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Highland Park's Recess Gets Reinvented As Middle Eastern-Flavored 51 Tavern

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Highland Park's Recess, which opened in early 2016, was mired in an identity crisis for a period. According to chef Sevan Abdessian, it had become too much of a destination spot that drew most of its patrons from other neighborhoods, and it didn't help that the price range and big plates made for a stuffy affair. The whole enterprise, simply put, felt a little out of place. "Perhaps it was a little pretentious," Abdessian told LAist.

Now, in an effort to re-tool, the space has been unveiled as 51 Tavern. Abdessian envisions something more communal, more informal. He pictures a bar where you can carouse with your friends. He's also OK with you checking your emails in the front patio. "We want it to be something where the entire neighborhood could respond to it," said Abdessian. "We wanted to tone things down, but not in terms of the quality. We want everyone to be able to come in here without breaking the bank."

The change was two-fold. For one thing, the restaurant has reassembled its front patio to be something that more's leisurely. With an added abundance of space and plush seats, Abdessian hopes for the patio to be a place where people can set down with their dogs and laptops.

The second act was to revamp the menu, of course. The offering at 51 Tavern has a newfound focus on "sharables" (i.e. finger-foods that, in the end, leave you face-to-face with the ethnical conundrum of What To Do With The Last Piece). The tapa-fication of a restaurant is nothing new, but 51 Tavern manages to eek out some surprises, especially when it plays on Abdessian's knack for Middle Eastern flavors.

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Most likely, it's the shawarma tacos that will garner the most attention. It may sound like the latest entry in our fascination with Frankenstein foods, but the dish works out in a way that's not too ham-fisted. The marinated sirloin—no, it's not lamb—is topped with pickled turnips for an added kick. And the meat is dressed with harissa and tahini, and settled on top of a "tortilla" that's actually a pad of lavash, the thin, unleavened flatbread that's popular in areas around the Caspian Sea.

Other Middle Eastern influences include their fattoush, a salad of kalamata olives, feta, edamame, and red onions. And then there's the cheesecake made of labneh, which is sometimes colloquially referred to as "Lebanese cream cheese." The cheesecake is rich, a little tart, and toes that line between light and dense.

You may have noticed the "tavern" in Abdessian's re-branding effort. If that sounds kind of gastropub-y to you, you're wholly in the right. There are sliders. There are garlic fries. There's even calamari. While this may sound like well-traversed territory, Abdessian adds some flourishes to perk your attention. The sliders—piled with ground sirloin and applewood bacon—is topped with Danish blue cheese to provide an added pang of richness. And the fried cauliflower sack—a holdover from the Recess menu—makes for the perfect bar food, thanks to the crunchy exterior and its pliable core. The dish comes with a zesty, caper remoulade. As for the drinks, they lean towards the fragrant and refreshing. The cocktails list includes the "Duchess of York," which is topped with a habanero lime foam, and tempered by the cool taste of cucumber. And the "Kentucky Buck" juxtaposes the spice of bourbon with strawberries, mint, and maple syrup (hey, why not?).

Is 51 Tavern, compared to Recess, a better reflection of the neighborhood? Perhaps, but it's also a hard to tell, as the menu covers a lot of territory. Though it should be noted that there's a vape store down the block, and across from that is a health center. So maybe having a wide spread is exactly the type of thing 51 Tavern should be aiming for.

51 Tavern is located at 5022 York Boulevard in Highland Park and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (818) 507-0592