The closer you get to Restauration, the more you smell the sweet wood smoke that snakes out of its tall chimney stack. It's a wonderful scent, a scent that says something rustic, something special is being made, even if the oven the chimney is attached to is used mostly for pizzas. More than anything, the smell promises a back-to-basics neighborhood restaurant and diner of the kind before the Chili's and Denny's of the world commoditized the experience with picture menus and reheated food.
It reminded me, strangely, of my childhood in Indonesia, where the same smell emanating from the wood-fueled stoves of street vendors permeated the evening air with the promise of something imbued with that flavor. But Restauration's food and space could only happen on Retro Row, which keeps solidifying its reputation as Portland-by-the-Sea.
When you go, you see that Restauration is divided into two parts: a diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting hacked with fluffy pillows, and an outdoor patio area shaded with sails and a wall of pots in which herbs are grown. And then there's that oven, which owners Dana and Rob Robertson didn't hide away in the small kitchen, but rather installed in the open. It's not the sturdy concrete dome anchored into the foundation at Mozza's, but rather something that resembles a put-together art-school project made with two-by-fours and held up by stilts.
Still, it's a workhorse. One morning, I saw a whole tray of small potatoes pulled from it. Later, I would recognize those potatoes on my plate, now sliced into coins, sprinkled with spices and sizzled as a side for an omelet, the spuds exuding the same smoky sweetness I smelled earlier. But the omelet was great, too. Called the Whitson, our server said it's one of the restaurant's most popular brunch dishes, second only to the huevos rancheros. The egg is cooked thin and folded over the filling as though a tortilla on a taco. And it almost was a taco, with stringy but tender strips of braised beef short rib that seemed to have attained the coveted edges of griddle-crisped carnitas. Also inside: caramelized onions and a sprinkle of white Cheddar slowly melted, all of it straddling the line separating morning and evening food that I never thought to ask for Tabasco. Alongside that was a thimble of tangy chutney I slathered all over the grilled toast and on what was left of the egg after the filling was gone.
With most of the breakfast dishes here, there's no need or room for even Tapatío or Sriracha.
The house potatoes I would see again in the huevos rancheros, tucked into a small mountain constructed of coarse homemade corn tortillas and a fried egg bleeding its yolk onto the plate. It's also here where the rest of the disparate components of roasted-tomato salsa, black beans and chunks of avocado somehow came together to form a unified, soupy sauce so precious I had to ask for a spoon to scoop up every drop. Also, somewhere in between shoveling spoonfuls of it into my mouth, I encountered a bay leaf, which endeared me to the dish's hominess even more.
If you want something sweeter, there's a French toast made from English muffins--perhaps the best French toast in Long Beach not made by Starling Diner. It comes in a four stack, each round thick, moist, smeared with mascarpone cheese and tasting closer to freshly made aebleskivers than French toast. This is what happens when you soak an English muffin, with its inherent porousness, in egg and milk--it's pure magic.
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You could come to Restauration at dinner time, when the strung-up lights lend a romantic mood and the kitchen takes the same short ribs used for the Whitson omelet and cooks them with kale, tomato sauce and a ricotta-rich gnocchi that squishes softly between your teeth before it melts. Or you could order one of those wood-fired pizzas with more of the short ribs, a roasted peach and blue cheese. And for sharing around the table, there's a dish of lightly battered and fried white shrimp that are sprinkled with mint and sesame, then served with half a lime and a spicy aioli. Also great: the seared Pacific albacore that comes in a puddle of gazpacho that can turn anything it touches into something delicious.
But the best time to come is brunch. There will be gay couples, straight couples, hipsters, old fogeys, everyone engaging in the kind of conversation and laughter that's fueled by bottomless mimosas and the promise of a leisurely weekend afternoon. And as you leave, you'll catch a whiff of that sweet smoke and the memories it brings . . . of the food you had just minutes before that you already miss.
Restauration, 2708 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 439-8822; restaurationlb.com. Open Mon., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Wed.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Meal for two, $25-$50, food only. Beer and wine.