Tripel: A Gregarious Gastropub

I wonder how I'll do tonight. I win a great parking spot near the beach and walk to the nearby bar. A star shoots over the Pacific Ocean. I have a good feeling. I'm here to get lucky. 

Entering Tripel, the quiet of the Playa del Rey night is switched off like a light. My eyes adjust to the dark and I scan the room. I stride to the bar and squint to read the blackboard, hoping to look cool and not like I need glasses. I want to recognize a beer like a familiar face, but these are fun beers with long, clever names, crafted by thinkers. I worry I've stepped into an inside club.

Then buzzing patrons provide an electrifying amuse bouche. I smell garlic and sense comfort. 
I'm seated at a table already poured with strangers locked in conversations, stabbing forks onto their plates and happily pulling up something in common. The slabbed table/mattress sends out a subliminal message that I'll end up in in bed with my dinner partner. The night's looking up.

people drinking and eating at a table

The bartender glides over, offers me a welcome with a menu and personal enthusiasm. Her skimpy top's strap has slipped off her tattooed shoulder and I want to replace it but maybe it's down on purpose. This is how old guys get punched in bars.

Tripel's co-owned by a married couple of chefs, Nick Roberts and Brooke Williamson. I first fell for Brooke on Bravo's Top Chef where her California cool blew hotshots out of the kitchen. She's a star who's earned her stripes. Nick got to her first and now they get whisky in the kitchen.

I anticipate my first course like a fan hovering near the stage door waiting for the talent to emerge. Shaved brussels spouts, celery root, Parma prosciutto, lemon-Dijon vinaigrette, manchego ($9) arrives. Tempting mounds are easy on the eyes. One has little time to really get to know another in a bar so I pull back the first layer to find out more about this salad.

salad mounded high, covered in sliced ham

You little tart! I sputter the compliment. Lemon bridges a zesty balance between raw vegetables and salty ham. The ring of tossed cheese becomes part of every bite.

Like bar patrons, Tripel's dishes change with mood and the seasonal availability of ingredients. I pray their daring, as-seen-on-TVCripsy Pig ear salad Treviso, poached egg, apricot ($11) is on the menu. It's there and causes my smile. This is like a desirous woman seen once at a bar that keeps every man coming back hoping that she returns, too. Great music thumps up around the room, providing a welcome social lubrication. Tonight, I feel brave enough to approach.

salad with crispy bits topped with a poached egg

A perfectly poached egg oozes all over the greens, gently stroking the strands of bacony crisps, soothing my eyes closed. It's a dreamy, flirty, How do you like your eggs? served on a plate. I not only conquered the dish -- we're having breakfast together. 

I'm yanked awake by the Squid ink spaghetti with ground shrimp, lemon, chili oil, herbs and salmon roe ($12) swinging out of the kitchen. I regard the impressive composition. Lovers will leave this bar and wake in the black night wrapped in a tangle of legs, unable to discern whose are whose. And thrilled by the gorgeous mystery.

long, thin pasta with ground shrimp and caviar

Thoughtfully ground shrimp ensure uninterrupted flavor. I swirl the salty caviar around the pasta as if working a party, passing beauties and picking up bits of delicious conversations. This is the best application of chili oil I've tasted; the lemon isn't merely right, it's everything.

A Tale of Two Burgers is an allegory for Nick and Brooke's development as chefs. She skipped formal training and went to work honing her knife skills in Southern California's finest kitchens. Both she and Nick learned to hit the sauce on a big-city stint with my revered Daniel Boulud.

Their Tripel Burger: duck confit, pork and aged beef, on an onion brioche bun, with truffle pecorino, arugula, house made apricot jam ($15) is the offering of a classically-trained chef. Passionately backed with sophistication, an example of why Julia Child marched into the kitchen of Commander's Palace, snatched Emeril Lagasse by the toque and shoved him in front of the world.

Brooke silenced Emeril's Bam! on Top Chef with her focused, stealthy manner. Where did you come from? he begged to know.

Show, don't tell.

Their Pretzel burger of aged beef, caramelized onion, poppy seed slaw and aged cheddar ($10) proves both paths they took to become chefs and develop natural talent were magnificent decisions. Nick, raised at a Northern California winery, found his penchant for food stronger than pinot and trained at the California Culinary Academy. In addition to Boulud, he's fluent in Ducasse.

pretzel bun on a burger with slaw piled high

I'm headed to Idaho to find the field in which Tripel's potatoes are grown; I suspect garlic's planted in the same plot. Tripel's fries aren't only infused with garlic, they've hippied-out and blissfully become one with the herb.

shoestring french fries served in a small tin bucket

The fries are crunchy, like a great conversation, and served with a duo of sauces that drives me mad deciding which is best to use.

I'd try every item on the menu -- flair mixed with skill results in excellent-tasting combinations. Order the Skirt steak ($18) if for nothing else, the pleasure of figuring out what makes the onion rings so wonderful. Tuck into crispy Lamb Merguez alongside charred octopus ($10) stewed in tomatoes and enjoy a chef's appreciation of food. I taste saffron in the aioli and imagine a chef who loves travel and is adventurous enough to smuggle exotic ingredients in their pants.

Fun happened all night, all around me and right in front of me. Written on the board over the bar I spot a cocktail, Shandy, named perhaps for a local barfly working out a tragic past. Their menu of beers is representative of a lively bar where a snooty Danish lager sits comfortably next to an upstart brewsky from some dude's garage in Utah. They've sought out liquid entertainment bottled with the same standards they demand from their food and staff.

bartenders behind a busy bar with many taps

Dessert serves as my last call. I'm not flipping on the lights at 2AM trying to expose flaws, my only suggestion is not to microwave the Persimmon pudding ($7) as it became something I believe unintended by the chef. I got a heap of squishy and spongey -- like a middle aged man squeezed into hipster clothes sitting at a cool bar in Playa Del Ray on a Friday night surrounded by young hotties -- hey wait. Forget the pudding, the brown-sugar caramel gelato served on the side will always have a special place in my geezer heart.

This restaurant's food personifies the quality advertised by singles placing online ads, I'm just as comfortable in a ball gown as blue jeans. Everyone claims it, few perfect it as seamlessly as Tripel does with their menu. These young culinary minds are energetic and rich now -- imagine what is yet to create.

Blink and you'll miss a shooting star; however grab a seat at Tripel's bar and stay awhile. Chefs Brooke Williamson and Nick Roberts have built a beautifully composed, everlasting planet.

As for me, I did get lucky.

Tripel, 333 Culver Boulevard, Playa Del Rey, CA 90293. (310) 821-0333