Barbara Jean Serves Up 'Globally-Inspired' Soul Food Along Melrose
It's a hot Sunday morning in June—the sort of heat that usually descends on Southern California in late August or early September. The street is still quiet along Melrose, but behind storefronts, cooks and waiters are busy readying for the day's rush. The energy in an open courtyard behind the Melrose Umbrella Company is no different. Chef Jason Fullilove opened Barbara Jean (named for his mother, but more on that in a minute) here not one month ago.
With the restaurant, Fullilove has arrived at where all great chefs (artists?) do: a distillation of their entire lives up until that point. Fullilove grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother, Barbara Jean, helped set up relief programs in third world countries ("we lived in Lusaka, Zambia for about two years"). Professionally, Fullilove got his start in the restaurant world in Amherst, Massachusetts, before returning to Cleveland at 24 to cook at a boutique hotel. He continued rising through the ranks of fine dining with stints in New York City and the Ritz Carlton in the Bahamas. "Then, in 2009, I came out to L.A. I was the opening chef de cuisine at [Ilan Hall's] The Gorbals," following it up with Mark Peel's Campanile Tar Pit, as well as time at Patina.
The idea for Barbara Jean took shape in 2015, after a pair of professional experiences (re-opening Clifton's Cafeteria, heading Burbank's Castaway) soured. "I knew it was time to do my own thing," Fullilove told LAist.
But when it came time to launch his own kitchen, Fullilove departed from white table cloths and salad forks. Barbara Jean is "globally-inspired soul food," Fullilove explains, citing Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster in Manhattan as a "deep influence". As Fullilove continues, "I want it to be fine dining, but not pretentious. I want my guests to feel hugged when they walk in."
And the menu at Barbara Jean (which changes frequently) displays Fullilove's vision in full form. When we visited for brunch we ordered a dish of deviled crab topped with caviar and avocado and served on a buttered sourdough toast ("It's sort of our version of avocado toast." Eat your heart out, L.A.) The shrimp and grits came with romesco, pistou, and confit tomatoes, and a paté of chicken liver mousse was topped with smoked apple sauce and heightened by a kick from mustard seeds. And the blueberry pancakes, simple as they may seem, were perfectly fluffy, and not saccharine sweet.
We'd like to mention that Canter's is just down the street. There, you can get a latke with applesauce, but at Barbara Jean you can add heritage pork belly (oy vey!), sweet mustard glaze, and a poached egg—we recommend going with the latter option. For another umami-rich dish, try the bacon, egg, and cheese burger that was added to the menu as a joking response to a customer. "The day we put it on the menu, we sold about 10. We've kept it on ever since," said Fullilove.
Ultimately, what Fullilove achieves with each dish, even when the description appears decadent, is a balance of flavors that's added with a touch of complexity.
"We already have our regulars from the neighborhood, that's something I wanted to keep from our residency at the [former] Smoke.Oil.Salt location down Melrose," Fullilove concludes. Getting here "hasn't been easy, but my reputation and work ethic have definitely paid off."
Barbara Jean is located through the Melrose Umbrella Company at 7476 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, (323) 930-7900. Hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday. Brunch is available weekends from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.