Years ago, I worked as an assistant in television development. It was my first real job out of college and the office was located at Sunset and Seward. It was all very “Hollywood.” Every day, I had to go to this place called Ponchik Factory to get my bosses lunch. It’s a tiny place that survives simply because a giant office building is on top of it. The food is an extreme variety of OK and every time I went in there I had to exchange the formalities of “Hey, how’s your edit going?” or “Hey, I’m good for that 2PM meeting.” It was like an office away from my office–and these visits were the only chance I had to leave the office between the hours of 9AM and 8PM.
When The Mercantile opened across the street from my office, things changed. There was a brief migration to the Bowery Street establishment by my coworkers and I found myself there more and more picking up food for my bosses. For nearly a year, I was in there every weekday picking up a Cuban sandwich for both my bosses. I would stand there and gawk at the wines as I waited and I thought about how fantastic it would be to eat there because everything looked so great. “The Mercantile is a nice place,” I’d think to myself followed by thoughts of how I couldn’t afford it at that moment. I’ve eaten there a few times since leaving the assistant job and it is literally the only connection I have to those two plus years of television work. Recently, the Sunset space has gotten a menu overhaul courtesy of Chef CJ “Big Ceej” Jacobson. Chef CJ brings quite a flair and polish to the menu. This should be no surprise for anyone who has been keeping up with the current season of Top Chef.
We stopped in on Saturday night and were joined by cool gals Vivianne Lapointe and Angelique Groh to sample Big Ceej’s new menu offerings. We walked in and had totally spaced that this was going to be the situation. As we waited for a table, a super tall bespectacled man bobbed his head up and down to inspect various dishes. “Is that Big Ceej CJ from Top Chef?” I ask before answering to myself, yes, that is him in the kitchen with the Sonic Youth t-shirt on.
We grab the front table and were joined by boss of the Bowery, George Abou-Daoud. Almost immediately food starts to pop out with little introductions from Big Ceej. The first thing we get is a carrot soup which he describes in his casual cool way as “bastardized vegan soup.” It’s bright orange with a knot of buratta in one corner and pine nuts in another. Hidden at the bottom of the bowl are savory chunks of bacon. The soup is surprisingly not very carroty, which is a welcome surprise to me because I can only take so much carrot. It feels like a light pepper and tomato soup that is enhanced by the aforementioned bacon bits and buratta. It’s fancy comfort soup. The arugula leaves do slowly slide down the throat as you get through it–but you learn to navigate them after it happens one time.
A tiny disc arrives with a folded smoked salmon at the center of it. CJ explains that the salmon was smoked and served with a white cream sauce where the flavors can “all hang out together.” He warns that the sauce may inspire some plate licking. This serving is a lox bite that incorporates classic lemon, shallot, and dill compliments. The cream sauce is absolutely wonderful and full and–had there been bread–we all would have cleaned our plates of it.
A taste of the Farro Salad comes next which is very much a dream salad: you have smokey and grassy frisse and sorrel with tomato and ricotta salata all atop of the little farro friends. This is all tossed in a lemony vinaigrette. It’s a light, near perfect salad.
From here on, things get crazy and Big Ceej does not hold back: these are the big guns that have been brought to The Mercantile. The items that came before it are great–but these are what you can tell CJ is absolutely giddy about. These are his take on California country food.
This includes a Duck Rillette made in house. I am a fan of any spreadable meat but usually a rillette is too unrefined for my liking. This one? Perfect. It was the best one I have tasted as it is simply pure duck flavor you get to scoop onto grilled crostini. It is super savory and super smooth and dense and creamy. It’s very unexpected. Plop some blueberries and mustard on your bread along with it and you have a glorious combination. The pickled ginger it’s paired with is excellent, too.
A fancy grilled cheese is placed on the table with a paired tomatillo soup. (Fun fact: Tomatillos are related to Gooseberries. George told us that and we had no idea. He also is an expert on Little House On The Praire trivia, which is how The Mercantile got its name.) The grilled cheese is packed with an extremely fiery pepper that is an unexpected super spice hidden in gooey, comfortable cheese. To take you to the opposite flavor and to pacify your palette, the tomatillo soup steps in to put out any tongue fires. You will quickly learn that the sandwich and the soup are best friends and that you should take slices for dunks in the green seas.
Raising the comfort level was a large serving of Kale Macaroni and Cheese. The dish is creamy and nutty and is a combination of gruyere and bechamel with a few oyster mushrooms throw in too. It is very thick and cheesy without being heavy. Each noodle is like a pasta knuckle being thrown at you. The kale holds its own but is not what wows you in the dish: you order this because you want cozy cheese comfort food and you get cozy cheese comfort food.
We had resolved that the meal had ended at this point but then more and more and more came out. Please note that this amount of food is a lot. We did not eat for a full day after this.
Another duck surprise came out: two flattened duck breasts topped with some greens and oranges. By some magic, the duck tastes just like a charred and grilled skirt steak. There are pumpernickel notes and citrus bursts from the orange. It feels like a Calfornia deconstructed Duck a l’Orange: it is more casual and simpler than the often saucy French dish but touches on all of the flavors you are familiar with. The addition of the greens (chickweed) show CJ’s Noma roots popping out as he literally foraged for them in LA. They apparently grow everywhere.
We also got to try a little bit of a roasted garlic soup. This was a super interesting entry because it tastes exactly as you think it would: it tastes like creamy, warm garlic in liquid form. This sounds obvious but it was shocking how concentrated the flavor was.
A baramunde dish finishes out our entrees. As they’re placed on the table, CJ ensures that each dish is facing each diner in the proper way: baramunde to the left, olive drizzle and plate theatrics to the right. The fish is very rich with a salty crunch from the skin. There is a huge lemon flavor to the fish which is a delicious pair with the very earthy ground fava beans it sits on and the golden beet slices that surround it. The olives are perhaps the hidden treasure of the dish since you don’t even realize olives are on your plate until the flavor hits your tongue. They bridge the lemon to the earth nicely.
Even though we were far too full, dessert came as Mercantile’s classic boozey, boozey, boozey gelato. There was a non-alcoholic hazelnut gelato drizzled with espresso in addition to vanilla ice cream doused in Kahlua and chocolate gelato with Jameson. These are basically shots of liquor on a cold dessert and they are perfect. There is nothing more to these. They are delicious.
CJ’s new take on The Mercantile’s menu makes the Sunset establishment feel complete. The food has always been excellent at The Mercantile and the space is one of the best places to hang out in Los Angeles because it is so old Hollywood. What Big Ceej has done is take their idea of nice casual New American cuisine and pinpoint exactly what that cuisine is: California country with a dash of comfort. It suits the space well and very much matures establishment. It’s a fresh kick into casual luxury food.
If only I still worked at my old television job, I would still be visiting here daily–but now I would chomp on duck rillette as I wait for my boss’ Cuban sandwich.