At Redbird you flit through the epochs, alighting here or there but always feeling grounded in the present. Sitting in the former rectory of a cathedral dedicated in 1876 while sipping an Artist’s Special—a clean braid of scotch, sherry, and red curaçao credited on the menu as being from London’s Savoy Hotel circa 1930—certainly helps the effect. St. Vibiana’s, an Italianate house of worship, endured as the seat of the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese until damage from the Northridge quake inspired Cardinal Roger Mahony to commission the more monumental church between Temple Street and the 101. Surviving a push for demolition (its cupola had even been removed for a time), the nave and garden were reborn in 2008 as an events space, but six more years of planning would go by before restaurateur Bill Chait and chef Neal Fraser and his wife, Amy Knoll Fraser, finally let Redbird take off this past January.
With the comparatively new Caltrans and LAPD headquarters as neighbors, the old block-size structure is like an apparition. There’s Latin inscribed on the stone facade; the papal insignia and liturgical symbols adorn the ironwork above the rectory entry, and well-worn terra-cotta pavers lead to where hostesses stand ready to welcome you by what looks like a silver-plated door. Designer Robert Weimer hints at Spanish colonial revival with hand-painted beams. Ringed by Jetsonesque orange stools, a pair of dramatically backlit bars power the twin dining rooms. Walk-ins are more likely to be seated in the one by the entrance, a glass-enclosed wine cellar occupying a corner. The lamb turning on a spit in the room nearer the kitchen adds rustic appeal, an impression that’s accentuated tenfold when the canvas ceiling retracts to reveal the cupola. Look through the casement windows at the back of the room and you see the events space, a formal garden replete with cypresses, palms, olive trees, and sculpted hedges. The bare walnut tables in both help ensure matters don’t get too tony, while the chesterfield chairs and illuminated columns in the lounge area go well with little black dresses; there are guys wearing jackets, too (not that Johnny Depp did when he took up residence at the bar one night).
This urbane atmosphere suits Fraser. He is a chef who’s seen the trends and is mature enough to borrow from all over the culinary time line without losing his own voice. When he goes molecular, for instance, it makes sense. Taking tiny shelled North Sea shrimp, he tucks them beneath crescents of uni, sprinkling the whole with a flurry of “snow,” which is to say crème fraîche and wasabi frozen with liquid nitrogen. Custardy yet sharp, icy cold yet ephemeral, the topping emphasizes the ocean tang and simultaneously tempers it. Picturesque on a duck-egg-green Heath plate, the seared foie gras sits under a layer of cider jelly and cocoa nibs that slowly melt into a sherry vinegar gastrique that totes a puree of dried apricots. I found myself using the brioche toast point to capture every drop.
The 46-year-old chef grew up in Laurel Canyon—his dad, Ian, was the Emmy-winning composer and arranger—so California cooking is his native language, although for him, it’s not just a paean to produce. Fraser intersperses orbs of burrata with duck prosciutto and poached Asian pears; however, it’s the combination of fabulous skin-on cracked pistachios and floral olive oil that propels the dish. His salad of Little Gem lettuce is robust and meaty. Airy strips of La Quercia bacon flutter like a spinnaker and jib above the leaves, yet the real thrust comes from the smidgen of bacon he slips into the buttermilk-blue cheese dressing. Though the Thai-style Dungeness crab soup isn’t more than a bisque with lemongrass, it’s not a dish you’d regret having. Channeling the power of lula kebab, he cuts the spit-turned lamb into thin slices, folding them into a mix of charred kumquats and blistered Aleppo peppers that rests on a foundation of sumac-dusted yogurt.
What’s neat is how the restaurant, while very much in the borderless present, hums with a quiet classicism. Steaming with domestic goodness, the chicken potpie arrives in a copper casserole. Under the piecrust, chewy heart slices hide among chunks of thigh meat and vegetables in a sauce that Fraser makes by thickening thyme-scented chicken stock with a small knob of roux, a paste of butter and flour. It’s pretty terrific. With the posole—a stellar rendition that has fried tortilla strip chicanitas and plump hominy—he works in sizzling pork belly that’s been finished in the broiler the way chefs used to glaze gratin scallops. Fraser serves the smoked, grilled tofu atop a mess of beluga lentils and Swiss chard, cutting the tofu on the slant and fanning it out like an old-school saddle of venison. When posole and tofu are among your best creations, you’ve got range.
A onetime competitive cyclist (both track and road racing), Fraser has a taste for the unconventional. He saw the potential of Beverly Boulevard in the mid-’90s, running Boxer with Steven Arroyo when the area was more about shuls and art-house coffee shops than gastronomy. A decade later he pioneered the now-popular all-day format by launching BLD, dismissing the ritualized breaks between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Debuting in the aughts, Grace was luxuriant, with screens, massive convex mirrors, and rich fabrics. The cuisine—from soups ladled tableside to buds of browned spaetzle tucked beneath petals of wild boar tenderloin—was rigorous if perhaps more ambitious than the boxy storefront setting could handle. (Petty Cash, the nuevo taco restaurant located there now, is a better fit.) The plan was to move the operation downtown eventually, but Fraser sold Grace before that could happen.
While Redbird has all the, well, grace of Fraser’s earlier restaurant, the chef seems intent on dialing back the preconceptions of fine dining. The bread, including cheesy, gluten-free rolls of Brazilian pão de queijo, is delivered in a playful mini laundry bag. My favorite way to eat the appetizer of fried smelts? Picking them up with my fingers and dunking them in the aioli. Same goes for the nuggets of smoked pork shank crusted in potato flakes. Roasted shishito peppers get goosed with a scattering of crunchy, fried quinoa that lends an addictive bite. Fraser goes for some wordplay on the one-page menu as well. The name for the roasted bone-in 24-ounce Wisconsin chop that’s served with braised veal cheeks and a scattering of escargots? Veal Fraser, of course. A plate of borage blossoms, green garlic aioli, and raw asparagus is called vegetable “crudo” (not to be confused with crudité, the term normally applies to fish), though the cute name won’t help you chew through any of the bulkier uncooked stalks. The wordplay also falls flat with the “Calvados blood sauce” that accompanies the heritage pork chop; there’s but a dab, and whatever it brings to the party is overwhelmed by the dollop of pickled mustard seeds.
The dish isn’t bad—the meat was sensational the next day when I put it in a sandwich—but it lacks the almost homey intensity of Fraser’s best cooking. His is a style that achieves a lot with simple gestures. By cutting head cheese thickly, he modulates the usual ratio so that the appetizer showcases the wonders of slow-cooked meats instead of the slippery gelatin that can put people off. Arranged on a crisp rye crouton and topped with fig mostarda and vinegar-laced greens, it’s a snapshot of great farmhouse fare. Some of the finest entrées are generous, soupy things, like the buds of fregola pasta cooked in a bouillabaisse essence that, loaded with mussels and blood sausage, sit under a fillet of John Dory. Hoppin’ John, that staple of New Year’s in the low country between Charleston and Savannah, is on the menu, too. Made here with Sea Island peas and Carolina Gold rice and placed beneath duck breast (tender from aging), the stew has a timeless elegance, especially when it’s sharing the table with, say, a decanted half bottle of decade-old Rioja.
Sommelier Diane Pandolfini might wear a geode necklace as an allusion to the silver tastevin sommeliers occasionally dangle on their chest, but that’s as formal as matters get with her. Partial to corduroy cutaway jackets, she guides with irrepressible enthusiasm, never upselling on a list that lets you happily explore the $50 range. A $43 mour-vèdre from Martian Ranch in Santa Barbara was a pail of jammy half notes; a $38 Austrian blaufränkisch exemplified the magical reserve of a northern latitude red (at least when sugar hasn’t been tossed in to make up for the lack of sunlight).
Pandolfini once worked at downtown’s Drago Centro, as did pastry chef Jashmine Corpuz, a Filipina who mirrors Fraser’s individuality. Though she’s keenly aware of the celebratory nature of a good dessert, “I don’t actually think it has to be sweet,” Corpuz explained to me on the phone. “That’s my Asian background.” She has an interesting approach, particularly when she’s mashing up classic and molecular techniques and infusing them with a seasonal sensibility. Peaks of torn tarragon-scented chiffon cake recline against saffron-scented domes of the crème catalan, with powdered olive oil amplifying the flavor of the roasted Marcona almonds that sit on the side. Presented in a delicate white bowl, the deconstructed “creamsicle” features a base of spongy genoise and a splash of Murcott tangerine segments flecked with a blend of ground anchos and guajillos. At first it’s a tad spicy, but then you tap the ball of nitrogen-frozen, vanilla-flavored crème anglaise so it cracks and splits, revealing a soft interior that slowly melts into the chile-tinged juice. In a town where so many restaurants have cut back on their pastry programs, it’s pleasantly grand.
114 E. 2nd St., downtown
Best dishes: Head cheese, posole, chicken potpie, sautéed foie gras, duck breast with Hoppin’ John, smoked tofu, strawberry tart, “creamsicle”
Drinks: Exceptional wine list with plenty of affordable finds, good retro cocktail program
Noise Level: Reasonable
Kid Friendly? If they can handle an elegant setting
Price Range: $10 (shishito peppers) to $111 (32-ounce rib eye)
Hours: Tue.-Thu., 5-10:30; Fri.-Sat., 5-11; Sun., 5-10
Parking: Valet ($8.50)
Credit Cards: All major
Contact: 213-788-1191 or redbirdla.com