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Ford’s focus

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No white tablecloths in this joint. Sport your jeans, grab a brew and pull up a seat: Chef Ben Ford’s new restaurant, Ford’s Filling Station, is all about top-notch cuisine served with a healthy dose of cool, casual fun.

Chef Ben Ford sits down, greets me warmly and cracks open an ice-cold beer. He admits to having a bit of a hangover, but, unlike most of us who look like hell after a big night out, Ben looks pretty OK, not to mention a whole lot like his father, movie icon Harrison Ford. Sure, his Hollywood heritage may be one of the reasons his newest digs have garnered a bit of attention. (Really, who wouldn’t want to check out Han Solo Jr. donning a chef’s coat and commanding the kitchen?) But Ben has serious culinary cred, having trained at University of Dijon in Burgundy, France and the California Culinary Academy San Francisco, then sharpening his chops at San Francisco’s renowned Chez Panisse. So, even for the admittedly starstruck, there’s a much bigger upside to visiting his new restaurant than the opportunity to gawk at celebrity spawn: Ford’s Filling Station is, in a word, awesome.

The concept is gastropub (a term that is quickly being sponged up by the undyingly hip). “It’s basically a pub with surprisingly good food and service,” explains Ben. Located in up-and-coming Culver City, Calif., this low-key restaurant is a departure from Ben’s previous project, Chadwick, a luxe Beverly Hills eatery that served California-Mediterranean cuisine. “Chadwick sort of challenged people, and it was fancier than I wanted it to be,” explains Ben. “I wanted to get back to cooking with the same products and sensibilities, but not be trapped in high-end cuisine anymore.”

Mission accomplished: Frou frou Ford’s is not. The front patio is lively, where L.A.’s casual-but-cool crowd are rocking jeans and T-shirts. The long wooden bar inside feels like the one in your friendly neighborhood watering hole and spills seamlessly into the restaurant, which is marked by rugs, wooden tables and low lighting. It’s industrial but warm, approachable and easy. Just as this restaurant bears his name, it also effuses Ben’s own style: He designed the space, taking a hand in everything from the placement of the bar to selecting the tables, chairs and light fixtures. There are even bookshelves lined with Ben’s books and a few unobtrusive personal relics hanging on the walls (not the least of which are photographs of his family). “You’ve got my music playing, my food, my books—a little glimpse into my personality.”

But if Ben’s personality comes out anywhere, it is in his exquisite cuisine. His execution of the “gastro” is flawless. He calls it “in-your-face dining;” boisterous American regional gourmet feathered with some pub favorites. “I even thought about putting asterisks next to items on the menu that are ‘extreme eating,’ noting the things that might have, head, eyes, bones, whatever attached to it.” In fact, Ben has had a whole fish on the menu, filled with mashed potatoes, clams and other frutte del mare…served with head, eyes, tail and all. (It’s part of his socially sound approach to cooking, which involves using the whole animal.) The beauty of the gastropub, then, is that amidst a casual atmosphere, diners can feel comfortable making adventurous food choices.

The “pub” part of this gastropub pales only slightly in comparison to the food; the wine list is lovely, and the tap beer selection, though small, is top quality. The Ford’s Filling Station signature pale ale is a winner; beer drinkers would be remiss not to try it. “We’ve tried to get beer more into our menu,” he says. “When it does work right, we’ll use it. For instance, I have a feeling that a chocolate porter would be great for a barbecue sauce.” Ben, himself, has a particular proclivity for brew; one of his earliest jobs after college was in a San Francisco microbrewery. And there were even murmurings of Ben opening a brewpub of his own one day.

Beer drinkers should kick off with the oysters (even my strictly wine-drinking friend confessed, “These oysters and beer are like milk and cookies.”). The flatbreads garner much-deserved attention, while the less-mentioned Kobe beef cheeks are melt-in-your mouth delicious. And yes, they are actual cheeks – a winning example of the whole-animal theory. Finish up your meal with the strawberry shortcake, and top off your night by sending compliments to the chef, who, you’ll be certain to agree, is a star in his own right. •

 


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