By Anna Roth
I laughed out loud when the plate of carrots arrived, thick and meaty slices sprinkled with fresh herbs and scattered on the plate like trees in a forest after a storm. There were little puddles of spring green and day glo-orange goo here and there, and a smear of something toffee-colored. It all just seemed so overwrought for a mere carrot. Then I took a bite, and the world turned over.
Verbena is not a perfect restaurant — the meat and seafood dishes are sometimes lacking, the cocktails could push more boundaries, the prices make it a splurge for many (that plate of carrots was $14). But when it excels, Verbena's sheer audacity, its ability to surprise and even shock, and its executive chef Sean Baker's ability to transform the humblest of ingredients, all come together to create one of the most exciting restaurants I've visited in the past year. All that at a place where the vegetables steal the show.
How to explain the brassicas, a bowl of purees in contrasting colors, with alien-looking purple broccoli, seared Brussels sprouts, and sauteed greens peeking through like spring vegetables emerging from the soil? On one hand, it was simple, a riff on broccoli and cheddar, but that would ignore the fierce technique behind it. Or the "cardoons and parsnips, kale, yogurt, charmoula" dish, whose silly plating — a ring of parsnip chips and roasted vegetables around the plate, its center scattered with black olive-and-hay dust and dollops of parsnip yogurt — belied a beautiful, harmonious, and richly layered bite.
You'll notice that these are all winter ingredients. I visited Verbena in mid-February, when fresh produce is limited, even in California. I look forward to many more trips to the handsome, high-ceilinged dining room to see what happens as we get into the full glory of spring and summer and Baker applies his talent to peaches and tomatoes as well as carrots and cardoons.