Dining Outside at Birdie G’s, Santa Monica
You can tell the impact a chef has made when even after departing Northern California years ago to decamp to Los Angeles, Bay Area diners still rhapsodize about the unforgettable meals they enjoyed at his hands.
Such is the case with Jeremy Fox, former chef de cuisine at Manresa in Los Gatos, who went on to head the groundbreaking Ubuntu, the Napa restaurant that became the world’s only Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant.
Because the moment I posted a photo of a dish I relished recently at his Birdie G’s restaurant in Santa Monica, the comments started flooding in from folks about how much they miss and respected his cooking in the Bay Area.
Despite the torrent of praise for Ubuntu, diners didn’t consistently flock to this unique combination yoga studio/fine-dining restaurant at at time when the term “plant-based” had hardly become fashionable yet. That never-ending stress took its toll on Fox, who suffered through ADHD and depression. Finally, it became too much, and he left.
He eventually made his way to Southern California, to become chef of Rustic Canyon in 2012, leading to acclaim again, plus a fresh start in life. In 2019, he added to that, opening Birdie G’s, also for the Rustic Canyon Family group of restaurants.
Named for his young daughter, Birdie, and for his grandmother Gladys, it couldn’t be a more of a personal project. As Fox describes, the casual, fun restaurant embodies exactly who he is: An Eastern-European Jew who grew up in the Midwest and the Deep South, and then settled in Southern California.”
Think comforting food all made to be shared, with the best seasonal Southern California produce, and big, bracing, piquant flavors.
That’s just what I enjoyed when I dined there earlier this month on a road trip with my husband. Although we paid our tab, Fox generously sent out a number of extra dishes gratis for us to try.
For those still preferring to dine outdoors like yours truly, you’ll be glad to know that Birdie G’s has a beautiful covered patio outside its front doors with heaters and potted plants. The original outdoor area, bordered by a concrete wall banquette with pillows, was extended beyond those perimeters during the pandemic to include more tables.
Take a seat and enjoy a Liberty Bell Libations ($16), almost a farmer’s market in a glass with the grassy-sweetness of red and yellow bell peppers, with honey, lemon, and Aviation American Gin (yes, Ryan Reynolds’ company, for all of you “Welcome to Wrexham” fans.). It’s tangy, a little bitter in the best way, and has the wonderful throat-warmth of black pepper.
Then, tuck into “Deanie’s Cornbread” ($9), developed by Fox’s ex-wife Deanie Hickox who was once the pastry chef at Manresa and Ubuntu. Arriving hot in its own cast-iron pan, it’s moist, tender, and a little sweet — the perfect vessel to smear on thickly the accompanying fermented green chili-honey butter.
Fox sent out “The Relish Tray” ($30), a huge crystal platter with compartments to hold a variety of pickled veggies. It immediately brings to mind the old-school relish platters your mother used to set out when entertaining. But it’s a good bet her version never included a creamy dip made from five different types of onions, and a dizzying array of fresh, marinated, pickled and fermented daikon kimchi, okra, baby peppers, cornichons, green beans, radishes, cucumber, melon, and crunchy ice plant tendrils. You find yourself approaching the relish tray like an omakase meal, appreciating each and every precious fruit or vegetable for the care that went into selecting and handling them.
The “ACG Caesar” ($19) gets extra snappiness from Little Gem lettuce that gets dressed with the classic anchovies, but also capers and egg yolk preserved like bottarga and shaved over everything.
“The Knife and Fork Tomato Sandwich” ($21) definitely needs utensils to enjoy. Two slices of fluffy focaccia, infused with tomato water and with sun-dried tomatoes baked into their tops, nestle fresh tomato slices along with plenty of tomato-infused mayonnaise that drips all over. It’s like a summer tomato sandwich taken to the nth degree that you picture yourself eating over the sink as your hands and mouth get covered in tomato goodness.
The King trumpet mushrooms ($17) arrived looking not at all what I pictured. Instead of the thick-stemmed mushroom cut into slices, these were bite-sized nuggets, dredged in rice flour, then fried to a golden with rosemary, lemon and plenty of Parmesan overtop. Almost like home fries, they were crispy on the outside, supple within, and with a earthy, meaty taste.
Fox also sent out the “Creamed Corn Mafaldine” ($25), which was a pasta lover’s delight. Think tender, wide ribbons of pasta with ruffled edges with sweet yet fermented corn kernels, the nuttiness of Parmesan shavings, and crunchy little bits of “corn cracklings.” It was indeed like the best of both worlds — fresh pasta intertwined with the old-fashioned goodness of creamed corn.
If you arrive for dinner on the early side, you’re in luck to probably snag one of only 14 orders a night of the “Pickle Chick” ($34). A party next to us that arrived an hour and a half later wasn’t so lucky. It’s a half of a brined chicken, lightly battered in gluten-free potato flour, then fried and dusted with dehydrated dill pickle powder, garnished with fresh dill and dill pollen, and served with dill pickle hot sauce that packs a punch.
The fried chicken is definitely enough to share. But it’s so good, you might want to hoard every piece for yourself. The chicken is incredibly juicy and yes, boasts that distinct flavor of dill pickles. In fact, you definitely need to be a pickle or dill fan for this dish (thankfully, I love the divisive herb), because it tastes assertively of the the grassy, anise-like herb and acidity of pickle spears. As with so many gutsy flavored dishes that awaken the taste buds, once you take that first bite, you can’t help but find yourself craving more and more.
Hickox came up with what the restaurant has dubbed the “World Famous Rose Petal Pie” ($14). It’s a looker to be sure — all aglow in vivid pink and red. It’s like edible stained glass, with a lofty raspberry and rose mousse — similar in texture to the airy jello and Cool Whip concoction of our childhood — that has suspended within it strawberry, raspberry and hibiscus gelatin cubes. It all sits on a pretzel crust that adds just the right touch of salt.
You might fear this dessert to be achingly sweet or overly perfumed with rose water. It’s actually much more subtle. The sweetness is restrained. The rose actually accentuates the berries, making for a refreshing, bright-tasting dessert that’s surprisingly light. If it isn’t actually “world famous” yet, it sure ought to be.
The kitchen also sent out the “Empress Date Cake with Caramel” ($13). Served warm with a big dollop of whipped cream, it’s like sticky toffee pudding and goes down like a big enveloping hug.
Northern California may love to mock Southern California. But there’s no denying that is one lucky region to have Fox there now, doing what he does so well.