There’s a jewel in Los Angeles’ popular Santa Monica neighborhood crown, and it’s called Tar & Roses. If you’ve ever eaten at this buzzing restaurant, you already know that the wood-fire oven is the heart and soul of chef Andrew Kirschner’s kitchen. Preparing what the chef calls “modern rustic cuisine,” the kitchen churns out ingredients that might sound familiar to you, but are prepared in entirely new and modern ways. For example, cauliflower might sound ordinary, however it’s anything but when wood-roasted and served with anchovy pesto, pine nuts and lemon. The same could be said for snapper, a fairly common fish that is served entirely whole (head to tail, fins and all), deep-fried and offered with cold soba noodles and a Thai-inspired dipping sauce.
Having opened a little more than a year ago, the restaurant is still jam-packed with diners every night of the week. Tar & Roses was named Best New Restaurant 2012 by Angeleno Magazine, and recently garnered two prestigious James Beard Foundation nominations (Best New Restaurant and Best Chef: West), so you’ll definitely want to plan in advance to secure a dining reservation. For prime-time weekend reservations, call four weeks in advance; for a weeknight, be sure to book at least one or two weeks in advance to score a table.
Forbes Travel Guide Correspondent Christine Kirk recently sat down with Kirschner, Tar & Roses owner and chef, to talk all things food, the art of cooking with a wood-fire oven and what he likes to eat on the rare occasions that he’s not in the kitchen.
What does the name Tar & Roses mean?
The name Tar & Roses comes from a phrase commonly used to describe the bouquet characteristics of Barolo wine from Italy. We serve craft beers and a variety of wines, and our wine list is managed by Johnnie Jenkins, the restaurant’s general manager, and my good friend, winemaker Chris Keller of Emanuel Tres Wines.
What is your philosophy on running a successful restaurant?
While the quality of the food is obviously important, impeccable service is what is going to create diner loyalty and build longevity for any restaurant. I’m happy that we’re currently popular, but I want to be busy six years from now. While I’m managing the kitchen, I have our general manager Johnnie working the front of the house and making sure our service is top-notch.
What is your culinary background? What kitchens did you cook in before opening Tar & Roses?
Fresh after graduating from the California Culinary Academy in 1997, I immediately began cooking professionally as sous chef at Eos Restaurant and Wine Bar in San Francisco. I then moved to Colorado to work at Ajax Tavern at the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel The Little Nell in Aspen. I returned to L.A. in 2000 and joined Joe Miller at the critically acclaimed Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, where I served as sous chef for one year before leaving to become the chef and partner at the popular neighborhood spot Table 8 in West Hollywood [now closed]. My last stop before opening Tar & Roses was when I took over as executive chef and partner at Wilshire Restaurant in Santa Monica.
The Tar & Roses menu is centered around its wood-fire oven, with the specific types of wood burning in it each night noted on the menus. What makes the way you use a wood-burning oven unique?
While many people are familiar with a wood-fire oven as it pertains to pizza, we’ve gotten more creative and actually use various cuts of wood like almond, apple, oak, olive, and walnut. The different types of wood, and the extreme high heat reached in a wood burning oven, impart subtle differences in flavor to foods like cauliflower, baby carrots and Spring pea pods, in addition to hangar steak and different types of fish. Even one of our desserts, the strawberry ricotta crostata, is finished off in the wood-fire oven.
How often do you change the menu or feature seasonal dishes?
While we have some signature dishes that will always stay the same (like the braised lamb belly and our famous wood-fire goat supper), I update the menu on a daily basis depending on what I find fresh at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market and what looks the best from my purveyors. Different ingredients inspire me every day.
What are some of the newest dishes on the menu right now? And what have been some of the most popular items since Tar & Roses opened?
Some of our new fun dishes include the Pho-paccio, a Vietnamese twist on beef carpaccio, an amazing soft shell crab preparation with papaya and mango, as well as our latest addition of a beautiful peach salad with speck and burrata. A few of the most popular dishes that we just cannot seem to take off the menu due to popular demand include the whole fried Thai snapper, the braised lamb belly and the oxtail dumplings.
On a rare night off, what are some of your favorite restaurants to eat at in L.A.?
While I certainly do like to keep my finger on the pulse of all the chef driven restaurants in the city, and I do dine at them, mostly I enjoy eating at off-the-beaten-path ethnic restaurants. Some of my personal favorites are Jitlada Thai in Hollywood, Sushi Gen in Downtown L.A., and Parks BBQ in Koreatown.
Photos Courtesy of Tar & Roses