Courtesy of Tar & Roses

The chef behind Tar & Roses on one of the  dishes that defines the restaurant and the fire that closed it.

July 18, 2017

Chef Andrew Kirschner's whole fried snapper for two at Tar & Roses is one of L.A.'s most spectacular dishes, a triumph of technique and presentation and flavor. Kirschner scores the fish, applies a "very simple" secret-recipe coating and fries each snapper in soybean oil at 350 degrees. He weighs every snapper to calculate the exact frying time. The simple, yet precise method results in a perfectly crisped fish with tender meat that falls off the bone.

Tar & Roses is a chill neighborhood restaurant in Santa Monica, so there's no waiter filleting fish tableside. Guests flake snapper meat off with a fork. They use their hands to break off delicious crispy bones.

"That's the most gratifying part," Kirschner says. "People who I thought wouldn't in a million years get into those bones are really getting into it. They're going for the cheeks and eating the eyeballs."

It reminds Kirschner of how's he seen people dine in Southeast Asia and Europe, where "everybody eats their fish whole and they eat every part of every animal."

Kirschner's often been asked how he came up with this dish.

"I always jokingly told everyone that I wasn't the first guy to come up with this," he says. "I was the first white boy to do this in Santa Monica."

A big part of the inspiration came from a whole fried catfish Kirschner ate as a child at Michael Kang's Five Feet Too in Newport Beach.

"That was the most memorable experience, food-wise, I ever had until I went to culinary school," says Kirschner.

Tar & Roses sells an average of 20 large-format snappers each night, which means that about 20 percent of Kirschner's customers eat this fish during any given dinner service.

"I've wanted over the years to switch it up and play with the garnish and the sauce," Kirschner says. "But at this point, it's become such a fixture I'd have a backlash if I did. It's become one of those signature dishes you just can't change."

But the crazy thing is, Kirschner took the snapper off the Tar & Roses menu for a long time. He had opened seafood restaurant Santa Monica Yacht Club down the street and decided to move the dish there. Some customers complained, but Kirschner explained to them that they were welcome to have appetizers at Tar & Roses and then walk over to Santa Monica Yacht Club for their beloved snapper. So they did.

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Tar & Roses, which deftly weaves American, Asian and Mediterranean flavors, opened in 2012 and immediately burned as bright as any restaurant in L.A. With lines out the door as early as 5:30, Kirschner's globally minded cooking (oxtail dumplings, balsamic-glazed ribs, wood-roasted English peas, large-format Singaporean chili crab) and love of bold flavors had guests returning again and again.

He had installed a woodburning oven because he wanted open-fire cooking to be the driving force of his restaurant. It reminded him of camping trips, where he would just build fires and cook when he got hungry.

But in 2015, shortly after Kirschner opened Santa Monica Yacht Club, disaster struck at Tar & Roses. The restaurant that deeply embraced fire was sidelined by fire.

"The irony in that was really something," Kirschner says.

There was a fire in a shaft attached to the oven. The fire was minor, but there was water damage in Tar & Roses after the fire department came. Suddenly, the restaurant was closed. Kirschner had hoped to reopen quickly, but getting permits and rebuilding the space took much longer than expected.

"It ended up being almost an eight-month ordeal," Kirschner says. "Dealing with the repercussions of the fire and dealing with the city and getting the place reopened was probably harder than opening the restaurant."

In the meantime, Santa Monica Yacht Club was sailing along but "certainly never hit the same kind of stride that Tar & Roses did."

He had sold his home to open Tar & Roses, and it took two years of success at the restaurant for him to be confident enough to purchase another home.

"I'm a worrying type, so I never take anything for granted," he says.

He really doesn't take anything for granted now, after what he's been through.

Tar & Roses reopened in January 2016. The 75-seat restaurant is busy again, with about 200 covers a night.

"We're 90 percent of where we were pre-fire, and that's not a bad place to be five years in," Kirschner says.

But he closed Santa Monica Yacht Club in May. Kirschner sold the restaurant, which chef Nyesha Arrington is taking over. Santa Monica Yacht Club was making money, Kirschner stresses, but "the time and effort I was putting into it and the amount of distraction that was taking me away from Tar & Roses" made him ready to walk away.

Plus, Kirschner, who's 45 and got married this year, is thinking about starting a family.

"We've all read the articles about what this business does to chefs and the life-work balance," says Kirschner, who still spends 10 to 12 hours every day at Tar & Roses. "When we closed the doors at Santa Monica Yacht Club, it felt like a hundred pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. The stress levels were dramatically reduced."

And now he could serve the snapper at Tar & Roses again.

"Literally, we got phone calls right away asking if the snapper is coming back to Tar & Roses," Kirschner says. "It was a must. It wasn't even a question."

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After five years at Tar & Roses Kirschner has learned a few things about the fairy dust you need to create a buzzing neighborhood restaurant with staying power. It's about food and service and decor and vibe and luck and intangibles.

There's no specific formula. It's not something you can just replicate, but a lot of it comes down to this: "A big part is understanding what people want even if they don't understand that's exactly what they want," Kirschner says. "I'm not one to try to make people look for subtleties in dishes. I want things to pop."

So he gives customers fish cheeks and eyeballs and exciting flavors from around the world, and he smiles when he realizes his impact extends beyond Tar & Roses.

Kirschner recently got a text from his friend Jesse Gomez, who runs Mercado, Maradentro and Yxta. Gomez wanted to tell Kirschner that he had started serving a Mexican version of the snapper.