“Casual dining”: It’s not easy to do well as a restaurant, even if the term sounds like it.
Los Angeles has always been a haven of casual dining; there’s simply something about the West Coast that has encouraged the growth of comfortable places to eat that serve great food without pretension.
Maybe that explains the booming success of places like Downtown’s Bottega Louie or restauranteur Michael Cardenas’ Lazy Ox Canteen. Rolling up your sleeves and eating great food for less than $20 can be a delightfully subversive, surprising experience.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Michael Cardenas as the chef of Lazy Ox Canteen. He owns and manages the restaurant. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.]
And maybe this is what makes Blue Cow Kitchen and Bar — from the minds behind the ever-popular Mendocino Farms sandwich brand — so enjoyable. There are plenty of places to eat quality, well-executed meals in the city, yet few places seem to do it as effortlessly, and as attractively, as Blue Cow does.
That said, finding the restaurant can be anything but effortless. Tucked away down a smattering of steps at the courtyard at Two California Plaza, the restaurant isn’t visible from the roadway. The parking isn’t particularly convenient — or cheap.
But find it, and Blue Cow makes a good impression right away.
There’s some nice outdoor seating, which could be a great choice on a mild spring afternoon. More significantly, there’s Blue Cow’s interior, which looks like your really rich, classy friend’s awesome basement: There are leather couches, intimate booths and relaxed seating at wooden tables, all set off by grand cave-like arches and a gleaming open kitchen.
The lighting is just right: warm and flattering without being gotta-squint dark like so many “trendy” places are. Ditto the noise level: It’s not quiet enough to feel stuffy, but it’s also certainly not the deafening tidal wave of sound that you’ll find at a place like Bottega Louie. These details don’t define a restaurant, of course, but small touches can add much to the dining experience.
And thankfully, this dining experience doesn’t disappoint. It’s clear that Executive Chef Joshua Smith shows an innate understanding of how to take fresh, local ingredients and present them in clever ways while still maintaining a sense of elegant simplicity. It falls entirely in line with the restaurant’s unpretentious yet upscale feel.
The Roasted Beets & Not Burrata, for example, is cheeky in name and brilliant in execution: The luscious texture of burrata — a cream-filled version of mozzarella — is imitated with a buttery, light mousse of regular mozzarella. The sliced roasted beets are perfect in their sweet, tender earthiness, and a rustic pistachio pesto plays perfectly with a drizzle of glossy, tangy balsamic vinegar.
It is, in a word, a home run — the kind of salad you would get on campus every day, if it were offered.
The BBQ’d Brassicas show off more of Smith’s imagination as well as a bit of theatricality. A plain brown paper bag arrives at the table; with a twist, the bag is opened, setting forth a wave of fragrant steam and smoke.
Inside? There’s a hill of delectably charred broccoli and cauliflower, tossed in a barbecue spice mix that gives the vegetables a hearty kick. Served with a bit of spiced apple cider vinegar and some rich remoulade, the brassicas are great to share and a lovely way to begin a meal.
Sandwiches are what Mendocino Farms is justifiably famous for, and Blue Cow keeps the legacy going. The French (Onion Short Rib) Dip is a highlight, even if it’s not particularly original: A slab of braised short ribs, unctuous and savory, sits happily under melted cave-aged Gruyère. Roasted mushrooms and sides of jus and horseradish-spiked crème fraiche are just the proverbial cherries on top.
The awkwardly named A Cuban Marries a Madame — a mash-up of the Cuban sandwich and the croque-madame sandwich — is equally delicious. It features a veritable sea of pork, in both honey-cured and Cuban-roasted forms, and the over-the-top garnish of a fried egg makes the dish irresistibly tasty.
Blue Cow also offers Big Plates, or regular entrées. The restaurant’s take on steak frites is noteworthy not just for the steak — which flaunts a delectable, deeply browned crust and a juicy interior — but for the side it comes with: poutine. Fat wedges of roasted potato are laced here with elegant melted cheese and a touch of gravy, giving the beloved Canadian comfort food a nice makeover.
The service fits the restaurant’s feel; the plaid-sporting waiters seem to appear at just the right moments and are both friendly and knowledgeable about the menu. Essentially, it’s the kind of service one would appreciate anywhere, casual dining or otherwise.
It’s difficult for a restaurant to seem like a well-oiled machine, especially only a few weeks after its opening. Somehow, Blue Cow makes it seem effortless. Though there are some hiccups — the Tandoori Turkey Club sandwich is an odd stumble in execution, with floury naan and overcooked meat — it’s apparent that the restaurant is set to be a lasting highlight of Downtown Los Angeles.
A casual dining experience shouldn’t mean a cavalier approach to quality and service. In that sense, Blue Cow Kitchen and Bar sets the standard high.