Guest Chefs, Great Food, and Flaming Cocktails In Santa Monica
By Dolores Quintana
Birdie G’s, the restaurant helmed by Chef Jeremy Fox, who is also an award-winning Chef/Owner at Rustic Canyon, and Executive Chef Matthew Schaler, really lights up every December when the restaurant holds a special series called 8 Nights at Birdie G’s. The restaurant recently made the list of the Los Angeles Times 101 Best Restaurants at number 23, and there’s a good reason why they did. The series sold out quickly after reservations were opened; people know it’s great. I recommend getting a reservation for this series whenever you have the chance. It’s one of my top ten nights of dining in Los Angeles.
This was the first time that I got to experience the series, and it is everything that you love about food. It’s the joy of sharing great food and beverages, inventing and discovering new ways to serve food and the delight of the diners who get to taste the chef’s creations and the cooks’ hard work. There’s a magic to this dining series that invites some of the best chefs in Los Angeles and beyond. The restaurant refers to it as Hanukkah-ish, and there’s an element of pride in Fox’s heritage, especially in the star cocktail of the night, the Mazel-tini, which arrives with a flaming candle on top of a gold Star of David.
The thoughtfulness and kindness involved in inviting other chefs to showcase their culinary craft for Hanukkah bring an air of camaraderie and a calming peacefulness. It’s really the kind of spirit that the world needs more of. Outside of the restaurant, representatives of the awesome cookbook and culinary shop from Downtown Los Angeles, Now Serving, have a table full of books for sale.
I went on the first night when chef Sean Brock from Nashville was the guest chef. Audrey’s restaurant is named after his grandmother, and Conde Nast Traveler said of the restaurant, “Food approached with the zeal of evangelists.” When you speak of Sean Brock to food fans, they know his name, and others know him as the chef who took Anthony Bourdain to Waffle House. Everyone in the house was deadly serious about getting the food right and had an almost military precision as the cooks would respond in unison to the chef’s calls.
The menu, which is a small a la carte menu for each night, for Brock’s dinner was:
The Bloody Butcher cornbread arrived piping hot and crispy in a cast iron skillet, light and fluffy inside with a flavor that no cornbread I have ever eaten before has had. I am a fan of cornbread, but the crispiness and the rich taste of this dish, along with the Candy roaster squash dip, made me think of cornbread in different ways.
Killed Vegetable Salad is a salad for people who like meat and aren’t into salad. It has a richness from the hot country ham fat that made a salad something more than just a salad, and the maple vinegar and choice of lettuce elevated it. It comes from an Appalachian recipe called Killed Lettuce, which uses pork fat. Brock’s version has a depth of flavor that really makes eating salad more interesting taste-wise.
Cherokee White Eagle Corn Grits. I have eaten grits and admittedly enjoy them, but they are usually the instant kind that comes out of a box. Once again, these grits are like no grits that I have ever tasted. First of all, the grits themselves are much more hearty and aren’t milled into the ground, giving the dish more heft when chewing it. But the dish has the flavors of smoked Andouille sausage, chantarelle mushrooms, and sour corn on top of that—flavor upon flavor.
Colonel Newsom’s Aged Country Ham: Chef Brock brought some of the ingredients for the dishes with him, including Colonel Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham. A product of Kentucky, the ham is smokehouse-aged and naturally cured, famous for its quality.
Audrey’s Chicken & Dumplings: This was one of my favorites. It arrived in a cast iron pot, and I shared it with my guest. I’m guessing the dish uses Cruze Farms buttermilk to make the dumplings themselves, fines herbs, and is crowned with slices of black truffle. I also love a good dumpling, but these had the buttermilk flavor, were slightly chewy in a good way, and the fine herbs and truffles made each bite give little explosions of deliciousness.
Paw Paw Vinegar Pie: It is a small slice of dessert heaven. With makrut lime meringue, it’s not as tart as you might imagine but silky on the tongue. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the Anson Mills buckwheat groats are used to make the crust. With all of the powerful flavor in the other dishes, this dessert tastes great but has a diaphanous quality. It’s a delicate wave of farewell.
But wait, there’s more: we also had regular Birdie G’s menu items while waiting for the dinner.
The Relish Tray: Fresh, Pickled, and Fermented Vegetables With Five-Onion California Dip. It’s really just stellar. The fermented carrots, which are the work of Executive Chef Matt Schaler, are, for my money, one of the tastiest presentations of a plain vegetable I have ever eaten. If more vegetables were like this, I would eat them more often.
Persimmon & Burrata: Fuyu persimmon, yuzu kosho, and anchovies, capers and garlic. Persimmons are devilishly hard to prepare. They are unpleasantly sour if you try just to eat one that you assume is ripe. The only thing I can usually do with them is let them rot in a bag and make cookies. But this dish is a dream for the persimmon lover. Perfectly ripe persimmons swimming in a lake of burrata with yuzu kosho, a fermented condiment made of chiles, yuzu ( a kind of citrus). This is the way I want to eat persimmons going forward.
“Tinned” Whale Cove Mussels with makrut lime, yuzu kosho mayo, and Matzo Project matzo. I’ve actually never eaten a mussel that I can remember, but I did dig into these. The mussels were flavorful enough on their own, but a little dip in the mayo didn’t hurt. The matzo was great. It’s crisp, tasty, and from the Matzo Project, an artisan company. We even got our own fried matzo from Chef Fox, and I can tell you that fried matzo is even better.
The joyous and friendly Chef Brock came by at different times during the meal to chat. He and my guest had lots to talk about, and the chef even brought out his umami sauce and let us both have a taste. Chef Fox was delightful and kind and also stopped by to talk about his dishes. That’s how we got the fried matzo.
Brandt Beef Koji Marinated Flatiron steak with french fries. The beef is so tender, and the fries are so crisp. It has a little California flag in the flatiron steak slices. This is flatiron perfection, beautifully cooked and spiced. The flavor was packed in every bite, but much like everything else on the menu, it was presented beautifully but unpretentiously. None of Birdie G’s dishes need to be ostentatious because they taste that good.
Finally, the cocktails and wine. The house was serving Champagne Henriot at the beginning of the meal. I drank mine and the portion for my guest, Chef Diego Argoti of Poltergeist and Estrano because he is sober.
I switched to a cocktail because there were some really tempting options. I chose the Mazel-tini, and the presentation was amazing. This is the one time the presentation is more ostentatious, and it works. I sat there and watched the candle burn down because it was really pretty. But the drink itself is marvelous. Can you tell I love the Mazel-tini?
For people who like martinis but find the standard gin martini a little too sharp, The Mazel-tini is made of olive oil-washed Hangar 1 vodka, sage, lo-fi dry vermouth, and that flame. I know what you are thinking, but the olive oil wash really works, and let’s face it, martinis come with olives. They are part of the recipe. In this case, the olive is used as a flavor component integrated into the drink rather than a garnish. The sage works in harmony with the olive oil wash and the vermouth.
I then had a Chianti, which I am sad to say I don’t know the name of, but it was excellent. I recommend asking the server for their recommendation if you want a great wine option.
Writing this is making me really hungry. I look forward to next year. Bravo.