Richard Foss

Barn by the beach [restaurant review]

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Sister’s Barn owner Barbara Reger with New Orleans style barbecue shrimp. Photos by JP Cordero (CivicCouch.com)

The LA dining scene has lots of fantasy restaurants where the interiors were designed to evoke another place or time. That’s not a new thing – by the 1920s there were restaurants that were decorated to look like French chateaus, a pirate hideout, and most improbably, an old Western jail. However exotic their décor, they all served steaks, barbecue, and fried chicken, because down-home midwestern style food was what most people wanted in that era.

For the last year the South Bay has had a fantasy interior that actually evokes something you might see in the Midwest. It’s Sister’s Barn, located in an ordinary strip center on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo. They didn’t go nuts with the concept – there is no hay on the floor or animatronic cows and chickens, but the weathered wood walls and huge sliding door get the idea across. It’s rustic without being Hicksville, and the effect is attractive.

The focus here is on timeless American food that has spent time in a smoker or on a grill, with backyard barbecue sides like cole slaw, roasted potatoes, and baked beans. As any fan of cookout and camp meals knows, when made with good ingredients these simple dishes are an absolute delight. When it’s subtly seasoned the flavor of good ingredients is shown off, but hitting the sweet spot can be tricky.

On our first meal at the restaurant there were hits and misses. The cornbread was very moist and had the nice, slight grittiness of stone ground cornmeal, and a corn chowder was enlivened with a shot of thyme. We tried a taste of their chili but decided against a bowl of it because it wasn’t zippy enough. It was a good meaty stew, but didn’t have the balance of cumin, garlic, herbs, and pepper to give it depth. The surprising starter of this visit was a dandelion green salad with arugula, almonds, and pickled raisins. That item is avant garde compared to the rest of the menu, but had an exceptional balance of sweet, bitter and gentle citrus flavors.

A plate of brisket at Sister’s Barn. Photo by JP Cordero.

Unfortunately, the main courses were less successful. The brisket on the three-meat plate we ordered was cooked medium-well and dry, the chicken chewy. Both had probably been sitting in a warmer for too long. The sausage that completed the trio was made in house and had a fine balance of coriander and cumin in the mix, but one out of three isn’t a great average. With a side of broccoli and a bit of cooked carrots this platter totaled $31.

The chicken was better in that it was at least moist, but it didn’t have the crisp skin advertised on the menu, and it seemed to have almost no seasoning. We ordered a side of roasted fingerling potatoes only to find that those too were mediocre. The menu said they had been cooked with duck fat, which can make potatoes wonderfully crisp when fried at high heat, but these were just oily.

Our dinner with three glasses of wine ran almost $150, and the experience was bad enough that I didn’t go back for months. When I did, I decided to try a burger, which was a good choice. The beef patty was well-seasoned and cooked the medium rare I requested, and it had a nice smoky flavor from the grill. I wouldn’t go back for it often because at 16 dollars with just a small portion of potatoes it was overpriced, but it was well executed.

My next trip was almost a formality because I had a pretty good idea what I thought of the place, but it yielded two surprises. One was a daily soup of sausage, kale, and sweet potato that was remarkably good. The broth was very flavorful and lightly peppery, and if this was a regular item, I’d have it any day. The portion was very generous so that I took some home – oddly, they only offer their soups by the large bowl, when a cup of this would have been an excellent appetizer.

The other surprise was their beef ribs, which are only offered on weekends. All of their barbecue here is unusual because while it has a deep smoke flavor, there is no bark or smoke ring. (The bark is the exterior crust, the smoke ring the pink line you usually see when you cut open a rack – it shows how deep the smoke permeated the meat.) There is also no discernible flavor from a barbecue rub, so what you get here is just smoky meat, with some sweetish mild sauce on the side. In the case of those ribs it was very good smoky beef, cooked past medium but so tender it easily separated from the bone. It’s not traditional barbecue but it’s interesting, and at 18 bucks with some side vegetables it was actually reasonably priced. I happen to prefer traditional barbecue with more variation in texture and a traditional rub, but I’m glad I tried it.

I’m also glad I tried the Mettler Cabernet, which they sell at 12 dollars a glass. The beer and wine list here is quite good and they have started stocking more moderately priced selections than they did in the early days. It’s still on the high side for by-the-glass selections, but everything they serve seems to be high quality. The beer list is good too, and on two different trips their bar was doing a good business.

Sister’s Barn is in the process of remodeling part of their space to create a grab and go section and cafe. Given that my most recent visit was the most successful, there’s room for optimism about this quirky take on American favorites.

Sister’s Barn is at 1408 S. PCH in Redondo. Current hours 5 p.m. – 9 p.m, planning to open for lunch soon. Parking lot in rear or street parking, patio dining, wheelchair access good. Noise level moderate. Phone 424-452-6070, menu at sistersbarneatery.com. ER

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