Professor Gourmand — The “Regulars” on the Bellwether Dinner Menu

I’ve written about brunch at Bellwether, and I’ll have more to say about that in a later post, but I’ve had dinner at Bellwether more often than I’ve had brunch there and I haven’t said anything about dinner, which is much more changeable than brunch is, and every bit as good. Most of the menu is made up of items that started out as works in progress and get moved into the regular rotation after a couple of weeks. Some of the changes are seasonal (although a remarkable beet with onion soubise dish stayed on the menu well into the warm months last year, and it looks like this year’s butternut squash mousse with ricotta and radicchio will stay on the current menu almost as long), some come back in repurposed form (a lima bean dish that was on the menu for a few months in 2016 has come back as marrow beans as a bed for a delicious crispy fillet of striped bass), and some are just replaced. Picking out what to write about on a menu like this can be a daunting task because everything is just so good, but there are seven dishes that were on the opening menu that are still on the menu and are unlikely to be taken off: a salad, two fried vegetables, a seafood dish, two meat dishes and a cheese plate. Those will be the subject of this blog post, as I try to explain what makes these dishes so central to the Bellwether project.

First, the salad, which is listed on the menu as Butter Lettuce, Grapefruit, Avocado, Shallot, Champagne Vinaigrette. There are, and there have been, other salads on the menu, but this one is unchangeable, as simple as it is. Why? It’s the best, and the best balanced, salad imaginable. Fresh butter lettuce, pink grapefruit sections with all the pith and the membranes removed, cubed ripe avocado, fried shallots (and a big handful of them), and a very well balanced dressing that enhances the other ingredients. Enough of everything that you can have lettuce and at least two other things in almost every bite. Just perfect when what you want is a lettuce salad.

Then, the fried vegetables. A dish of tempura cauliflower with a dipping sauce of nam pla (Vietnamese fish sauce) with Thai chiles, Thai basil, lime juice and mint. I am tempted to order this every time I’m at Bellwether, and I’d guess between 25 and 30% of the time, I do. Sometimes, when I’m just drinking at the bar, I’ll order the cauliflower as a bar snack. They gave bottles of the dipping sauce to customers in celebration of their first anniversary. I haven’t used mine up yet.

The other fried vegetable? French Fries. Not just any French fries either. As Garrett Snyder wrote in his review of Bellwether in the LA Weekly last July,

The french fries here are brined, steamed, frozen and fried, part of a three-day process that yields long, crispy batons as fluffy as a baked potato inside yet shatteringly crunchy outside.

And so they are. Best restaurant French fry ever. Also good as a bar snack, or, in my case, something to finish the brunch champagne with. They come with the house hot sauce (a Habanero-carrot blend) and crème fraiche with chives. Equally good, and depending on my mood I’ll have either or both. Incidentally, the tempura cauliflower is on the brunch menu as well. Good planning, in my view. Fries and cauliflower. Good basic eats.

Charred Octopus, Tabbouleh, Preserved Lemon, Greek Yogurt, Green Olive. Very Eastern Mediterranean in execution. I had this once before I took the picture of it, and it didn’t resonate, perhaps because every level of the menu at Scratch at the time had octopus on it and the one time at Bellwether it was a little chewy. One time. Not when I took the picture. Another expertly composed plate with meltingly tender octopus among flavors which only complement it — herbal, tart, creamy, bitter. One of five seafood dishes on the menu, and the anchor of this section.

Meat? One further west in the Mediterranean, one basic American staple. Meatballs, Pork and Beef, Ricotta, Pecorino, Tomato Sauce, Grilled Ciabatta. Ted Hopson, chef and co-owner of Bellwether, might just havecalled these Nonna’s Meatballs because they taste as if a southern Italian grandmother is in the back making them. Only an excellent kitchen can make a simple dish like this come out so perfectly every time and the ciabatta is excellent for sopping up any of the tomato sauce that the meatballs themselves don’t carry out of the bowl they’re served in.

The basic American staple? A Patty Melt, Taleggio Cheese, Caramelized Onions, Caraway, Calabrian Aioli. Calabrian in this usage means Calabrian chiles. A nice touch with the richness of the cheese and the meat and the sweetness of the onions on toasted Jewish deli rye with caraway seeds. Reviewers have rhapsodized over this, one going so far as to say this will make you rethink what you thought of as a hamburger. It was good, but I thought it needed a little more salt. The other six dishes are in the “Share a Little” portion of the menu. The Patty Melt is in the “Share a Lot” section and usually the lower priced item in that section. So yes, even in a fine-dining gastropub (did I mention the two cocktails, the eight wines and the ten beers [nine beers and a cider, actually] on draft?) you can have a burger and fries, an expertly made and finely crafted burger and fries at that. I’m drinking a Racer 5 with it.

Finally, the Cheese Platter, Chef’s Rotating Selection, Served with Blueberry Sourdough and a rotating fruit-based condiment. This is up there with the cauliflower on the list of menu items I’m tempted to order every time I have dinner at Bellwether. Four cheeses: runny, semi-soft or mild, hard and stronger, and blue. In the picture, you have (counter-clockwise) a runny blue (Sofia, a Capriole farmstead goat cheese from Indiana); “Fat Bottom Girl,” a raw-milk sheep cheese from the Bleating Heart Creamery in Tomales, California (Marin County); Ashbrook, a washed-rind aged cow cheese with a line of vegetable ash from Spring Brook farms in Vermont; and a Persille de Rambouillet , an ash-coated French farmstead pasteurized Goat Blue from La Tremblaye Dairy outside Paris with all the chalkiness you associate with goat cheese. The last time I ordered it the Fat Bottom Girl had been replaced by a gruyere. I’ve never had a cheese I didn’t like on this plate, and the blue cheeses are usually the star. Note that if you order the cheese platter with other menu items it will appear in your dining space before any of the other dishes, so I generally order it when I’m halfway through the last dish I ordered in my first order.

Seven staple — and stable — dishes from the Bellwether dinner menu. Each worth ordering more than once. Next time I write about Bellwether I’ll write about some of the changing dishes like the Fave e Ciccoria, a fava bean hummus of sorts with either figs or grapes, frisee, olive oil and Parmegiano Reggiano, another dish I’m tempted to order every time. And to think — only an eight minute walk from where I live. Charmed life indeed.