, his efforts at Mozza won him the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific region.
When Clement saw the opportunity to take over the space on the opposite end of the building where the new Silverlake Wine would live, those 18 years of conversations and shared fantasies with Molina began to become reality. In what had previously been a Señor Fish, the two, along with partners April Langford (Clement's wife) and Joe Capella, planned and built out the bar of their dreams.
In many ways it's a fairly simple operation: long, backlit bar facing some banquette seating; a large kitchen abutting a hallway to the outdoor space; a huge, string light–festooned back patio with picnic tables and a bocce court. Eventually (hopefully by next spring), a second bar is planned for the patio.
The menus, too, are simple. You'd think that, from one of the city's most revered wine retailers, there would be a serious focus on wine. Instead, there's a very short by-the-glass list and a longer, pleasingly esoteric but hardly revolutionary bottle list. If there's a booze fixation here, it's on liquor. The long list of spirits, put together by bar manager Chris Ojeda, is impressive in its breadth, and while there is only a handful of (fantastic) original cocktails listed, the folks behind the bar can make you just about anything you'd like. The recent Harvest Sour, which turns rye and applejack into a frothy, light, wintery wonder with lemon and egg whites, is just one of a number of drinks showcasing Ojeda's deft touch.
In the kitchen, Molina is turning out classic drinking food from all over the world: Chinese-style pork buns, Mexican taquitos and an all-American burger. Little spin is given to these dishes — the pork bun is as you'd expect it to be, pork belly that's roasted just enough to make it soft but not too wobbly, crisp but not too chewy, with a simple pickle and hoisin sauce, wrapped in a warm, springy bun. The taquitos are filled with smoky, pureed potatoes and drenched in a textbook tomatillo salsa. It's all perfectly executed without being meddled with too much, which is fantastic if you just want great food to go with your cocktails and a little disappointing if you were hoping to see Molina flex his creative muscle.
Which isn't to say he isn't flexing something — that burger, for instance, is a triumph of greasy American gratification while somehow remaining elegant. Compact and crisp-bunned, the single, medium-thickness, prime beef chuck patty topped with Tillamook cheddar packs a wallop of buttery, meaty flavor. There's sometimes a pork chorizo version with slaw that's almost as good, with just the right amount of spice, and there are thin Kennebec french fries to go with either, which taste like the beautiful, shameful love child of Belgium and McDonald's.
I've heard rumors of an occasional larger, more serious entree popping up on the menu, such as a $57 pan-roasted filet topped with bone marrow, but I've never had the pleasure of coming across these diversions during my visits, and I don't mind that much. Does a $60 steak make sense in this context? I'm not so sure.
Minor annoyances with logistics pop up here and there, such as a disorganized valet attendant in the huge parking lot who may demand you pay the maximum fee ahead of time and that you also park your own car, or an ordering system that isn't really clear (from what I can tell, if you sit inside, you get table service; if you sit on the patio, you have to order at the bar and take a number). But once you get settled on that patio with your drink and your food, and the lights are twinkling and the crowd around you is laughing and playing bocce and generally looking beautiful the way Arts District dwellers tend to do, it all kind of melts away — and you feel as though this is, in fact, the bar you always wanted to go to.
If there's one real issue with ERB Bar, it's the management of our own expectations as consumers. Fans of Silverlake Wine might be disappointed that this isn't the wine bar of their dreams (I do think a longer by-the-glass list couldn't hurt). And it's hard not to put big expectations on Molina's cooking, given that we already know he can execute beautiful versions of international dishes.
There was a large part of me that hoped that, after years of Molina's working under Silverton, this would finally be his chance to showcase his own personality as a cook. That's not exactly what ERB Bar does — there are no cheffy twists on dishes here, just straightforward bar snacks perfectly realized.
The good news is, this isn't all that this group of folks has in the hopper. Word on the street is there's another restaurant in the works, and it's likely this new one will be more restaurant than bar and that it will be the showcase of Molina's huge talent. The new place won't be downtown but rather in an Eastside neighborhood, and it's not due for some time to come.
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I can't wait. In the meantime, ERB Bar will have to suffice. I dare say we'll survive.
ERB BAR | Three stars | 1936 E. Seventh St., downtown | (213) 335-6166 | erbla.com | Daily, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. | Dishes, $5-$130 (with the occasional $50+ large plate) | Full bar | Valet parking