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The bar steals the scene

At the new Beechwood in Venice, the hottest tables aren't even in the dining room.
By S. Irene Virbila, Times Staff Writer

Remember Menemsha? Probably not.

The cavernous space at the Venice-Marina del Rey border where Abbot Kinney butts into Washington Boulevard has seen restaurant after restaurant falter and then disappear (Menemsha was the last victim). A couple of months ago, though, it became Beechwood. It's the first restaurant in the location that seems as if it's actually going to work.

The space has been reconfigured to make the bar the center of the action, with the much smaller dining room tucked discreetly out of sight, almost as an afterthought. At most places the bar is where you bop in for a drink, or wait for your table if the previous occupants are dawdling. Or if it's impossible to get a table, you'll settle for eating in the bar.

But at Beechwood the bar is so inviting, its menu so enticing, I'd much rather eat there than in the dining room. With its chic Mies van der Rohe-inspired benches, wood-paneled ceiling and clever use of textures, Beechwood's style is sleek and Modernist without being formal and chilly. And when every seat is already taken, the spillover simply moves outside to the walled patio and gathers round the fire pit. It's nice to breathe in the salt air outside, and it's also a bit quieter.

Inside, the bar scene is cheerful and chaotic. It's first come, first served, and competition is fierce for bar stools — where at least one of the party can sit down — and for the coveted upholstered benches and sofas with teak Modernist coffee tables where your entire group can gather round. The minute that fashion victim with ropy, muscled arms reaches for her Anya Hindmarch bag, giving everyone a sly glimpse of her tattoo, a new arrival is already edging toward her seat.

Other people may come to socialize. I'm here because I find myself craving the fried baby octopus and whole lemon slices — terrific dipped in a spunky horseradish-caper-aioli. Or mussels baked with a splash of Riesling, minced shallots, almonds and bread crumbs. Bring on a glass or two of Domaine Tempier rosé or a Trimbach Pinot Gris from Alsace, and it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or a pleasingly light supper.

You can also get a lovely salad at the bar of breakfast radishes and fennel with ricotta salata crumbled over, the dressing perfumed with orange and coriander. You'd be very happy, too, with the fluffy grilled lamb meatballs served with a delicious roasted red pepper pesto, a dab of aioli and rafts of grilled bread.

Still feeling peckish? Go for the "amusing" ground rib-eye burger slathered with smoky sweet barbecue sauce and Gruyère cheese or the succulent pressed pulled pork sandwich, served Cuban-style with sweet pickles and provolone cheese. Both are some of the best versions around. The marinated skirt steak is a good deal too. And the frites — either shoestring, quarter-inch, or sweet potato — are terrific and come with one or as many as three dipping sauces. It's a regular feast.

By now, you might have recognized the slender brunette punching in an order on the computer behind the bar. We're more used to seeing her wrapped in an oversized chef's jacket. If you remember Brooke Williamson, now 26, from Zax, where she was chef for a couple of years, you might wonder why she's running the front of the house and not the kitchen.

The partners in Beechwood are Williamson, chef Nick Roberts (who owns Amuse Café in Venice with Williamson), and David and Patti Reiss, who own the Venice bar Brig. Roberts, who was Williamson's sous chef at Zax, prefers the kitchen to the dining room.

Williamson helps with the prep during the day, and she and Roberts write Beechwood's menus together, she explains, but once service starts, Williamson runs interference between the kitchen and the dining room. I still don't quite understand why such a talented young chef has given up the kitchen for the front of the house. Maybe she's just ready to let her inner entrepreneur out. Or maybe she just likes the action out front.

And who's to argue? Because Beechwood is a bona fide hit.

The dining room is constantly packed too. And at times the noise level is just as high as in the bar. It has the feel of a luxurious coffee shop with posh leather booths along the walls. If you nab one of these, it's definitely more comfortable than the bar but not as sexy, though I do love the huge Aloe bainesii tree seen through a sky-lit window and the abstract tapestry of blurred blues and greens at the end of the room.

The restaurant's modern American menu is short and succinct — seven starters and about the same number of second courses, under the heading "and then." To begin, you can't go wrong with the steamed Prince Edward Island mussels in a curried lemon grass broth laced with fennel and woody pieces of lemon grass. It's very like a dish Williamson used to make at Zax.

Roberts doesn't tend to overdress a salad. Getting that perfect balance is trickier than it seems. The breakfast radish salad at the bar has it. So does the Italian parsley and escarole salad tossed in a lemon vinaigrette and embellished with prosciutto di Parma and creamy burrata. I like the frisée salad with warm marinated beets enriched with the rich, fatty taste of lardons and some chalky aged goat cheese too.

Sometimes a dish will fall flat, like the ragout of mixed mushrooms strewn with undercooked black-eyed peas and served with a sweet zucchini muffin that tastes like something from a '70s commune. Soups tend to the hearty and thick, such as garnet yam soup from the March menu.

As for main courses, the kitchen turns out a slow-roasted white salmon that sometimes has a beautiful custardy texture; other times, it's overcooked. I do like the way each plate gets its very own vegetables. That salmon came with beet tops and little red potatoes cooked with shallots and garnished with a little crème fraîche. Fish, in general, is a good bet — the preparations homey, if not that exciting.

Another holdover from Zax is pasta with steamed New Zealand cockles. They're a bit sweeter and more delicate than clams, steamed in a little white wine and showered with toasted bread crumbs. Grilled pork chop, though, tends to be dried out, and the idea of a lavender jus just doesn't make sense with a rustic pork chop.

I don't know what to make of the short rib pot pie. It's basically a small circle of puff pastry filled with dry pulled short ribs and some greens. What a disappointment. It's also too salty. The kitchen has a tendency to be over-exuberant with the salt.

Desserts are pitched to the kid in us all. There's a fine bittersweet chocolate pudding and a devil's food cake too. When peanut butter appears in a dessert, I usually run. Actually, Beechwood's peanut butter truffle tart doesn't deserve that reaction. And though the staff is in love with the sticky bun-stuffed baked apple (yes, you read it right), for me, it's too sweet. I much prefer the warm brown butter clafouti studded with Bosc pears.

Beechwood is really two different experiences. The restaurant's menu is homey comfort food, more girl-next-door than anything to set your heart racing. Sexy is reserved for the bar food — but you can always order dishes from the bar menu in the restaurant.

And that's the genius of Beechwood. You get the comfort food and seriously tempting little bites in one venue, with a choice of scene — either the more conventional dining room or the wildly sociable party going on in the bar.

I just hope they have a long lease.

Location: 822 W. Washington Blvd. (at Abbot Kinney Blvd.), Venice; (310) 448-8884

Ambience: Chic Modernist bar and restaurant with a rambunctious bar scene, an outdoor patio with a fire pit and a dining room tucked behind the bar, almost as an afterthought.

Service: Good-natured and professional.

Price: Appetizers, $6 to $14; main courses, $14 to $24; desserts, $7; bar menu items, $6 to $20.

Best dishes: From the bar menu: frites with three dipping sauces, crispy baby octopus with fried lemon slices, sweet rock shrimp skewers, pressed pulled-pork sandwich, ground rib-eye burger, grilled lamb meatballs. From the dinner menu: steamed mussels in curried lemon grass broth, parsley and escarole salad, slow-roasted white salmon, pasta with cockles, sticky bun, pear and brown butter clafouti.

Wine list: Eclectic, interesting and affordable. Corkage, $15.

Best table: A corner booth.

Special features: Bar menu served until 1 a.m.

Details: Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner from 6 to 11 p.m.; bar menu served seven nights from 6 to 11 p.m., until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $4.