It’s all very public at Public Kitchen, Tim and Liza Goodell’s new restaurant at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. There’s a kind of highbrow country-store theme to the space: dark wood, tufted leather banquettes, and sculptural chandeliers coexisting with mason jar candles, chopping block tables, and containers of Dijon mustard and caper berries displayed on shelves. I’m not sure the look is totally achieved, but it certainly announces the accessibility of the place. In case you’re unsure, the menu reminds you with the tag line “Food for the people.” That’s a departure from the reputation for exclusivity the Roosevelt nurtured after its splashy remodel a half-decade ago. Back then mere mortals would be banned from the pool if a star was using it, and the Lamborghinis in the parking lot had a way of appearing mundane.
Of course, hitting the right tone at such a storied institution is no easy task. History drapes the art deco landmark, which stands catty-corner to Grauman’s Chinese. The first Academy Awards took place under the coffered ceiling of the Blossom Room, Shirley Temple supposedly danced on the sweeping staircase, and Montgomery Clift retreated to the palatial safety of the Roosevelt after his disfiguring crash. More porkpie hat than cloche, the present offers a variety of impressions, and all you have to do is walk into the hotel’s colonnaded central patio to feel buffeted by several of them at once. Pausing in the doorway of the Library Bar, you might find yourself longing for a gentler time after a customer in a Christian Audigier T-shirt pushes you aside, but take a few steps and suddenly you’re relishing the tales a record company veteran recalls for a foursome of fresh-faced musicians. You barely have time to wonder who they are before a little person wearing a lime green boa crosses your path, nonchalantly heading to work in the basement at David Arquette’s club, Beacher’s Madhouse.
What kind of restaurant does one slip into this mix? Apparently not Dakota, the steak house the Goodells operated here until last year. Unless you’re doing something exceptional like aging beef for six months, as Mario Batali does at Carnevino in Las Vegas, it’s hard to make an array of expensive meats seem hip. Self-doubt can set in when you’re ensconced in a booth: Others are having their plates spritzed with elixirs made by Umbrian monks during the summer solstice, while you’re the schlub who’s paying $50 for a porterhouse and $10 more for the privilege of having a baked potato on the side? The Roosevelt is too of-the-moment for that. Public Kitchen keeps with the meat theme but comes at it obliquely with scant talk of prime cuts. Hams nudge up against sweetbreads on the menu. Chicharrones, those segments of pork rind rendered to a crisp, are splashed with chile flakes and lime zest. The $19 butcher steak is capped with a cloud of butter whose folded-in marrow cubes melt in the mouth like marshmallow buttons in a scoop of Rocky Road.
The Goodells have been on a rocky road themselves since 1994, when they founded Aubergine, their first restaurant, amid the yacht outfitters of Newport Beach. A petite stand-alone structure, it seemed modeled on the grand maisons that dot the French countryside. The Christofle, Riedel, and tasting menu made their source of inspiration even more explicit. Since its closure the couple has had less than stellar results with their company, Domaine Restaurants. Troquet, a clean-cut bistro at South Coast Plaza, recently shut its doors after eight years. Once they’d severed ties with Whist in Santa Monica, they replaced Meson G, their nouveau tapas place on Melrose, with the Southeast Asian Red Pearl Kitchen, which faltered, too. Dakota never found a groove, either. Other than Public Kitchen, their only surviving venture is 25 Degrees, a burger bar at the Roosevelt; in fact, the Goodells are growing the concept with several locations, including one in Chicago.
I’m glad their burgers are a hit. To me, though, Public Kitchen is the restaurant that was waiting for them. After so many reversals, the couple reached a point where they had to restate what they are about. This enterprise seeks to position itself with the nose-to-tail crowd but without the funhouse gambits of an Animal, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Fairfax shopfront that serves as homeroom for the abattoir-driven school. The Goodells are and always have been more formal. Foie gras will not be joining Spam in any preparation here.
Glazed with a gelée that is tawny enough to be port and sweet enough to be Manische-witz, Tim Goodell’s chicken liver terrine is a silky mousse you can scoop from the jar with a spoon. The forcemeat of a sausage combines duck and foie gras. Austerely elegant, it is brought back down to earth by the silver dollar of potato rösti served alongside. A bouquet of frisée adds a hint of bitterness as a counterpoint. The sweetbreads (aka veal thymus) are spectacular. A labor-intensive mass that requires a cook to poach and press the meat before removing its membrane and tossing it into a pan, sweetbreads often receive a hard sear so that the crisped exterior provides a contrast to the pasty interior. At Public Kitchen Goodell pushes sweetbreads beyond the routine treatment. The lobes are lightly browned, with water chestnuts lending a crunch while the demi-glace sauce brings out the victual’s muskiness.
Prepared with patience and infinite coaxing—the sauce alone takes hours of skimming—the dish rides the undercurrent of tradition that defines the Goodells’ style. The two met at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco and were tutored in the rigors of the grand fashion by Gary Danko, a chef who throughout his career has sought to give a California sheen to the haute repertoire. Liza focuses on management; Tim works the stove. He’s the kind of cook who knows how to sew a truffle mousse into a quail’s breast, glaze it in calf’s foot aspic, and serve it as a plump ballotine. He doesn’t go that far at Public Kitchen. Still, the craft pulsing through the menu is a reminder to every tatted chef who thinks he’s bravely making use of animal glands that the classical style was there first.
The traditional approach is evident even in the Parker House rolls, airy bundles of warm dough that come to the table in a cast-iron baking dish. The crust of melted cheddar gives them the right amount of sharpness and draws out the clean taste of the Vermont butter that accompanies it. This is intelligent cooking that isn’t showy or hidebound. Wonderful gnudi—little ricotta dumplings—are accented with thin bits of pancetta and sliced chanterelles. The ham hock in the split pea soup is minced finely so that the steam released when the hot, thick liquid is poured over it carries the note of a smokehouse. Goodell’s version of oxtail looks to the past and the present at the same time. When raw, these arm-length cones are all gristle, bone, and fat; braised slowly (usually tied to the side of a stock kettle so they can be pulled out before they fall apart), they repay attention with tender, flavor-packed strands. In Goodell’s hands this hard-won raw material—one tail doesn’t yield much—forms a mini tower amid a horseradish sauce; crowning it is a poached farmhouse egg that, when broken, gives back the richness that the cooking process has stripped away.
I wouldn’t go so far as to pile a yolk on the oily bone-in schnitzel, though the menu gives you the option, declaring, “Everything Tastes Better with an Egg on It.” Such cornhusker wisdom comes off like an attempt to keep up with all the other chefs who’ve embraced the fried egg as much for its ability to conjure the farm as for what it actually imparts. And I’m not sure anything but hydration therapy could help the pot roast, a desiccated slab of brisket sagging in a puddle of simmered cooking juices. Goodell can also lay on certain flavors too heavily, as if fearing that without the punch, his food might seem effete. He has a particular weakness for lemon. It overpowers the cured steelhead appetizer, on which it’s used in the finishing oil, as well as the pancetta-wrapped monkfish, which arrives beneath a heap of lemon segments. (I have found myself wishing that Goodell could do more with fish than wrap it in pancetta or serve it with capers in a butter sauce, too.) The thick wedges of cured lemon peel shoved into the buttery Shaker pie make it inedible.
Photograph by Misha Gravenor