First Look: Fine Dining Chefs Meet BBQ at Barrel & Ashes

Fine dining chefs meet barbecue in Studio City at restaurant impresario Bill Chait’s latest venture, Barrel & Ashes, which now calls the former Spark Woodfire Grill home. Chait, the business mind behind some of L.A.'s best restaurants, such as Bestia, Republique, Rivera, Short Order, Petty Cash Taqueria, Picca and Sotto, has quietly become the “it” man  with his restaurant group, Sprout LA—purposefully merging chefs with new food concepts […]

Fine dining chefs meet barbecue in Studio City at restaurant impresario Bill Chait’s latest venture, Barrel & Ashes, which now calls the former Spark Woodfire Grill home. Chait, the business mind behind some of L.A.'s best restaurants, such as Bestia, Republique, Rivera, Short Order, Petty Cash Taqueria, Picca and Sotto, has quietly become the “it” man  with his restaurant group, Sprout LA—purposefully merging chefs with new food concepts and creatively designed spaces.

Barrel & Ashes opened this past Friday in a completely renovated space that includes the original tile floors from the 1940s, which were uncovered during construction (pictured below—who remembers when the building was Il Mito in the '80s?) There is a centerpiece open kitchen with a chef’s counter, refined wood tables (communal, raised and traditional), a full bar, rustic lighting, kitsch décor like a vintage-looking American flag, Texas sign and a hog in a barrel sketched on the wall. A wall of windows keeps an eye on the street patio lined with picnic tables.

iPhone photos: Karen Young

The opening is significant for Studio City and the San Fernando Valley—first, because of Chait's stature in the restaurant business, and also due to the fact that there is not one, but in this case, two executive chefs with fine-dining pedigrees from Michelin-starred restaurants: Timothy Hollingsworth and Rory Herrmann (both co-own the restaurant along with Chait and Spark's Jeff Sladicka). The result is a unique barbecue concept with a bit of a “haute” twist, mixing traditional and family recipes with modern flavors and carefully constructed plating. 

Hollingsworth started working with Chait last year after cooking for Thomas Keller at Napa’s French Laundry for 13 years, eventually as executive chef. During this time, he represented the U.S. at France's prestigious Bocuse d'Or (world chef championships), winning sixth in the finals. He is also a 2010 James Beard award-winner for Rising Star Chef.

Herrmann's background includes the French Culinary Institute in New York, working with acclaimed restaurateurs Alain Ducasse and Alan Barber and ultimately landing at Thomas Keller’s Per Se when it opened in New York. That led him to Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills, where he was the opening chef de cuisine and awarded the Rising Star award from Star Chefs in 2010. He is now working with Chait and Sprout LA as culinary director as well.  

Despite their respective French cooking training, both have an affinity for barbecue. For Hollingsworth, it comes from his mother’s home cooking and his early years growing up in Texas; whereas barbecue is one of Herrmann’s long-time passions. Bringing more power to the kitchen is chef de cuisine Michael Kahikina, who worked at Bouchon as sous chef.

The bar program adds further cachet to the restaurant's opening, as it is directed by Julian Cox, one of LA’s most revered mixologists (Rivera, Acabar, Brilliantshine, among others) who has designed a tap-driven program with specialty cocktails made with bourbon, rum, tequila, whiskey and scotch (shandies, sours and highballs), teas and an eclectic local beer list.

It's a casual, trendy, friendly environment where the idea is to eat family-style. All meat is procured from specific farms noted on the menu and smoked and prepared on-site in a giant smoker. Brisket and pulled pork are offered by ¼- to full-pound, while ribs are a half or whole rack. Other meat options include Mary’s free-range chicken, smoked sausage, rib eye and pork chop. All are sans sauce, although a house-made version is available if you ask.

The smallish menu is diverse, and it's enlarged with a handful of daily specials. There are snacks, such as salt-and-pepper pork rinds, grilled blue prawns (good-sized and deliciously seasoned with chili, coriander and lime) and a frito pie (served with a "Fritos" bag—a Hollingsworth handed-down family recipe). 

Then there's "The Best Damn Chick'n Sandwich Ya Ever Had" (yeah, it's called that). Topped with coleslaw, pimento cheese and jalapenos, it lives up to its name. Order it to cut up and share as an appetizer. The only other one I've personally found comparable is at West Hollywood's Son of a Gun.

Sides include several versions of potatoes, braised greens, and shells and cheese, while starters range from salads made from seasonal vegetables and fruit, as well as cast iron mussels and a pulled pork sandwich. Desserts, such as apple cobbler and banana pudding, are pure southern comfort.    

I dined there opening night and was duly impressed with the food and service—and the place was packed. They ran out of ribs, which was a bit of a disappointment, but nonetheless I had my fill—and I'm sure I'll be back for the ribs. Barrel & Ashes is definitely a welcome and exciting addition to the 818. 

Take a peek:

A cast iron skillet filled with brisket, pulled pork and linked smoked sausage (each separately ordered), lightly garnished with onion, cornichons and baby carrots. My preference: the Texas-style brisket—thickly cut and so tender you can cut it with a fork—and the sausage, which is juicy and tastes like it has a hint of nutmeg that is just perfect for autumn. The pulled pork was a bit dry in comparison to the brisket. Variations of smoked meat range in price from $8 to $26, depending on amount ordered up to a pound.

You haven't had pork and beans until you've tried this sweet and savory version with tender pork belly. ($7)

Here's your chance to be healthy. The ambrosia salad is light, tangy and refreshing with bits of endive, grapefruit, oranges, grapes and coconut. ($12)

This roasted beet salad was one of a handful of daily specials. Very fresh with walnuts, apples and crème fraîche.

Braised greens with pieces of bacon has a smooth, rather than the usual bitter, taste. Delicious. ($5)

Hoe cake looks like a pancake, but it's really a variation of cornbread (with maple butter) that is flat and melts in your mouth.  Just order it. ($4)

Miner's potatoes are chunked, lightly fried and seasoned with sage. Totally addictive. ($5)

Plump mussels are cooked in hard cider with bits of fennel, chorizo and sourdough. ($18)

Blue prawns grilled and seasoned with chili, coriander and lime are succulent. ($17)

One of the best apple cobblers ever, topped with Tahitian vanilla ice cream. ($9)

Fresh banana pudding with a toasted meringue and vanilla wafers. Southern comfort decadence in a jar. ($7)

Barrel & Ashes, 11801 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818-623-8883. Open Sunday to Wednesday, 5 to 11 p.m; Thursday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

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