Sean Kelly, chef/partner at LoHi SteakBar, at 3200 Tejon Street, calls the board at his new place "plain American bar food," even though that's far from an apt description. It's not like he's just sitting in the back, drinking the cooking wine while a bunch of nose-picking fuckups dump frozen Sysco shit into the Frialators. It's not like he's putting out a menu full of french fries and chicken wings.
Or, rather, he is putting out a menu full of french fries and chicken wings, but his french fries are beautiful pommes frites, double-fried and perfectly seasoned, and his chicken wings come with a side of scratch-made blue cheese and buttermilk ranch dressing. "It's my own interpretation of bar food," Kelly explains, laughing.
After eating my last review meal at LoHi (read the review here), I call Kelly -- who I last spoke to right after he signed on for the LoHi gig -- and ask if doing cheeseburgers and grilling steaks still feels like being a chef -- if there's enough actual cooking to satisfy that thing inside him that made him want to cook dinner for a living in the first place.
Absolutely, Kelly replies. "It's like coming full circle for me," he says. "Back to like what I was doing when I started. Back in the early '80s, on the Jersey shore." Kelly began in the fine-dining end of the business, but as he moved up, looking for those sous chef gigs and KM gigs, he found himself working, as he puts it, "in the bar food area." Neighborhood joints, in other words. Places kind of like LoHi, only maybe not quite so good, not quite so (secretly) fine.
What makes the difference here? "Grinding your own meat," Kelly insists. "That's how it starts." You buy single-muscle meats from a meat guy you trust. You cut your own steaks. You grind your own hamburger meat. You do that, and a mentality of good, hands-on, scratch cooking develops all on its own. Everything flows from there.
"There's lots of stuff that kind of goes back to...Jesus, it goes back," Kelly says. "Like béarnaise, for example? Before I came here, I hadn't made a béarnaise in, like, 25 years." And okay, a béarnaise sauce ain't exactly roadhouse cuisine, but coming west outta Jersey, Kelly admits he was "much more of an olive-oil guy than a butter guy" -- more Italian than French. And that béarnaise recipe? It'd been kicking around in the back of his head, unused, for a long time.
Still, it looks like Kelly will soon go even further back in his past, because his partners at LoHi just picked up another space: the former 3 Sons building at 2915 West 44th Avenue. The partners sealed the deal around September 1, and because they had their permits and papers in order, "they had guys in there swinging hammers an hour later," Kelly says.
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The new place is going to be an old-time, straight-up East Coast pizza joint named Ernie's Pizza Bar, named for the Ernie's that occupied this space decades ago. And while the menu has yet to be set in stone (or even written on paper, really), Kelly is sure of a few things. "The bulk of what we're doing is pizza," he says. Simple twelve-inchers and family-style 22- or 24-inch monsters. He and his guys will be making their own dough (of course). They'll be making their own sauce (of course). If he could manage it, I'm sure Kelly would also be curing his own pepperoni, too, and raising his own buffalo for mozzarella. "As much as we can, it'll be homemade and from scratch," he tells me.
In addition to those pies, though, he'll be offering antipasti, a big selection of little bites and snacks, and maybe -- maybe -- the crispy fried baby artichokes that made him famous at Aubergine, Clair de Lune and Somethin' Else. Still, nothing too complicated, nothing that can't be handled by a well-trained crew. He's got his former Somethin' Else sous, Seth Black, backing him up now, as well as Paul Novak, his Aubergine sous, now back from a stint in California.
Though he knows he'll be spending a lot of time at Ernie's once it opens in mid-November, he plans on starting his day at LoHi and finishing it there, too. And for now, that's enough. "Look," Kelly says. "I'm not itching to do anything I'm not doing. I'm loving this every day."