Black Market Liquor Bar: Sating Savage Souls in Studio City
If you live or dine in the San Fernando Valley, you may have spent some time bemoaning the lack of a really great contemporary cocktail bar and a fresh, innovative chef-driven restaurant. Luckily for those of us who have dwelled too long in the aforementioned predicament, the Black Market Liquor Bar has opened up in Studio City.
With an approachable but creative cocktail menu curated by noted craft cocktail mixmaster Pablo Moix (La Descarga, Harvard & Stone) and an eclectic and dynamic bar bites menu created and executed by Top Chef All-Star Antonia Lofaso, Black Market is a true beacon of light in the SE Valley. (You're not dreaming: You actually heard us cheer here.)
For libations, there is indeed something for everyone at Black Market. A thoughtful beer list, as well as an exciting wine list (put together by Sommelier Sally Kim) back up the cocktails, which do steal the show not just inside the restaurant, but in an overall local geography laden with Rum-and-Cokes. Moix says this "really rounded" drink list can please the novice drinker to the cocktail geek. In his role as not just the "bar guy," but rather a savvy host, Moix can offer up a delicious and satisfying alternative to appease a drinker who is loyal to a booze brand, but not necessarily a spirit.
Bartender Mia Sarazen agrees, and went over the current cocktail menu with us to explain the "keep it simple"...and delicious philosophy of Black Market's drink program. The heat of summer can be quickly cooled with a few sips of their "Red Hot and Bothered" (Jalapeño-infused vodka, strawberry, blood orange, agave, ginger beer), while the traditional Pisco Sour is tackled with a punch in the "Punch for One" (Pisco, pineapple, agave, angostura, lime).
If you're looking to geek out on cocktail curiosities, however, fear not: Though the "City Fizz" (gin, absinthe, lime, cucumber, mint, egg white) and "Vodka Buck" (vodka, house-made ginger syrup, lime, angostura) will call to and calm a less adventurous drinker, the "Amber and Embers" (laphroig scotch, clement cane syrup, angostura, orange bitters) will spice things up with its smoky depth and nod to the traditional Old Fashioned. Other drinks, like "The Colombian," make use of spirits we don't encounter much, like aguardiente, the national spirit of Colombia, a cane spirit infused with star anise after distillation.
Kim's wine list will find you perhaps "out of your comfort zone," she explains, but still in a place where you can find what you are looking for. She says her wine list for Black Market lets the wine drinker do what wine is best for: "Traveling around the world in your glass." Her list takes you away from California, and into Austria, Slovernia, and regions of France and Italy. A similar journey is available through the beer list, on tap or by the bottle.
But drinking is only half the story of Black Market. Lofaso's menu is diverse and playful, and makes use of fresh farmers' market ingredients and her inventive whims. The Top Chef-testant (Season 4) and Top Chef All Stars semi-finalist says that she was initially inspired by seeing photos of the space (it's the former Wine Bistro) that was pretty much gutted and redone, with cozy banquettes and a bricked domed ceiling, for creating her menu. "There's really not a philosophy behind any of it," she tells us as she grabs a seat at the bar with us--her first time sitting there--to talk about her food. She says she asked herself "What do I want to eat in this space?"
From thick, crunchy dill-encrusted potato chips to an Oxtail Ragu, the menu spans a vast range of flavors and styles. "I like to dip into all different realms," says Lofaso. "I don't want to specifically go in one area, Italian, or French...because I eat everything." A new item that evening, lamb meatballs on a bed of fresh corn, feta, rosemary, cucumber, and pine nuts, is decidedly Mediterranean, while her pillow-soft ricotta gnudi glistening in a nutty brown butter sauce are of course, Italian. The menu, she says, is "relatable, but brings in aspects of all kinds of food."
If you're torn between options, and were wise to have brought companions, the best approach is to indulge and order up: The plates, even the whole fried baby chicken and the light summery salads, are all meant to be shared. "It's really just meant for people to have small bites, two or three things to taste," notes Lofaso. "When I go out to eat I want to try everything on the menu, but it's too much--but here you can order a few things and try a lot." That chicken? Don't be shy: It shows up on a board with utensils and fries, and you should just dig in and grab your favorite piece. (Psst, you can even divvy up the Deep Fried Fluffernutter sandwich from the dessert selection. Don't you dare not order it.)
Lofaso's calling card is perhaps her mussels, served up at Black Market in a softly spiced, buttery, soup-worthy broth, with the mollusks peeking out from branches of fragrant rosemary and herbs that call to mind the briny ocean floor. "I'm obsessed with mussels," she says with a laugh. "I've done them in every restaurant I've worked in. I feel like I do them well, and I always want them on my menu." Indeed, she does do them exceptionally well; they are a must-order for your table.
The chef, who proudly says she grew up in the 9-1-4-0-3 (that's totally, like, Sherman Oaks, okay!) is excited to be a part of bringing a different kind of dining experience over to this side of the hill, and says she hasn't tailored her menu to the stereotypical less-sophisticated valley palate. "Are there more places like this over the [other side of the] hill? Absolutely," she asserts. "But why not have it over here?"
Moix and his team, and Lofaso and her team, work well together in the space and at the table, and while there aren't set rules for what from each side goes with what, as Lofaso says, "With food in general there's always something you can figure out for pairing." The broad selections at the bar mesh well with the broad offerings on the menu: "There's great stuff [the customer is] choosing from, so they'll figure it out." If you're stumped though, just ask. Your server can definitely steer you towards some winning combos.
It's hard to resist asking Lofaso about her Top Chef experience. A little bit from the bottom line: Would she go back and do it again? "Absolutely not," she says without pause.
Will we go back to Black Market? Absolutely.