Caviar, duck, and baba au rhum arrive on a cart at Dave Beran's long-anticipated Pasjoli, now open in Santa Monica. 

Pasjoli Duck Cart
Credit: Christian Seel

Dave Beran is standing tableside, carving a duck carcass on a 1950s tea cart, and the excitement is building. He’s at Pasjoli, his new “elevated bistro” in Los Angeles, and diners all over the gleaming restaurant are checking out the action. Pieces of duck, including the heart and liver Beran got from a Hudson Valley farm and put back into the bird, are placed in an early-1900s duck press. Beran says it’s important to have offal, which also includes the lungs, because it gives the pressed juices from the farmed duck a stronger flavor that resembles wild duck.

“We’re still adhering to the idea of this bloody bird with this very distinct flavor profile,” he says.

The duck has been roasted to below rare, and the legs, wings, and breast have been removed. The legs have already arrived at the table in a duck-confit salad with lettuce (misted with sherry vinegar), a duck-drippings vinaigrette, crispy skin, and yeast salt (“for a bready element without actually adding bread”). The breast gets finished in Pasjoli’s open kitchen while Beran is tableside. He vigorously twirls the duck press, which results in a teacup of reddish liquid that he combines with duck jus, red wine, pepper, and Cognac in a pan atop a portable burner. Then the breast arrives from the kitchen, and he spoons the sauce over it.

Pasjoli Duck
Credit: Christian Seel

Pressing the duck and making the iron-rich sauce is an eight-minute process at Pasjoli, which translates to “not pretty” in French. It takes another seven minutes to get the press, which Beran’s business partners found at an estate sale, ready for the next duck. This duck dish is limited to 10 orders a night. Most are pre-ordered, and Pasjoli has been selling out of duck every single night. Beran says he will get another antique press, which he purchased from an Ohio duck hunter, next week. So Pasjoli will soon be able to offer 20 ducks a night if the demand is there. Or maybe Beran will use the second press for lobster.

Extravagant casual might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s also an accurate way to describe what’s happening at Pasjoli on Santa Monica’s Main Street.

“We wanted to be fun and not stuffy,” Beran says. “Doing something tableside is a fun aspect of French food.”

Pasjolii is also a restaurant where you can stroll in and have a salad, some beef tartare, and a baguette with French butter at the bar. It’s no doubt less formal than Chicago’s Alinea (where Beran was chef de cuisine and “always loved when there was something that happened at the table”) and Next (where he became a 2014 Food & Wine Best New Chef). It’s also more casual than Dialogue, Beran’s Michelin-starred tasting-menu restaurant in Santa Monica.

But Beran understands that Pasjoli might be the most over-the-top restaurant a lot of people visit all year. Caviar service happens tableside on a brass cocktail cart: Bulgarian golden osetra roe (the same caviar that’s served at Dialogue) is carefully weighed on an 1840s postage scale. The scale tips as little spoonfuls of caviar are placed atop it. This works nicely on multiple levels, Beran says. For one thing, it helps diners understand what an ounce of caviar actually is.

Pasjoli Caviar
Credit: Christian Seel

But also: “It encourages people to be like, ‘Oh, let’s get more,’” Beran says. “It’s exciting. It becomes a game.”

Pasjoli opened on September 18 and has already had two sets of guests order four ounces of caviar. Beran says he also likes doing a few things tableside because it’s a way to make customers “feel like they’re part of the kitchen.”

Beran often talks about intent when he discusses his food.

“I always hate when people do things just to do them,” he says. “I didn’t want to start doing tableside things without making them things worth doing tableside. For us, I don’t think it was about the extravagance of it. It was about having a purpose and a reason why we would do it this way. We looked at the caviar more from the perspective of, ‘Here’s a way to inform the diner and show them what’s happening.’”

Meanwhile, it’s obvious why the duck, which is based on an Escoffier recipe, is done tableside. There’s no better, more dazzling, or more thoughtful way to present it.

“I just think it makes it feel a little more personal to the diner,” Beran says. “Where their food comes from becomes tangible.”

Pasjoli Interior
Credit: Wonho Frank Lee

And unlike at the tiny Dialogue where duck has been pressed in the open kitchen, Beran has room to maneuver a cart around Pasjoli. He’s been thinking about serving duck like this for a long time. When he was executive chef at Next, he deeply researched French cooking as he created two Paris-themed menus: 1906 (Escoffier) and Bistro. He’s experimented with wild ducks at restaurants and beyond. (His father-in-law is a duck hunter, so Beran brought his press when he visited for Christmas.) He’s learned that the “mealiness” of wild birds is something he doesn’t want.

Beran like to point out that Pasjoli’s duck course “really goes a different direction than every other duck dish.” He’s not serving dry-aged or smoked duck because “the whole thing with the duck press is it has to showcase the freshness.” It goes back to the idea of how hunters consume food.

Pasjoli is a restaurant that’s inspired by old-world techniques but also by how Los Angeles eats in 2019.

“When you say French food, most people, especially Americans I’ve dined with, think of this heavy, weighty thing,” Beran says. “It’s ‘cream this’ and ‘butter this.’ We wanted [Pasjoli] to not be that French food. So instead of finding comparable restaurants, we went the other direction and said, ’There’s nothing like what we’re trying to do here.’ We really just wanted to make it have its own identity, have its own feeling.”

Pasjoli Baba au Rhum
Credit: Christian Seel

Yes, Beran serves veal cheeks with a sauce blanquette. But the meat isn’t drenched in cream, and there are shaved vegetables and herbs all over the plate. Yes, Beran is excited to have chef de cuisine Matthew Kim add chalkboard specials like pig trotters. But Pasjoli also serves a lot of seafood and has its own farmers-market specialist, McKenna Lelah, bringing in produce for hyper-seasonal dishes. There’s a simple and excellent dessert of market fruit like figs and berries alongside whipped crème anglaise and lemon shortbread.

Of course, Pasjoli also has a dessert that’s presented tableside. The baba au rhum is cut in half and warmed in a pan with your choice of aged rum, house-spiced rum, or a non-alcoholic version of house-spiced rum. Then the cake is plated with walnuts and Chantilly cream. You’re also given an ounce of your preferred rum if you want to add more liquid or just have a little sip.

“We created something that we love that I want to go to, but I want the diners to feel like they have the chance to make it their own,” Beran says of Pasjoli. “We had a table last night: That was their fourth time in, and they booked for two times next week because they want to eat the whole menu.”

Pasjoli, 2732 Main St., Santa Monica, CA, 424-330-0020