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dineLA October 2009: Essex Public House

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It's always a little curious when you arrive at one of the many eateries participating in dineLA's popular restaurant week and they don't hand you the dineLA menu. As a diner there to check out a spot you've maybe never been to before this means things can get off to a rocky start when right out of the gate you have to wonder if you were mistaken, or if the dineLA crowd is really all that welcome where you are. (Baffling, right? After all, restaurants choose to participate, so why not pimp it?) You know that "new kid" feeling? Yeah, that's the one.

Essex Public House on Hollywood Boulevard just a few short blocks east of Highland is a newer face in what's slowly become a more user-friendly food destination (as opposed to the area's previous designation as a place where unfriendly users begged for change to buy "food," some might note). In any case, the vibe at Essex is boisterous and warm, so when we arrived one evening last week to check out their dineLA offering, it wasn't too awkward when we had to ask our server specifically for that menu since we'd been seated with just the regular one. Well, maybe it was a little awkward.

During what was a curiously long wait for our server to return we did, however, cruise the delightful beverage menu, and zeroed in on the specialty drinks section, each of us picking something to go with our impending meal: A "Southside" (Ocean Vodka, Cucumber Slices, Mint Leaves, Lime Juice, Simple Syrup; $9) for me and "The Rounder" (Dash of bitters, sweet vermouth, Rye Whiskey; $10) for my dining companion. The special menu finally arrived, and we made quick study of its three-course offerings priced at a reasonable $26.

First up, we both could not resist the Mac n' Cheese, which arrives in a cast iron dish, piping hot and topped with both a crumbly crust and three thumb-sized peppers (peppadew) stuffed with bacon and mascarpone. Inside it was the perfect consistency of gooey goodness, with a blend of three cheeses (white cheddar, manchego and mozzarella) neither marred by excess rubbery cheese strands nor dried up like the side dish you avoid at family gatherings. This was a divine mac and cheese dish, and the rich and zippy peppers a fun topping on what is a very hearty portion, particularly for the opening act of a three-act show.

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For the entree course, my selection was the house burger, which is ground sirloin served with cheddar, grilled shallots, smoked bacon and house sauce. The meat was cooked perfectly to order and was tender and juicy, and the toppings on the whole dazzled, from the smoke of the bacon to a hint of spice that seemed to come from the tomato slices that had either been heated deliberately or bore the heat of the hot burger when applied. What missed the mark was the sad, wan, and watery courtesy leaf of iceberg lettuce, which was oh-so-very out of place among its peers. The garlic fries are the sort that you can smell from a neighboring table and covet, and they deliver in kind on your plate.

Across from me, my dining companion received his second course in yet another cast-iron dish. It was the Short Rib Shepard's Pie, but had perhaps sat just a smidge too long in the oven, since the top was overly-black and the contents were disappointingly dry, and not the lushness anticipated by a braised meat dish.

It was around this time when the heft of the Essex House's dineLA menu began to hit. Had we drifted too much into the heavy comfort food options thanks to a long day and our cooling temperatures? No. All the choices on the special menu were of this caliber--heavy, hearty, pub fare to soak up the booze we were meant to be sipping heartily. Our starter cocktails long sipped-down, we focused on the next hurdle: Dessert.

For many diners, dessert is something shared as a treat, or something you decide on after all the savory has been savored. In dineLA territory it's par for the (third) course, and you order it up at the start. We'd committed ourselves to the apple pie and the German chocolate cake, respectively, and were hoping for modest slices that might make good doggy-bag fare since it was a dinner-and-a-movie kind of night.

At this point, we shouldn't have been surprised that both our desserts arrived in--you guessed it--cast iron pans, these even bigger than those we'd seen before. I mean, seriously, that apple pie was the size of my face, and sitting atop in the center like a desert-island castaway was a lone ball of vanilla ice cream trying hard to melt. It took one bite for us to realize that maybe there was a reason the Essex House didn't want to show off their three-course $26 special--they ain't so good at the dessert course.

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I called our very pleasant server over and bit my lower lip. "Uhhh, well, the thing is..." I started. "It's a little too al dente?" he offered. (It's a sign when they know the problem before you finish your sentence.) Sadly, 'al dente' didn't even begin to cover it. Beneath a severely undercooked "crust" or "layer" of what is best described as mealy, paste-y mush, were underseasoned, dry, still crisp-and-white apples. On a placemat opposite me sat a face-sized German chocolate cake dry as Palm Springs in August. Our server kindly helped us figure out what to do. Another attempt at the same dishes but packed to go? (No. We're not masochists. Besides, I was already packing half a sirloin burger and a fistful of garlic fries in a carry out box.) How about the third selection from the dineLA menu, to go? (Ice cream sandwiches? Err, no.) How about they just figure out a way to take the dessert off our bill? (Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner!)

So it seems the secret to Essex Public House is to go for the drinks, keep drinking, and stick to the pub fare. In fact, they're a place I'd happily hit up for Happy Hour, which they offer weeknights from 4-7 p.m.