There’s no denying it: life in the Information Age is exciting. Nearly every element of our daily lives has been transformed in some way by the Internet; from the obvious (light-speed communication) to the mundane (“life hack” videos showing us how to more efficiently fold t-shirts). For many, the most impactful changes have been through an internet-prompted progression in career: aside from a flood of new jobs in social media marketing, the path to success in nearly any profession need no longer follow the cut-and-dry avenues of our parents’ generation. It’s clear that this modern culture of connectivity challenges the structures that have long defined how our society functions, and for some, offers an opportunity to escape the bounds of a traditional career. The world can be anyone’s oyster, especially for those willing to get out there, break with tradition, and put in some hard work (though it must be said that unfortunately, some will have to work harder than others).
True to history, the revolution is led by artists - by and large, it’s the creators who are stepping outside the bounds and trying something new. In the world of food, chefs rebel against the pomp and circumstance of fine dining, replacing crisp white tablecloths and mood lighting with food from the heart served in unconventional locations. At pop-up dinners organized with the aid of the internet, some of the country’s most compelling meals have been served outdoors atop milk crates or in a willing participant’s cozy home kitchen. Yes, traditional fine dining still holds its own, but it is the new crop of modern rebels who are making the headlines. Take Chef Jason Fullilove, whose series of successful pop-ups featuring his modern and meticulously crafted take on soul food recently morphed into a permanent (if unconventional) setup on a bar’s back patio in the Fairfax district.
Fullilove’s modern rebel project, called Barbara Jean, is named for his mother - a rebel in her own right, who spent much of her life providing for underprivileged children in war-torn countries. The food that Fullilove shares with us at Barbara Jean honors traditional American soul food, and imbued with his years of experience cooking in fine-dining restaurants, offers a perfect middle ground between down-home comfort and elegant sophistication. Yes, these flavors will evoke memories of soul food in the south - the hush puppies brought me straight back to memorable meals of my childhood - but they will also challenge and delight the palate as much as a good fine-dining meal would.
Brunch at Barbara Jean begins with a selection of creative cocktails from the front of the house, leveraging off the restaurant’s roommate: a speakeasy-inspired bar called the Melrose Umbrella Company. With charming names and unconventional garnishes, it is difficult to pass up a pre-brunch tipple. We enjoyed a rainbow of sips: the Romance without Pressure, made with gin, passionfruit, and grapefruit; the Melrose Mule, a delicately sweet stunner garnished with a slice of dried blood orange that glittered like a stained glass window; and the Mezcali Me Banana, a fruity concoction brought down to earth with a smoky branch of charred rosemary.
The list of starters and sides at Barbara Jean may leave you dizzy - who could possibly choose between hush puppies and buttermilk biscuits? - but for the portion and price, sampling a healthy cross-section is well within the realm of possibility. Fullilove’s Buttermilk Biscuits are crisp on the outside and flaky on the inside, made substantial with hearty whole wheat flour and paired with a quenelle of fluffy-sweet butter. Hush puppies arrive in an artful wreath, placed atop a delicate, fragrant, and completely unexpected truffle honey sauce. They’re better than what I remember eating as a child; crisp like a well-fried donut outside, broken open to reveal a piping-hot, pillowy, sweet corn center. For a vegetarian alternative to Fullilove’s much-loved Curry Fried Chicken, there is a cauliflower version of the same dish. Crispy fried nuggets of tender cauliflower are arranged artfully atop a spiced aioli, and are decorated with tangy house-made pickled vegetables, creating a varied and compelling coterie of flavors that somehow achieves careful balance.
Brunch mains run the gamut from breakfast staples to hearty midday fare. Our table was drawn to the savory options, though both pancakes and waffles nearly managed to capture our attention - there’s always a next time, I suppose. For our vegetarian friend, there was the Omelet of the Day, packed with vegetables, sweet winter squash, and cheddar cheese. While this dish is normally served with a side of bacon, avocado made for a pleasant meatless alternative. At the opposite end of the food spectrum, there is the Heritage Pork Belly: a yam latke topped with succulent chunks of pork belly, soft poached eggs, roast apple sauce, and sweet maple mustard. A perfect bite from this dish hits the flavor quaternity: salt, fat, acid, and heat - with a little bonus sweetness to bring it all home. Finally, we couldn’t have a comfort food brunch without sampling the Shrimp and Grits. Fullilove’s presentation is playful; the shrimp’s head and tail cheekily poke out from each end of the bowl as if it’s swimming through the creamy pool of grits. A plump tomato and whole clove of garlic poached in olive oil provide both earthiness and acidity, while a vibrant green drizzle packs in herbaceous flavor. The combination is comforting, complex, and satisfying.
At Barbara Jean, Jason Fullilove and his team are not bound by convention. They are flexible, adaptable, and free to have fun with food; a shining example of the innovation and originality that the Information Age can inspire. And hopefully, a labor of love like Barbara Jean is a herald of the food world to come: a welcoming environment replete with creativity, cultural and gastronomic diversity, and a serious appreciation for good food.
Barbara Jean LA
7465 Melrose Ave,
Los Angeles, CA 90046