Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne are not just friends, but are also two of L.A.’s most lauded restaurateurs who’ve recently opened Brentwood’s Tavern as a further testament to their own blend of talents. (They also own Lucques and AOC.)
One of the greatest joys of my adult life is currently the lovely little guest apartment we have hidden under our house up here in Topanga. I suspect my loyal friends are as glad to see it as I am, having weathered so many years of lesser comfort on “earlier” adult-life Manhattan apartment floor.
This summer has been a busy one for houseguests, and the traffic downstairs has gotten me musing on the art of friendship as I have happily beribboned up Old Navy flip-flops in all sizes and run through load after load of sandy beach towels. Why do some friendships prove so resilient while others seem to have a specific shelf life? Is there a recipe for longevity? And will Dawn always, always be cooler than me as we enter out third decade of friendship? (answer: emphatic yes.)
These are questions that might well apply to successful restaurant partnerships as well. Why do some seem slated for only temporary success while others blend talents in more substantial, long-term establishments? Much like that quirky-cool chick you befriended your freshman fall, you may find yourself awfully glad you didn’t wind up as permanent roommates let alone business partners. Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne are not just friends, but are also two of L.A.’s most lauded restaurateurs who’ve recently opened Brentwood’s Tavern as a further testament to their own blend of talents. (They also own Lucques and AOC.) If difficult table reservations are an indication of early success, then it’s on in Brentwood. It’s been a long time since anyone answering the phone has haughtily told me I “might” be able to get a table at 10:30 p.m., and this after I’d mentioned I’d be bringing a toddler and would happily eat at 5:30!
Fortunately, my intrepid assistant was able to get us an earlier reservation on a recent Thursday night as Mr. Sexton, our daughter and a Harvard pal I’ll call “the Novelist” journeyed to Tavern for my birthday dinner. I hadn’t seen this particular friend since our ten-year reunion. At an event where hubris and humidity were equally suffocating, her cheerful admission that she “hadn’t done much yet” was itself refreshingly down-to-earth. She’s tutored kids on the Upper East Side for years and has a day-job in development at a private school while she writes her novel; if anyone deserved a long weekend of sun and fun before returning to August in a tiny Harlem studio, it’s her.
Tavern is divided by décor and traffic pattern into three distinct areas: the take-out counter called the Larder, a dark, vaguely nautical bar space, and the airy, spacious dining room that banishes all remembrances of its Hamburger Hamlet past. This restaurant feels big, much bigger, in both square footage and ambition than either of Goin and Styne’s previous partnerships. Opening west of the 405 is, of course, another big milestone for this duo, and so far the Westside seems grateful for their migration. On a Thursday at 6 p.m., we were bemused to note the grey-haired couple next to us raving about their entrées and asking for dessert advice before our opening breadbasket salvo. They were not the only early-bird diners in the room either. In an era of restrained spending, Tavern is on target for the coveted “third turn,” the third dinner seating that can make or break a restaurant especially if there is no pre- or post-theatre traffic to monetize. Tavern is swamped.
Goin runs the kitchen and Styne runs the front of the house at Tavern; at this third outpost, it seems clear that the scale is tipped in favor of the latter. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Goin’s cooking at Tavern; there were some excellent food highlights like the perfectly cooked softshell crabs with sweet summer corn from the market and the superb lamb merguez sausage coiled elegantly on a bed of couscous. We paired these two appetizers and a lovely little “BLT” inspired salad with some bubbly to toast to my birthday and to the renewal of a great college-era friendship. My pal the Novelist especially raved about the Champagne as one might; it was an unusual bottling from the Rare Wine Company made with coveted Grand Cru grapes from Mesnil. At only $18 a glass, this unique sparkler alone makes Tavern worth your visit some time very soon.
Entrées were mixed: one has the sense that Goin is more in her element in a smaller, quieter setting where her refined “supper” aesthetic shines — her Sunday Suppers at Lucques is one of my top five cookbooks of all time and if you don’t own it, you’re missing out. At Tavern, however, the overall enterprise seems to be humming along just slightly faster than the kitchen itself. There was a long wait time between courses; at 7 p.m., this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the evening as the dining room quickly swelled to capacity and beyond. (I pictured line cooks panicking in the proverbial “weeds” well before the critical hour of 8 p.m.) Particularly disappointing was the barramundi served with labne (yogurt-based cheese) over chilled yellow tomatoes. Rather than contrasting temperatures, this dish arrived with equally tepid fish and tomatoes and created the unhappy effect of gazpacho that had been left sitting out in the sun topped with lukewarm fish. The grilled lamb entrée sounded promising with a glass of the very good Baker Lane pinot noir from the Hurst vineyard in Sonoma; unfortunately, the rosemary on which the lamb was skewered was burnt to a crisp and it was difficult to get beyond that charred herb flavor to appreciate the rest of the dish.
As in any successful friendship, there are invariably moments when one half is doing the heavy lifting; at Tavern, the flawless front-of-the-house service (thank you Kelly!) and warm atmosphere go a long way towards compensating for a few missteps in the kitchen. The wine list designed by Styne is particularly wonderful, easily the best in Brentwood, so for oenophiles, Tavern is a must. Styne’s palate and buying confidence have evolved considerably since she and I first met about six years ago and her selections across the board are fairly priced and delicious. Also worth noting is the fantastic menu for “Little Tavernistas,” which wisely offers pasta with butter and parmesan minus the parsley. Goin and Styne have five kids between them these days, and this fun menu offers a little something favored by each member of the lucky culinary quintet.
My friend the Novelist tried to pick up the check for my birthday, which reminded me why her generous nature appealed to me so many years ago in that literature class where “lit-crit” was all too enthusiastically undertaken. And as criticism is still not my strong suit, I feel confident that with a few more months’ time the Goin/Styne partnership will balance out some opening tremors at Tavern. All long-term relationships are based on give and take; with so much talent to share and to spare, it’s inevitable that Tavern will evolve into a third great success for this dynamic restaurant duo.
11648 San Vicente Boulevard