~ photos by Lena Watanabe
After numerous delays, the highly anticipated Rockwell VT officially debuts with a Grand Opening Weekend on October 1-4. In the meantime, Rockwell has been in soft opening mode, and last Thursday our group stopped in to check out the newest addition to bustling Vermont Avenue.
On our arrival, we were told that Rockwell was hosting a previously scheduled fundraiser. While we waited for Rockwell to open its doors, we decided to have drinks and apps at the adjacent Vermont restaurant. The bar food was uniformly excellent: the spicy calamari, potato croquettes, and grilled cheese bites were big hits with everyone. We were seriously tempted to stay, until we found out the cabaret was about to begin and a cover charge was going into effect. Check please!
Normally, guests enter Rockwell through the alley behind Vermont, but since we were already in the restaurant we took a shortcut through the connecting hallway. Once we were in the courtyard, the first thing we noticed was the much-hyped coral tree. It certainly makes for an impressive centerpiece. The 30-foot tree anchors the venue’s design, with the staircase and upper levels winding around the tree’s wide expanse.
Our group made a beeline for the main bar and found a nice corner booth. On a sultry night in the middle of a heat wave, the main bar area was an oasis of cool comfort, practically arctic despite being an indoor-outdoor space.
From the short $10 cocktail list I ordered a Lovely Pear, made with honey-infused Bulleit Bourbon, pear liqueur, and chilled pear nectar. The smoky, rye-forward Bulleit was nicely balanced by the pear flavors, while the honey provided just the right amount of sweetness. It was a promising start.
Lena and Amy both ordered the Gemini (Hangar One Mandarin Blossom Vodka, St. Germain, grilled grapefruit, jalapeño). Neither of their drinks had any hint of spice or citrus other than the flavored vodka. Even the St. Germain was MIA. Their cocktails weren’t necessarily bad but they weren’t very memorable, either.
After placing our food order, we grabbed our drinks and explored the sprawling layout.
From the second level, you have a bird’s eye view of the coral tree and courtyard:
A second level with booths and seating:
A ramp leads away from the second level…
…to a secluded gathering area.
By the time we returned, our food had arrived. Our enthusiastic and attentive server told us that Rockwell shares a kitchen with Vermont. For some inexplicable reason, the food wasn’t nearly as impressive. The Monday Meatballs were average, and pricey at $12. Despite our server’s reassurances, the Fried Little Chicken wasn’t easy to share, unless there’s a way to share mashed potatoes and gravy that I wasn’t aware of. The Pancetta Flatbread (pancetta, crème fraiche, caramelized onions, fig jam, gorgonzola) was disappointing as well, despite ingredients that should’ve made it a slam dunk. The one successful appetizer was the brussels sprouts, pan-seared with pancetta and balsamico and quickly gobbled up.
I finished with an Addison (G’Vine Floraison Gin, Cointreau, crushed cucumber, dill and lemon). The first one I ordered was pretty much straight gin and had to be sent back. After profuse apologies from our server I had a much better one made by a different bartender. She even waved at me from the bar to see if I gave it a thumbs up or down. It was good, maybe not as tasty as the Lovely Pear but a nice way to close out the night.
I had high hopes for Rockwell, and in the looks department it certainly delivers. But in other aspects Rockwell sends mixed messages. It wants to be a high-end lounge and event space, and yet drinks are served in plastic cups! Is this Spring Break? The cocktail menu hints at mixology aspirations, but the heavy-handed booze pours are more suitable for the vodka-Red Bull crowd. The food is supposedly designed to be shared, but in execution the items don’t reflect this.
During a soft opening phase there has to be some leeway while a venue works out the kinks, and Rockwell is no exception. There’s plenty of potential for it to become a lively destination. The lovely setting, ample space, DJ booth and custom sound system will entice anyone looking for a special event venue. I know I’ll be back to give the cocktails and food another try. Hopefully they’ll find some real glasses by then.
Located behind Vermont Restaurant
1714 N. Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027