Post & Beam

Chef Govind Armstrong goes for simple pleasures at Baldwin Hills’ Post & Beam

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Photograph by Ryan Robert Miller

Going to Post & Beam requires some self-control. There’s the heap of rib tips with potato salad you could stop and order at Phillips Bar-B-Que on Crenshaw. At the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard you could make a left into the narrow parking lot of M&M Soul Food for gravy-smothered pork chops and warm corn muffins. Instead jog west onto Stocker, then hang a right on Santa Rosalia, which skirts the vast parking lot of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Enter at the second gate. The building across from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy is where you’re headed. ¶ Dressed in stucco and wood, Post & Beam could be a prototype for a new line of restaurants by a big operator like Houston’s. But the interior is too personal, too idiosyncratic for that. A flat-screen TV is invariably playing sports, while olive green bentwood chairs crowd a space that has ventlike schoolhouse light fixtures dangling above the counter. Tomatoes and pea shoots grow on the patio near folksy floral-print two-seaters that recall a William Eggleston portrait of a Mississippi matron. A poster composed of old album covers overlooks the open kitchen—Curtis Mayfield, a young Richard Pryor, the O’Jays eyeing slabs of ribs glazed in honey powder that the bandanna-wearing cooks crank out.

Is it soul food? The steaming side of collard greens and the bowl of soupy black-eyed peas might qualify, but what kind of soul food restaurant gives you the option of keeping pork out of the dish? Is it a Southern-inflected gastropub? Not exactly. Chef Govind Armstrong isn’t about to be boxed in by any one tradition. As a child he’d help prepare food for the frequent parties his Costa Rican mom threw. At 13 he walked up Horn Avenue and entered through the back door of the original Spago in West Hollywood. “The first person I saw was Nancy,” he says, referring to La Brea Bakery founder Nancy Silverton, who was the restaurant’s pastry chef. “She was working at a mixer that was taller than I was.” Soon chef de cuisine Mark Peel put him to work breaking down crates of Chino Farms produce.

During the last decade, Armstrong has followed a somewhat sawtooth trajectory. His partnership in the early aughts with Ben Ford at Chadwick in Beverly Hills earned him wonderboy status. Then came Table 8, a boîte on Melrose where the white voile-draped interior and the graffiti-tagged exterior strained for originality. He swapped that out for the more casual 8 oz. Burger Bar, which closed last year, but not before spinning off a few satellites (one is slated to open at LAX later this year).

After just a few months, things at Post & Beam feel nicely settled. His business partner Brad Johnson went on to become a partner of BLT Steak after operating Georgia, a high-end Southern-style favorite on Melrose in the mid-1990s. David Borrego, who worked at Mortons and the Raymond, runs the dining room and seems to have instructed the waitstaff that being efficient doesn’t mean you can’t also be yourself. “These darned new openers,” says the waitress as she struggles to uncork a bottle of affordable cab from the short list. “I’m going back to my old one.”

Working the grill in a plaid shirt and his signature waist-length dreadlocks, Armstrong puts out smart, unassuming food that draws effortlessly from an array of sources. The Middle East provides inspiration for the appetizer of chickpeas served three ways—whole, flash fried for crispness, or as a puree under charred octopus tentacles. The julienne of preserved lemon that’s mixed in recalls a tagine, but only as a whisper. Deviled eggs show off the same kind of pitch-perfect layering while riffing on the hors d’oeuvres Armstrong helped make as a boy. He amps up the yolk with whole-grain mustard and horseradish before laying on thick flakes of house-smoked catfish. The crowning slaw of butter radishes is as much a detonator as it is a finishing touch.

At heart Armstrong is a modern California cook. For one thing, he knows the power of good produce. He is idealistic enough to source greens from the South Central Farmers’ Cooperative and cool enough not to make a big deal about it. That arugula salad is not just the pro forma rendering of what you see on every other menu in L.A. The sherry vinaigrette and the freshly roasted hazelnuts provide a meaty counterpoint to the salad’s herbal piquancy. Likewise, Armstrong approaches sauces in a less-is-more manner that was no doubt influenced by his time at Spago. Where Wolfgang Puck showed what can be achieved by easing up on the beurre blanc, Armstrong reveals the remarkable sauces that can be fashioned in a wood-burning oven. The one on the appetizer of plump turkey sausage meatballs is my favorite. Roasting pans of tomatoes provide the base; a hodgepodge of guajillo and arbol chiles, the complexity. Blended but barely strained, it’s rustic in the most fundamental way.

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In a sense, Armstrong’s restaurant is postgastro and, judging by the amalgam of ethnicities that work and eat here, postracial. If ever there was a hyphenate restaurant, this one is it. Armstrong’s approach to the main courses is so minimalist and practical that they mirror the democratic post-and-beam architectural style that served as the ideal behind Southern California’s midcentury subdivisions. Topping out at $23, each of the main courses comes with a pair of sides, which gives them the generosity of a blue plate special.

In fact, matching the main courses with the sides is one of the central pleasures of the restaurant. Will it be roasted fingerlings and cauliflower florets with anchovy-laced salsa verde to go with the sautéed salmon? Should you get them with chicken cooked crisp in a cast-iron pan instead? Or how about the marbled sirloin that sits in a tangy homemade steak sauce? Those airy mashed potatoes—Armstrong uses very little butter—may be the ticket if you’re wanting comfort food. Chunks of sweet potato send those black-eyed peas into the realm of down-home cooking, while broccolini spears dusted with chili powder and browned garlic is from the contemporary California playbook. They’d pair well with the beer-brined pork chop, but it’s the contrasting minerality of the side of long-cooked mustard greens that reminds you why pork and greens is one of the great unions.

At its best Armstrong’s cooking makes no claims about where it comes from, leaving the chef free to draw on shared culinary customs and philosophies. It’s a direct style full of subtle technique—for instance, he avoids the common mistake of overreducing the sauce for the braised short ribs—but devoid of culinary piety. Armstrong doesn’t have the $30,000 pizza oven some launches invest in. He doesn’t use Molino Caputo 00 flour that all the artisans favor. Stippled with wild mushrooms and chopped kale, his is a pie that’s not striving for wispy thinness; it’s about the basic pleasure of pizza. There’s wheat germ baked into a crust that with the right wrist action can be folded into a workmanlike slice. The only version that falls short is heaped with the same broccolini that made for such a neat side: Instead of a charred concentration, its flavor is diluted, registering as little more than something green washing around in tomato sauce. 

In fact, produce makes the kitchen trip up more than once—a surprise, given how good Armstrong can be with the stuff. I’ve had brown romaine leaves in my Caesar. (You’d think checking for that is more important than cutting a decorative notch into the thickest part of the rib.) And why be specific on the menu about using Braeburns for the apple crisp when the crumble they are buried under is like kibble? (A visit to the nearby Leimert Park Cobbler Lady would be instructive.)

Far more satisfying is the panna cotta, a jiggly rendition whose cream has been cooked with vanilla pods in a water bath and allowed to set slowly. Even better is the freshly baked biscuit that the kitchen splits in two, toasting the sugar-sprinkled halves before filling them with whipped crème fraîche and juicy berries.

Food like this has an emotional tug that is as important to the atmosphere as anything adorning the room. Just as Armstrong grew up working in kitchens, Brad Johnson comes from a tradition of hospitality. His father, a dapper onetime salesman at New York men’s clothier Paul Stuart, owned the Cellar, a supper club on the Upper West Side. At the end of the last set he’d send loyal customers into the night saying, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Seeing Johnson smile at a group of happy new arrivals, it’s clear this is a place that means a lot to the staff and to the diners, whether it’s the guy with a soul patch and tweed cap downing an ale at the bar or the group of dressy young professionals poring over the one-page menu.                                            

 

Photograph by Ryan Robert Miller

POST & BEAM
3767 West Santa Rosalia Drive, Baldwin Hills, 323-299-5599    

Best dishes: Deviled eggs, grilled octopus with garbanzos, boneless short ribs, cast-iron chicken, beer-brined pork chop, long-cooked greens, black-eyed peas, vanilla panna cotta, buttermilk biscuit with blackberries
Drinks: Craft beers and short wine list
Atmosphere: Lively
Noise Level: Moderate
Kid Friendliness: Good
Price Range: $3 (focaccia) to $23 (sirloin steak)
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 5-10; Fri.-Sat., 5-11
Parking: Free in the plaza lot
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit Cards: All major

 

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