This review is very much a tale of two visits to chef Jeremy Fox’s immediately popular, jet-engine–noisy and cavernous new Jewish-Midwestern-Californian dining spot in Santa Monica.
Our first meal at Birdie G’s was a two-star experience that made me long for my more consistent meals at one of Fox’s other outlets, say, Rustic Canyon: It was an evening of poor cocktails, cramped tables, extended waits between courses, aggressive pre-bussing at Olympic level speeds and food that was, at kindest, a little overworked, and often executed rather poorly. But the second visit could not have been more different.
If reviewing had been based on a one-off meal, I would’ve knighted the same restaurant with four stars. The only thing that linked our two meals was the engaging servers who took excellent care of us on both trips.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: The chopped salad ($19) displayed that current L.A. trope of taking salt and acidity to a point where the dish almost becomes inedible; equally poor were the sweetbreads “Jocko’s Style” ($20), which formed part of the Texas-toast section of the menu. The art of cooking sweetbreads seems to have vanished with the decline of French cuisine, and these thymus glands came skewered and cooked to a rubbery consistency. Less abject but just as disappointing was the king salmon tartare ($23); the light acidity of a sauce ravigote is a classic addition to fish, but here it was doused with such abundance that the salmon was reduced to a bit part.
But when the kitchen at Birdie G’s gets it right, they really get it right with bells on. The seasonal burrata ($19) sang out of good ingredients, and particularly the summer addition of a fermented tomato dressing was an inspired one. Jeremiah’s wood-grilled chicken (half $32, whole $59)—a take on Jamaican jerk chicken—was cooked beautifully and went well with a tropical sauce featuring pineapple, parsley and enough chili to make it interesting. My wife, an expert in matters fry-related, declared those with the corned brisket ($32) to be exceptional, and the chunks of brisket themselves were truly good indeed, with a slight char and a tang of salt from the brine. Best of all was the lamb “à la Saless” ($46), inspired, the chef told us, by a visit to Raffi’s Place in Glendale: perfectly pink lamb crusted with Persian spices, dribbled with a saffron yogurt and layered atop dilly rice that was fried to a crunch to form a faux tahdig. It’s a definite entry into my list of top dishes in the city.
Desserts played their part in the revision of opinions, too. Sticky date bundt cake ($10) didn’t deliver the joy of a true Brit sticky toffee pudding, but it wasn’t half bad, while the chilled chocolate cake ($12) delivered a suitable cocoa hit at the end of the meal. The matzo bark ($8)—also offered on the menu plain with cultured butter—was good enough that I restrained myself from demolishing it all so I could save some for my morning cup of tea the next day.
This three-star review is, I’ll admit, a cop-out split down the middle of my two experiences at Birdie G’s, but I’m hopeful that future visits—of which I am certain there will be many—will reflect our latter rather than former experiences.
I’m sure they don’t mind either way; on both visits the place was packed and is, understandably, certain to be a long-term resident in Santa Monica.
WHERE TO SIT
Despite their best efforts to prettify the outdoor area, the appeal of sitting in an alley between two warehouses was lost on me. The converted warehouse is L.A.-loud and offers plenty of seating options, including a separate bar area. However, as regular followers of these reviews will realize, I am a sucker for seats with a view of the kitchen. The long table with high-top stools facing the pass might not be the most comfortable place to sit, but you get a great chance to watch a high-energy kitchen in action. Plus, Fox will often check in to see how your meal is going.
WHAT TO EAT
Start with the artisan matzo bread with cultured butter ($4) and follow it with the seasonal burrata. Sweetbreads aside, the meats were all terrific but I wouldn’t miss the lamb “à la Saless”—and order a side of the fries and aioli ($9) or my wife will have a word with you about your behavior. The daily slice of pie ($9) is also worth enquiring about, and don’t forget to order some matzo bark to take home.
WHAT TO DRINK
Like asking a chef to make an omelette to check their skills, ordering a classic cocktail is a great way to check a bartender’s chops. Birdie G’s struggled to get it right on both visits. The wine list, however, is splendid, with wines to suit most budgets; grumpy old codger that I am, I’m still giggling at the “What the Kids are Drinking” titling of the natural-wine sections. And if you don’t want booze, their classic soda list is fun.