Not So Stellar: The Guilded Hour at Tar Pit
I have a bone to pick with Mark Peel. Actually, I have a couple.
Up until I recently went to Tar Pit to check out their just-launched Guilded Hour Happy Hour menu, I hadn't a single doubt in my mind that Peel is one of L.A.'s culinary treasures. After all, he's the man behind the long-standing Campanile, the author of cookbooks, and this season made a valiant—but ultimately doomed—attempt for the title of Top Chef Masters top dog.
However, despite the plush decor of his latest venture, and its delightful cocktail program from new bar manager David Kupchinsky (rebounding from the loss of original partner Audrey Saunders), I'm starting to wonder what the hell Peel is thinking. Why? Because all but one item on the Guilded Hour menu were unpalatable, and the adult sophistication of the bar atmosphere blighted by two screaming young kids. Whose kids? His.
There are few happy hours that run seven days a week, which is what made Tar Pit a draw on a Sunday night. Ahead of a later cocktail event, dressed up and looking for a light bite and a drink, the Guilded Hour's 5-6:30 nightly time slot and menu of $2.50-$5 "snacks" and $6 select cocktails seemed ideal.
Seated at the long, elegant bar in the soft-lit room, I ordered the Brown Derby (Bourbon, honey, grapefruit) one of the four Guilded Hour drinks. A Tennessee Trilogy was the choice of my companion (Tennessee Whiskey, Applejack, sugar, Orange Bitters), which meant we skipped the Bees Knees (Gin, honey, lemon) and the Weekly Apertivo, a selection that changes weekly. What was it? I'm not sure. The bartender said the name quickly and seemed surprised when I had to ask her what was in it; it would have been nice had she simply followed up the name with a full description when we asked what the Weekly Apertivo was instead of assume we were familiar with obscure and often original mixology.
In any event, the drinks were fantastic, and showcase the savvy of the Tar Pit cocktail program, which seems to be about simple, restrained, and un-muddied flavors with premium spirits at the forefront. For $6 evening cocktails, the Tar Pit is a total win.
We ordered some food at the same time we ordered our drinks. This is where Peel comes in, literally and figuratively. Food is his turf at Tar Pit, so we're assigning what can't be called anything but blame for its near-complete failure on him. Also, during the incredibly long wait between order and service (time enough to finish our strong drinks, sipping, not swilling) is when Chef Peel himself, his wife, and two youngsters came into the place and took at seat at one of the low tables.
The Guilded Hour has a small snack menu of just four items, so we decided to try all of them. At $5 each there's Pickled Deviled Eggs with Shaved Prosciutto, Calamari with Lemon Wheels, Shallot Rings, Fried Parsley Rouille, and Mini Mac with Gruyere, Cheddar, Mozzarella, Parmesan, and for $2.50 a plate of French Fries with Spicy Lemon Salt, Garlic Aioli.
The Deviled Eggs, which for some reason come in the odd portioning of three halves, were sloppy, rubbery, messes Satan himself would scoff at. The white had a chewiness that is most unwelcome in hard-boiled eggs, and seemed to have sat too long on ice or in a cooling water bath. Even with the too-long wait between ordering and service, it seemed evident that the eggs had not been recently made. The filling was oozing over the rims of the yellow-tinged hollows of white, and the garnishes provided little to no boost of flavor.
A plate of crispy fried calamari is something even a national chain can master, but Tar Pit's plate was a heap of chewy disappointment. The breading was of the right heft, but was soggy on the round o-shaped slices of calamari, and gritty on the tentacle pieces. Don't think to salvage the bite by dipping it in the red pepper aioli; you'll just coat the sad seafood in an even sadder mouthful of mayo flavored goop. Bright spot on the plate: Thinly sliced lemon, battered and fried.
Comfort classics don't get any more cozy than mac and cheese. It's a national obsession, and when done right, a thing to revere. We made the rookie mistake of ordering an individual "mini" crock each, only to come fork to mouth with what I believe is truly the worst mac and cheese I've ever eaten. Overstuffed in a cast iron crock was penne pasta in a scant dressing of flavorless cheese sauce. Sauce, in fact, would be too generous a term--like when it just starts to drizzle and you call it "rain." What made this worse was the fact that the top was baked, so you had a blanket of dry, almost-burnt crusty top blanketing a still-dry and wholly un-creamy cupful of pasta beneath. When it didn't taste dry, it just tasted like, well...penne pasta.
But it's not all bad news. The Tar Pit makes some pretty fantastic french fries. Perfectly cooked and beautifully seasoned, the generous and cheap plate of starchy carbs comes with a tasty garlic aioli sauce for dipping. Absolutely fabulous. Nevermind that it doesn't take culinary genius to slice potatoes into thin fingers and drop them in the deep fryer, mind you.
I would have thought the only thing worse than badly done happy hour bar food was badly done happy hour bar food in an elegant place. But it turns out the next-worse thing is eating (and paying for, no matter how bargain basement) badly done happy hour bar food in an elegant place when the Chef and co-owner lets his children run around the place hollering.
"Well, it's Sunday," offered the bartender weakly. "You know, family night," she added, before disappearing and never being seen again. "She went to have a little dinner," the next bartender told us when we called her over to ask for the bill, with a hint of standoffish-ness. After all, we had to get her attention with the help of Mrs. Peel, with whom she was engrossed in conversation at the end of the bar, her back to all the customers. It sure was inconsiderate of us to wonder where she took off to without explanation or to see if we needed anything before she signed off, considering we were sitting there with piles of uneaten food in front of us on pushed-away plates, and empty drink glasses waiting to pay up and go.
And it's too bad our original bartender took off--even with the uneven service between bar and kitchen, she'd mixed a beautiful second drink for me using an unusual gin ($12) and a refreshing homemade ginger beer for my companion ($6) which added to the Guilded Hour drinks and the fries were the shining stars of the evening. But Chef Peel--I plead of you: Elevate the food, and leave the kids at home, otherwise you're nowhere near creating the "supper club" vibe you're going for.
Will I go back to Tar Pit? For the drinks, absolutely, whether it's Happy Hour or not. But I'll go next door to Cube for food. The Tar Pit isn't anywhere any grown up should be on an empty stomach.