Naming restaurants is a delicate sport. While the trend used to be to name your place after the chef or owner, or pay homage to a geographic inspiration, those methods increasingly are being cast aside. The strategy now is to string together words that sound as if they have some kind of buzzy cultural currency.
Chef Mike Williams has a way of taking overplayed dishes and making them vibrant again
There are some formulas within this game, including a mix-and-match of adjective and farm animal (Spotted Pig, Fat Cow, Lazy Ox), and variations on the 18th-century British pub genre (Faith & Flower, Cast & Plow). Of all the recent forays into the latter school, perhaps no name holds more promise than Tipple & Brine, the new Sherman Oaks restaurant that is by far the trendiest opening in the San Fernando Valley in recent memory.
Not only do the two words suggest two things dear to our hearts — booze and oysters — but the basic phonology is glorious. The way the soft “pple” of the first word contrasts with the hard “i” in the second word … speaking the name is akin to poetic food-porn purring.
Tipple & Brine is the work of Richard DiSisto, a restaurateur who is also vice president of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce. DiSisto has said that he opened Tipple & Brine, in part, to restore Sherman Oaks' reputation, to draw people there as a destination. As such, the restaurant is crowded with as many trendy touchstones as you could possibly cram into a concept: a serious cocktail program and a secret upstairs bar, local and sustainable menu items, servers oozing cool as if it's their job, a wood interior lit by dangling filament bulbs. Stylish but rugged, the place might be the swank/rustic galley of a yuppie pirate ship.
Overseeing the experience, as well as those cool-oozing servers, is general manager Adam Weisblatt, with help on the cocktail front from Daniel Zacharczuk, a bartender who comes with Honeycut and Varnish experience. In the kitchen, DiDisto has installed executive chef Mike Williams and chef de cuisine Logan Jones, both of whom worked under Casey Lane at the Tasting Kitchen in Venice and then Parish downtown.
The press materials would have you believe that this is a modern seafood restaurant, but to my mind it's much more a veggie-heavy gastropub. And once you get past the local/sustainable/small-plates-meant-for-sharing server monologue, which you probably can recite in your sleep, you'll find a menu with real merit, in terms of both creativity and technique.
Williams has a way of taking overplayed dishes and making them vibrant again. It's a smart move, allowing customers the comfort of familiarity along with the thrill of newness. I've had just about as many bowls of roasted, oily Brussels sprouts in recent months as a girl can handle, but Williams' version was so bold and puckery, with sweet chili vinegar, peanuts and mint, that I'd happily eat it again and again. Touches such as pickled chilies in the cauliflower, and a brilliant pistachio/feta/olive combination on the baby carrots, had the same effect, lending welcome intrigue to known dishes.
Squash soup is generally sweet, heavy and comforting, but here the soup of summer squash is whipped into an airy lather — so light it's practically a foam, yet substantial enough to carry the pure flavor of the vegetable. Two squash blossoms rest atop the frothy soup, stuffed with a combination of cheeses but not so dense as to ruin the buoyant personality of the dish.
Many of the best items on offer here are a triumph of acid — Williams knows how and when to employ it: a perky fava bean gremolata on an otherwise exceedingly rich lamb shank with creamy grits, or a tangy, squid ink aioli under tender fried octopus.
But sometimes his penchant for strong flavors goes awry. Sea urchin on a lemony avocado toast tasted fantastic, except for the fact that the sea urchin was undetectable with all that tang and bread and avocado. It was a waste of great seafood. Fried oysters are served over an oddly sweet creamed lettuce with an onion jam, which does nothing to mitigate the dish's imbalance.
And oddly, one of the restaurant's biggest draws — the cocktails — are one of its most underwhelming factors. A tequila drink called a Mexican Firing Squad was a little heavy on the grenadine, and a Champagne drink with yellow chartreuse and cognac didn't make a case for serving those things together. Anytime I ordered something classic from the bar, it came correct, but the initial offering on the house cocktails list didn't thrill. (Tipple & Brine now has an upstairs bar called Tunnel; it operates Thursday through Saturday and has its own list of drinks, which I didn't sample.)
It's funny: Cocktails and oysters don't even go that well together, for the most part. Tipple & Brine would like to convince you otherwise, even offering oyster luges, which are basically oysters and a shot of scotch that you're supposed to somehow pour into the oyster as you eat it … or something. I tried it. It was fine, but I'd rather not waste either an oyster or good scotch on doing it again.
The oysters, though, are still worth seeking out. It's not the best or the cheapest list of bivalves in town, but they are served icy cold and there's generally a good selection.
Luckily, Weisblatt has put together a short but smart wine list to help wash them down. There are a number of Crémant de Loires on the sparkling list that are both affordable and delicious with raw shellfish. (Miller High Life also appears in the “sparkling” section of the wine list, which is cute or eye-rollingly ironic, depending on your mood.) And who would have thought you'd find, for instance, a fantastic 2007 Marc Tempe Zellenberg riesling on a list with only nine white wines? There are some finds here, and you won't even have to do much looking.
Which is surely the point of the place as a whole. Good wine, good oysters, a bunch of booze and a chef who manages to take a worn genre and give it new spark. Tipple & Brine is an easy restaurant to love, an attractive pirate ship for swank Valley dining.
TIPPLE & BRINE | Two stars | 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks | (818) 528-2580 | tippleandbrine.com | Tue.-Sat., 5 p.m.-mid. (bar open until 1 a.m.) | Entrees, $24-$30 | Full bar | Valet & street parking