Food And Style

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Herringbone

By MATTHEW MEYER | Reporter

Photos by Rich Schmitt | Staff Photographer

When Brian Malarkey’s second Herringbone location moved from West Hollywood to Santa Monica, it became abundantly clear that the restaurant belonged on Ocean Avenue all along.

“This place was built for Santa Monica,” Manager Michael Hahn told the Palisadian-Post. “It was meant to be here.”

Hahn is right. The restaurant’s sprawling, 7,400-square-foot dining room screams “Santa Monica,” from its high ceilings and brightly lit oyster bar to its well-executed nautical themes (ample use of rope and metallic sea-life; not cheesy steering wheels and captain’s hats).

It’s unambiguously upscale, with a diverse menu of prized seafood and steaks, a polished, swanky aesthetic and, yes, steep prices.

But Herringbone is also unpretentious, in a laidback, coastal kind of way. You don’t have to be a connoisseur of fine seafood to feel comfortable at a table here. Hahn described our waiter—the enthusiastic, knowledgeable Jude Matalavage—as “hanging out with us for a while.”

And that’s what it felt like, as Matalavage patiently explained the intricacies of each dish, and made recommendations based on both our personal preferences and his own passion for the offerings. It wasn’t just for us—at nearby tables, we saw servers happily breaking down the menu for all their patrons.

Chef Marissa Russo

Chef Marissa Russo

Good service isn’t too much to ask, but a friendly, knowledgeable staff is especially important at a place like Herringbone, where some of the menu’s absolute standouts might be a little intimidating for the uninitiated.

Take the Whole Fish Ceviche, a starter that Matalavage spoke about with such genuinely glowing praise that we had no choice but to feel confident in our selection. It’s a whole fish alright, the entire “branzino” (European seabass, caught off the coast of Italy) with its head and tail left whole on the plate to frame chunks of fresh, raw meat, cured by citrus juice and served with Fresno chilis and cilantro.

Whole Fish Ceviche

Whole Fish Ceviche

Elsewhere, ceviche might be thrown together from the scraps. At Herringbone, they commit to proving its high quality by presenting you with the whole fish—and it’s a prized one at that, well selected for raw consumption based on its mild taste.

The meat is impossibly tender and tasty, nicely paired with a salsa verde to create an all-star dish. And though its looks might be intimidating, our waiter’s confidence gave us the nudge we needed to eat one of the most delicious items of the night. Well done.

For something altogether different, try the Buffalo Octopus, Herringbone’s “answer to hot wings.” It’s two tender tentacles served on black-eyed peas, celery and carrots with plenty of buffalo sauce. The meat is nicely textured—void of any chewiness—and the sauce gives it a nice kick, if making it a touch on the salty side. Overall, another strong offering.

Buffalo Octopus

Buffalo Octopus

Looking to share a taste of everything? The Dinghy, Sail Boat and Yacht (in ascending order of quantity and price) make great options to share across the table. These samplers offer oysters, Alaskan king crab, Maine lobster and jumbo shrimp, served on a bowl of ice with five sauces. The presentation—and taste—is excellent.

The Dinghy

The Dinghy

For mains, we tried the Chilean Sea Bass, served with vegetables from the farmers market and potatoes. The fish is fantastic, with a crisp crunch to the outer body that gives it a satisfying texture and meat that seems to melt in your mouth.

Yet, somehow, despite all the fantastic sea-fare we enjoyed, the star of the main courses may have actually been the 16-Oz Prime Bone-In Rib-Eye.

As Matalavage told it: “There’s two kinds of seafood places. The ‘Don’t Get Anything But Seafood Places,’ and the ones that are so paranoid [about that distinction] that everything else is amazing.”

Herringbone is the latter, he insisted. We wholeheartedly agree.

The steak—dry-aged for 21 days—is simply impeccable, cooked to medium-rare perfection with a crisp exterior and juicy, tender meat. We added scallops (an option on most dinner plates for the surf ‘n’ turf-inclined) and were also impressed, particularly at the lack of “fluff” for their size. Pairing a steak with a taste of Herringbone’s sea-fare on the side makes an excellent option for any visit.

Wash it down with a wide array of cocktails, served at your table or the restaurant’s lively bar. If you’re a fan of tequila, try That’s One Hot Cucumber, mixed with Maestro Dobel and served with a cucumber/jalapeno spear. It packs a punch without being overpowering. The Better Mules & Gardens is a subtle, sweeter option that makes for a (dangerously) drinkable vodka offering.

The cocktails

The cocktails

If you want to test the waters on this place, you can always grab one of these drinks during the restaurant’s Oyster Happy Hour (4:30-6:30 p.m. on weeknights) and enjoy $1 oysters with your cocktail. It’s a nice way to start an evening out in Santa Monica, though you’ll likely wish you’d made a dinner reservation by the time you leave.

In general, Herringbone is just a lovely space, with a smooth electronic soundtrack, plenty of room to sit and chat at a comfortable distance from other tables, and fantastic décor, including a massive, living wall of foliage on the far end and two sunny outdoor decks lined with planter boxes (especially popular for brunch, Hahn told us).

Pair that with its versatile menu and impeccable service, and Herringbone stands out among the class of stiff competition vying for a visit just down the road from Pacific Palisades.

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Osteria Bigoli

714 Montana Ave.

Santa Monica, CA 90403

310-395-6619

bigoliosteria.com

Price: $$

By Michael Aushenker | Contributing Writer

Photos by Rich Schmitt | Staff Photographer

Osteria Bigoli represents more than just the opening of another Italian artisan restaurant: It is the next chapter in the ongoing narrative that is the storied career of Executive Chef Claudio Marchesan.

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His newly opened Montana Avenue restaurant is a hands-on reflection of his northeast Italian roots (with some selections culled from other regions).

Marchesan helmed E’Angelo, Ezio Rastelli’s famed San Francisco trattoria: a 36-seater that he and Bay Area restaurateur Larry Mindel took over in 2003 and ran until 2014. It was, in fact, in San Francisco last summer, while sitting at a restaurant bar, when Marchesan overheard a waiter from Santa Monica talking about a Montana Avenue business opportunity.

“My antenna went up,” Marchesan said. “I always wanted to be in Santa Monica, especially on Montana Avenue.”

Marchesan and his wife returned to Los Angeles (Marina del Rey, specifically) earlier this year in order for the chef to follow through on this ambition.

Rigatoni Carbonara

Rigatoni Carbonara

Occupying what was previously Vincenzo, Bigoli shimmers on an avenue that is no stranger to Italian cuisine. Bigoli embraces cozy and intimate—the
entire restaurant, at capacity, comfortably accommodates about 30 people.

The space is so small,  said Marchesan, that Bigoli’s kitchen doesn’t even have a pizza oven. Marchesan had grown accustomed to producing pies out of a wood-fired oven at his past restaurants. While he admitted that he’ll probably lose family business, it also comes as a relief for him to focus more on creating pasta from scratch, with the able assist of Sous Chef Jose Solis.

Our appetizers kicked off with Burrata, which has been trending of late in Santa Monica. Here, a better-than-average plate indulges burrata in a pesto and blister grape tomatoes with garlic crostini and the fresh pancetta (salt-cured bacon made of pork belly) that is one of Bigoli’s signature running threads from course to course.

The Grilled Octopus truly melts in your mouth. Marchesan shared that he is not overly fussy when cooking his Spain-derived cephalopods, bringing it to a quick boil without employing salt. Served here with fingerling potatoes, arugula, tomatoes coulis and mint, the octopus is tender, supple and flavorful.

Also tasty: Carpaccio, a generous starter plate piled high with thin-sliced beef filet, arugula, capers, mustard sauce, extra virgin olive oil and big shards of fresh Parmesan.

Saltimbocca Alla Romana

Saltimbocca Alla Romana

Via the insalata, Little Gems Caesar arrived as a yummy twist on the staple Caesar salad, with Asiago slices and crunchy garlic croutons. For a different direction, try Arugola & Roasted Beets, a sweeter, more gelatinous affair, with beets counter-textured by crumbled chevre, candied walnuts and sweet onions, doused with raspberry vinaigrette.

Pasta and risotto is primarily what Marchesan came back to LA to strut, and here is where this little gem of a restaurant really sparkles. The epic Risotto Al Frutti Di Mare is a formidable mélange of creamy Italian rice with assorted shellfish, including calamari, and a light tomato sauce. (The squid here, like all Bigoli seafood, is prepared fresh and not fried or buried in batter.)

Angolotti Dal Plin, a ravioli-type pasta specialty, filled with roasted meats (beef, pork and pancetta bits), is served in a sugo d’arrosto with Parmesan. Given the sauce, this dish has a sweet patina to it (almost like a Mexican mole), which deftly counterbalances with the savory stuffing. I preferred Rigatoni Carbonara, its short-tube-pasta cousin, lathered with white wine, Pecorino Romano and chunky, savory morsels of guanciale.

Marchesan also makes Bigoli All’Anatra, a Venetian-style spaghetti with slow-cooked duck ragout and Pecorino Romano, and Gamberoni alla Griglia, large grilled prawns with mild Shishito peppers in lemon sauce.

The Saltimbocca Alla Romana entrée—veal loin medallions with prosciutto, roasted potatoes and sage—became my meal’s relative low point. Admittedly, I’m not a big veal connoisseur, but I found this version slight and dry.

Conversely, Lamb Chops “Scottadito” is a must-try; a triumphant pyramid of quickly grilled lamb, flanked by roasted potatoes and Tuscan kale, that could not have been better executed. Perfection on a plate—I could eat this dish all week long and not tire of it.

Naturally, Bigoli has no shortage of Italian wine pairings to match the best reds and whites with your orders.

With Bigoli, Marchesan brings more than just another Italian spot to an already ristorante-saturated Westside. What Marchesan brings with his new Montana Avenue destination is his experience, his history, his legend. Even after having helmed some of California’s most storied establishments in decades past, this jovial chef appears engaged at Bigoli, kibitzing with regulars and sharing many great anecdotes with a gregariousness that quickly makes friends out of strangers. You can feel that Bigoli is his baby, his labor of love.

Tasteful and ambient, Osteria Bigoli is a cozy nook possessing many charms. And no, I did not at all miss the pizza oven.

FOOD REVIEW: Lucques

8474 Melrose Ave.

West Hollywood, CA 90069

323-655-6277

lucques.com

Price: $$$

By GABRIELLA BOCK | Reporter

Photography by RICH SCHMITT | Staff Photographer

For nearly 20 years, West Hollywood’s Mediterranean staple Lucques has been a culinary home away from home—a picturesque escape from the typical hustle and bustle found dominating the Los Angeles dining scene.

With a warm, colorful welcome—an element all too often lost within the white linens of upscale dining—I was greeted by a roaring fire. Shadows of lively dinner patrons flickered against the restaurant’s red brick walls, kindling a reminder of Sundays spent in my Italian grandmother’s kitchen. Rustic and charming, Lucques’ main dining room is designed to be transportive.

If you’re with a larger party (or just need more room to hand gesture), ask for a table in the back dining room. Drawing inspiration from classic Greco-Roman styling, the restaurant’s heated patio is reminiscent of a dreamy, romantic village courtyard—a hideaway where guests can receive year-round outdoor ambiance, complete with veranda vines. Much like its menu, Lucques’ decor is not heavy-handed. There’s not a single Coliseum replica in sight.

In operation since 1998, Lucques is the first restaurant opened by culinary superstar Suzanne Goin. Recognized across Southern California for her other two mainstays—The Hungry Cat in Santa Monica and Tavern in Brentwood—Goin’s nearly 20 years of achievement have recently earned her 2016’s prestigious James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef.

“Lucques” (pronounced “luke”) is named after a cultivar of olives grown primarily in the (former) Languedoc region of France. As expected, the restaurant’s namesake honors its most utilized ingredient—from the complimentary offering of green olives paired with almonds and freshly baked bread—to main entrees infused with the fruit’s aromatic oil.

I began the evening with the Lucques Gimlet—a vibrant cocktail of vodka, lime juice and a touch of fresh mint. Muddled to perfection, the gimlet goes down smoothly—perhaps too smoothly, as I found my glass empty after only a few sips. Delicious, but at its $16 price point, I would expect a little more generosity than a six-ounce pour. Oh, well—we were dining in West Hollywood, after all.

Our meal commenced with a colorful salad of winter greens and shaved roots atop a sweet beet purée, part of the Starters menu. The fragrant, house-made zhoug—a spicy yemeni herb vinaigrette­—was well-balanced by the plate’s generous garnish of buttery chopped pistachios. Complex and hearty, I would have been satisfied with just this salad alone.

Colorful salad

Colorful salad

The sustainably sourced grilled Scottish salmon, off the Main Courses menu, came plated over a bed of crisped sweet potatoes and sautéed tatsoi—a versatile Asian green similar to spinach. Flecked with green olives and preserved lemon peel, the complexity of this dish intensified with each new bite. It’s not very often that a single dish will play host to three separate acts.

Scottish salmon

Scottish salmon

Other menu offerings included hanger steak with grilled chicories, garlic toast and lemon-anchovy butter, and grilled duck breast with shelling beans, duck sausage, black olives and mustard breadcrumbs.

Texture stood out to me as an ubiquitous theme across the entire menu—each plate blending and balancing its multitude of ingredients. Bitter flavors that run prevalent with greens like bok choy are always met with a savory counterpart.

For Dessert, decadence is celebrated in full. Sweet endings range from hazelnut cream and cardamom ice cream to Meyer lemon semifreddo. Full, but not usually one to pass on dessert, I decided to end the night in simplicity. Sampled from the confectioner’s plate, I choose a dark-chocolate-covered chunk of sweetened honeycomb.

Dark-chocolate-covered honeycomb

Dark-chocolate-covered honeycomb

I feel that it is important to point out that I have a dairy allergy that—more often than not—leaves me unsatisfied by the minimal options offered to me by most menus, but not here.

Lucques plays home to a team of knowledgeable, dedicated staff members whose sense of enthusiasm was felt strongly throughout each new coursing. Our server, Sarah, was a professional in the utmost sense of the term. She, like a few of her other colleagues, has been working at Lucques for nearly a decade—a fact that, when linked to an industry known for having a high turnover rate, only further exemplifies the restaurant’s outstanding consistency throughout.

Lucques server Sarah

Lucques server Sarah

After informing our server of my allergy, she quickly began rattling off ingredient lists and recommended dishes that the kitchen could alter without compromising their flavor profile. For many, this may not be much of a selling point, but for me—I felt comfortable and genuinely cared for. To my surprise, on Melrose Avenue, tucked away from posh and pretension—I felt at home.

Bottlefish

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Knuckle & Claw

2715 Main Street

Santa Monica, CA 90405

310-399-9939

knuckleandclaw.com

Price: $$


By Michael Aushenker | Contributing Writer · Photos by Rich Schmitt | Staff Photographer

Yes, here we are, back at Santa Monica’s Knuckle & Claw. Why, you may wonder?

Well, the restaurant recently significantly remade its menu, making it worth a revisit.

Now, Nikki Booth and Chloe Dahl, founders of the original Eastside location on Sunset Boulevard in early 2015, have decided that their Santa Monica location needed some upgrading—menu, back patio—and the results are impressive.

Hostess McKenna Jarrell

Hostess McKenna Jarrell

Gone, by and large, are the cutesy pun names that dogged the original menu: The Maine Event, Go Shuck Yourself, etc. (However, they do sell Knuckle Sandwiches now.) In is a more earnest kind of fare, such as Fresh Maine Lobster, cooked on a spit grill in the rear of the patio while you wait.

Of course, the famed Lobster Roll remains, yet even this core sandwich has been tweaked a tad with aioli dressing and a few other ingredients. It’s packed inside a buttery bun, fluffy, white lobster meat containing a house-made mayonnaise and lemon butter.

We kicked off our meal in style with a Raw Bar selection: fresh, bulbous and juicy Jumbo Shrimp. The “Raw Bar” section also includes selections such as Dungeness Crab, Oysters, Little Necks and Stone Crab Claws.

Dungeness Crab

Dungeness Crab

The soups continue to be irresistible here. No longer importing them from Splash Café, Knuckle & Claw now makes its own seafood soups from scratch at its downtown LA facility. Included in a comfort food category dubbed “Cups & Bowls,” you can still order rich, delicious soup with depth, such as the terrific Lobster Bisque or Martha’s Clam Chowder. They come with big, savory croutons. (All bread items, including sourdough bread, buns and croutons, are courtesy of Mar Vista-based baker Rockenwagner.)

Lobster Bisque

Lobster Bisque

There are other options, too, such as the yummy, filling Lobster Mac & Cheese. Like everything that comes topped with lobster here, including Lobster Salad—a lively medley of wild arugula, avocado, corn, tomatoes, a lemon vinaigrette and house-made croutons—the chunks of pure, fresh, white lobster meat are generous and hearty. Note: Other versions of this seafood salad include blue crab, Dungeness crab and fresh shrimp, too.

Jumbo Shrimp

Jumbo Shrimp

Knuckle & Claw makes its own house-made Potato Chips, which were decent, and Apple Coleslaw, adequately sweet and sour. The most unusual addition may be California Grown Artichoke, which arrives halved, grilled and scrumptious. Just like eating lobster and crab, it takes a bit of work to get to the “meat” of the artichoke’s leaves, but the reward is great.

All lobster and crab are alive when they arrive, so when they grill your order out back, you are getting the freshest crustacean possible. Whether you purchase it by the half or whole, Pacific Northwest Dungeness Crab is gargantuan and its meat succulent. The aforementioned Fresh Maine Lobster is also a must-try. All seafood can be ordered with three types of butter, including a sea salt, lemon butter and a cherry tomato butter option.

And, if you’re feeling really ambitious, tackle the Banquet for Ballers, a greatest-hits package that includes a half Dungeness crab, six little necks, six oysters, four stone crab claws and six jumbo shrimp.

Some of the same drawbacks persist. Parking, of course, is supremely challenging (this being Main Street, after all) and there is no parking lot in back (try the side streets around nearby Hotchkiss Park). There is still no liquor served here (although they are working on fixing that), so for the moment, it’s soda and seltzers. Dessert is still not really a thing here.

However, two areas that have improved dramatically pertain to atmosphere. Instead of a grinding alt-rock, the restaurant had ambient music, lilting softly in the background. (Much better, especially when trying to talk to your dinner companion.)

The patio has been upgraded substantially so that it appears less like someone’s backyard and more like a restaurant space; a sleeker, friendlier and ultimately cleaner-looking and more expansive-feeling area. Also worth mentioning: Hospitality here remains top-notch. Our general manager, Miguel, and our waitress made for terrific hosts.

Let’s face it: Santa Monica is awash in formidable seafood establishments, as Ocean Avenue attests. Yet if you enjoy eating lobster and crab as much as these folks enjoy preparing it—and, importantly, if you want to dine on lobster and crab on a budget—plan ahead, brave the journey to this touristy stretch of Santa Monica, stake out your parking and swing by for dinner.

Knuckle & Claw offers
quality seafood that is inexpensive in a nice, informal setting—well worth the logistical inconveniences.

Bar10

8933 Santa Monica Blvd.

West Hollywood, CA 90069

323-332-6445

bar10weho.com

Price: $$

By Michael Aushenker | Contributing Writer

Photos by Rich Schmitt | Staff Photographer

Step into this bar and grill and you enter a veritable man-cave—equal parts upscale-contemporary, unpretentious and “chill,” with exposed brick walls and wooden floors, a comfy lounge over by a big flat-screen, plus pool tables and plenty of sports-viewing opportunities from the fully stocked bar.

Recently, Bar10 decided to beef up its menu options. The one-year-old establishment has kept some old favorites, including oysters and chicken wings, while adding an array of new appetizers, entrees and libations.

Before we get to the new food items, though, the drinks here need to be singled out. Bar Manager Brad Gavit doubles as the resident mixologist and this talented young bartender can really craft a cocktail.

At $14 a pop, be sure to try the Signature Drinks. There’s The Pink Slip, made with Russian Standard vodka, agave, lime, strawberry, cucumber and jalapeño. Even tastier, the gin-infused Is That a Cucumber Gin Your Pocket?, a pun-tacular glass of Bombay Sapphire with lemon simple syrup, cucumber and mint, is both bright and refreshing. The equally pun-tastic Peaching for the Stars offers a sweeter blend of peach Ciroc with peach puree, Triple Sec, lemon, simple syrup and strawberry.

A whole separate set of Happy Hour drinks, called the Specialty Cocktail menu, includes the Punch Drunk, a bubbly, tongue-tickling magic potion of Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum, Cointreau, pineapple, cranberry and fresh lime juices. There’s also a three-pepper-packing margarita called El Caballero (“Not for the faint of heart!” the menu warned) and, if you’re in the mood for gin, a basil gin gimlet with bubbles called Tall, Blonde n’ Bubbly features Botanist gin, basil, fresh lime juice and champagne.

You’ll definitely want to investigate this restaurant’s six varieties of $13 Moscow Mules. We tried the Basil Smash Mule (my personal favorite among all of the drinks I tried), a bright yet potent variety of mule. However, there’s also the traditional mule, an Irish Mule with Irishmen whiskey and ginger beer at its core; the tequila-based Mexico City Mule, a Rum Buck Mule with Bacardi Oakheart rum; and Mexcalli Metl Mule, loaded with Xicaru mezcal and Cherry Heering, a Danish liqueur that originated in the 18th century.

In the food department, Chef Felix Jose has devised about as formidable a line-up of comfort food that one can expect to enjoy at a tavern or bar and grill.

Chef Felix Jose

Chef Felix Jose

Nachos here are a mountainous pile of delicious house-made tortilla chips topped with Bar10’s signature nacho cheese sauce (cheddar-based) with heaps of tomato, jalapeño, diced onions, sour cream and your choice of beef or chicken. We went the beef route—the hearty chunks of ground beef employed here were quality, with flavor and texture.

Nachos

Nachos

Another way to go is Bar10’s house-made Hummus, a creamy house blend served with pita chips and vegetables or chicken morsels. As simple as this may sound, this savory dish tastes sublime. We cleaned our plate.

“Goin’ Deep” Frites not only offers French fries and onion rings, but batter-covered pickles, calamari and green beans, the latter of which we tried; our small pile disappeared quickly off of our plate. The old standard Chicken Wings come Buffalo, barbecue and Sriracha style, for an extra wallop. However, we tried the Asian Sesame Chicken Wings and they were delectable and not greasy.

I personally have low resistance when I see gourmet macaroni and cheese on the menu, so I had to sample the Drunken Mac n’ Cheese, a creamy three-cheese Bourbon blend, which we had ordered with chicken bits. It’s not a baked macaroni and cheese but if you’re craving something tasty and big on portions, this will fill you up.

Drunken Mac ‘N Cheese and The Pink Lady

Drunken Mac ‘N Cheese and The Pink Lady

If you’re craving something sushi-grade, order the Japanese-fusion Salmon Crudo, six morsels of lemon-cured salmon perched on house-made tortilla chips with pico de gallo, arugula and a small bed of seaweed salad (always a favorite with this reviewer).

For something completely different, order what’s probably their most distinctive entrée. Called Cactus Leaf, you will receive just that, covered in a three-cheese blend, sliced avocados, pico de gallo, queso fresco and cilantro that, for a few extra bucks, you can add beef, chicken or salmon to. The cooked cactus leaf has a nice texture to it (don’t worry, no pricks here).

As an experience, Bar10 not only has ambiance galore, it has atmosphere and energy. Monday nights are Karaoke Night. On Thursdays, customers come to catch “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” on the restaurant’s ginormous flat-screen. Come Friday and Saturday evenings, Bar10 transforms into a nightclub atmosphere, with a DJ playing contemporary urban fare. During Sunday brunch each week, a DJ spins ’80s pop hits.

In addition to the restaurant’s expansive interior, there’s ample patio action, overlooking the boulevard’s vibrant nightlife. If there’s one downside to this location, it’s the zoned-out street parking. You may want to bring a roll of quarters to feed the meter as there’s little chance of finding any free parking in the area.

There’s a fun time, good vibes and great food to be had here at Bar10. Highly recommended.

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Red O Restaurant

1541 Ocean Ave., Suite 120

Santa Monica, CA

310-458-1600

redorestaurant.com

Price: $$$

By MATTHEW MEYER | Reporter

With mouthwatering food trucks and hole-in-the-wall taco stands serving up delicious food at every corner, you can’t blame Angelenos for filling their Mexican food fix with affordable, basic options and their fine dining cravings with other cuisine. With so many simple, cheap and delicious offerings close to home, it’s easy to never venture far beyond your favorite local street tacos.

But Red O Restaurants—a three-entry series of upscale eateries with locations on Melrose Avenue, in Newport Beach and just down the road in Santa Monica—fly in the face of this narrow-minded approach to south of the border eats, reminding patrons that with fresh ingredients and a nod to authenticity, great Mexican food is equally suited for an elevated dining room experience.

The Santa Monica location is youngest in the Red O trio, opening its doors just over a year ago on vibrant Ocean Avenue downtown.

For an early evening dinner on a weeknight during the off-season, Ocean is downright charming, still bustling with plenty of locals but without much hassle or crowding. Seated at one of Red O’s street-side windows, you can watch the glowing Ferris wheel on the pier as folks stroll along the ocean-view walkway across the street.

On a weekend or busy summer evening, however, expect throngs of tourists and an increase in locals out for a night on the town. You’ll want to make a reservation well in advance and utilize Red O’s valet service when you arrive—finding reasonable parking in downtown Santa Monica on a night like this can be an exercise in futility.

Inside, the restaurant features a swanky, dimly lit dining area. Red O’s gorgeous, glowing bar is the room’s focal point, radiating a brilliant gold and featuring layered, mirrored shelves stocked with liquor bottles of all shapes and sizes (tequila, of course, reigning king). It really is a sight to behold and adds perfect balance to the comparatively subtle arrangements that make up most of the dining room.

Once seated, a waiter or waitress (in our case, the capable, confident and exceedingly kind Lana) will pour you a glass of sparkling water from a bottle on the table and help you assess your menu. The selection is crafted by renowned chef Rick Bayless—a Beard Foundation award winner known for both his restaurants in Chicago and series on PBS—who serves as a sort of culinary director for all three locations.

The menu reflects Bayless’ popular, modern approach to traditional Mexican cuisine, but his advisory presence isn’t overbearing, leaving plenty of room for his chefs in California to tailor their selection of fine steaks and seafood to the palette of their clientele. Affable head chef Seth Vider told us in Santa Monica’s case, that means a Baja California twist with plenty of kick.

Just about everything is made in-house, and quality and freshness abound, even with simple things like the basket of chips and salsa that come with your meal. Perfectly crisp and without a drip of grease, they’re a sign of good things to come.

For a light starter, look no further than the Corn and Goat Cheese Tamales, impossibly fluffy and nicely paired with a tomatillo salsa. They’re subtle without being underwhelming, and they won’t weigh you down. For something a little richer, try the Carnitas Empanadas, a special item soon to make the menu full-time by popular demand. They boast tender carnitas and an indulgent amount of cheese, but (for an empanada) a noticeable lack of grease.

Carnitas Empanadas

Carnitas Empanadas

The star of the starters, however, has to be the Duck Taquitos (flautas for you purists). They’re perfectly balanced—crisp tortillas stuffed with tender, slow-cooked duck meat and topped with a crown of wild baby arugula. They’re served with a tomato-árbol chile sauce that’s both smoky and nutty, a dimension that can be attributed to ground sesame seeds, Lana told us.

Corn and Goat Cheese Tamales with Alacran Margarita

Corn and Goat Cheese Tamales with Alacran Margarita

If you’re ordering drinks with dinner, there’s a dizzying array of options, many of which reflect Red O’s aforementioned affinity for “kick.” In most cases this works, like with the Alacran Margarita, served in a Tajín-rimmed glass with a spear of jalapeños. Made with Hornitos Reposado and serrano chile syrup, it avoids the banal sweetness of an average margarita by adding a constant element of spice.

The kick is a little overpowering, however, in the case of the Honey on Fire, a smoky tequila cocktail made with housemade habenero honey that threatens to knock you out of your chair. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Oliver Roldan serves up Honey on Fire

Oliver Roldan serves up Honey on Fire

For mains, the best of both surf and turf are at your disposal. The 12 Oz. Prime New York Strip is served with roasted tomato salsa huevona and comes with a side of goat cheese tamales and grilled Mexican knob onions. It’s a tender, quality cut of meat cooked to a satisfying shade of pink, but the New York Strip truly shines when combined with its plate-mates. A bite of the steak with a sliver of onion and plenty of salsa brings out the best in the meat, and the fluffy tamales on the side make a fitting complement.

The Jumbo Scallops make another excellent option from the sea. Served over angel hair pasta (fried first, to give it a nutty flavor) with a creamy tomato-serrano sauce, they’re simple and subtle but filling. The freshness of Red O’s ingredients really shines through here, and the pasta pairs nicely.

If you think you don’t have room for dessert, well, reconsider. The Housemade Buttercake cannot be missed. It’s warm, yellow cake topped with coconut gelato, served on a plate with passion fruit mousse, strawberry syrup and plenty of coconut crumble alongside grilled strawberries. The cake makes an indulgent end to an already decadent meal.

Housemade Buttercake

Housemade Buttercake

From starters and cocktails all the way through to dessert, Red O’s sense of identity is strong, with delicious meals that have enough variety to keep you guessing and the finesse to avoid weighing you down with too much grease or fat. Add in excellent service (from bussers to servers, professional, attentive and friendly) and Palisadians have another excellent option for an evening out just down the road.

DINING REVIEW: Michael’s Santa Monica

1147 3rd St.

Santa Monica, CA 90403

310-451-0843

michaelssantamonica.com

$$$

Michael’s Santa Monica team Photo by Jim McHugh

Michael’s Santa Monica team
Photo by Jim McHugh

By LILA SEIDMAN | Reporter

As improbable as it might sound to devotees of Michael’s Santa Monica’s now-gone classic pub fare, the major menu overhaul rolled out in September by chef Miles Thompson—with exotics and unpronounceables like Chicken Heart Anticucho, Dungeness Crab Chawanmushi and Braised Pig Ears—is not bizarre for bizarre’s sake.

“People are meeting the changes with a lot of hostility—then they try the food,” said Chas, owner Michael McCarty’s son.

On a recent Thursday evening, Michael’s eclectic offerings seemed poised to bridge a generational culinary and aesthetic gap.

Garden seating Photo courtesy Michael’s Santa Monica

Garden seating
Photo courtesy Michael’s Santa Monica

Diners on my left and right reminisced out loud about their previous Michael’s experiences—in the New York spot or here, on 3rd Street, pre-Thompson, a 28-year-old who was tapped to helm the 37-year-old restaurant’s redux.

Nostalgic reverie gave way to memories in the works as two birthday celebrations unfolded around me. Couples on their 32nd date looked at ease on the back patio. Hip, younger folks (in the minority) filled in the tables not populated by Michael’s seasoned clientele. Diners lingered for two, three, four hours. Curious, hesitant bites gave to “mmms,” openness and acceptance.   

Thompson, who has been called a “prodigy,” his food “avant-garde,” began working in kitchens at the age of 13, honing his craft at places like Nobu and Son of a Gun. “The only thing we don’t make in-house is the soy sauce,” Chas McCarty said; the names of Thompson’s creations belie improbable complexity.

“It just says ‘Octopus’ on the menu, but that octopus has been poached, soaked in sake, dried out and [insert many more steps], before it’s thrown on the grill,” my server Brian said of the small plate item.

Octopus Confit Photo courtesy Michael’s Santa Monica

Octopus Confit
Photo courtesy Michael’s Santa Monica

The result is nothing less than astonishing. Meaty cuts of boldly flavored octopus share the plate with red beets, tangerines and greens sprayed with soy. The sweetness (tangerines) and earthiness (beets) are punctuated with sour staccato bursts of green tomato mustard.

Wash it down with the popular El Paseo cocktail, made with Tequila Blanco, Vida mescal, Pamplemousse Rose, fresh lemon, agave, bay leaf and watermelon granita. Brian assured me it’s “the best for presentation”—he poured a small decanter of liquid into a glass filled with what looked like pink rock candy. It was somehow both mesquite and extremely refreshing.

The key to embracing and, perhaps, loving Thompson’s unexpected flavors is to give in. On first bite, you might get a surprise right hook from a foreign flavor. Ride it out and you’ll be rewarded. Once my palette acclimated, my initial suspicion or dislike often turned to adoration.

The Beef Tartare, a name also misleading enough to warrant a waiter explanation, comes cubed with jicama kombu-jime and coriander seeds—almost a tartare salsa. In lieu of bread are puffed beef tendon “chips,” similar in mouthfeel to Chicharron. At first I found the chips off-putting, greasy, some of them too hard to chew. But the more I ate, the more I found myself cherishing each bite.

The first sip of the Night Train cocktail (Peruvian Brandy, Lillet Blanc, plum shrub, plum jam, plum biters, maple syrup, soy, lime and salt) is like getting punched in the mouth with a pungent fist. The fourth sip is delicious.

(Some reviewers have noted that the Szechuan Pork Dumplings can be initially startling; I found them perfect and delicious from bite one.)

For less experimental ilk, the menu features several fresh takes on Michael’s classics, like the succulent Duck Breast, with huckleberry-juniper pickle, water spinach, delicata squash and Cinderella squash puree. File this under things you never thought you’d hear: the squash, cooked in duck fat and brown sugar, steals the show.

Duck Breast Photo courtesy Michael’s Santa Monica

Duck Breast
Photo courtesy Michael’s Santa Monica

Not all the funkier creations find their groove. The Roasted Barley Pot-de-Crème, made to dispense from a whipped cream canister, seemed lackluster, almost too light register taste-wise.

While Thompson’s cooking seems made for Echo Park or Silverlake, Chas McCarty insists that “this is the food he grew up with” on the Westside, when Santa Monica was a refuge for LA’s boho class. The new Michael’s menu, he said, is reconnecting to those edgier roots.

For the wait staff and bus boys—all well-versed in the menu—the redux seems to represent nothing less than a high-stakes mission.

McCarty explained, “We have to become a destination, and we’re all pretty into the challenge. We’re in it together.”

FOOD REVIEW: Plan Check Kitchen + Bar

By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer

Photos by RICH SCHMITT | Staff Photographer

Now here is one restaurant I was chomping at the bit to hit.

Over the summer, while dining at Sushi Roku Santa Monica, photographer Rich Schmitt and I caught wind of the new Plan Check opening in Santa Monica this fall.

Estela Valladares with the Seafood Platter

Estela Valladares with the Seafood Platter

Well, fall is here, and after a long incubation period going back to July 2015, Santa Monica’s Plan Check (the fourth location) is finally here as well.

I was already familiar with the original Plan Check, which I love. Back in 2012, Terry Heller pulled a pretty ballsy stunt, carving out a quiet corner of Sawtelle/Japantown to plunk down a non-Asian eatery. That first restaurant took off, and now, with a Fairfax District Plan Check (opened in 2013) and downtown LA location (2014) later, we’re finally getting one coast-side.

Soft-opened on Oct. 11, the new Plan Check stands right off the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, and literally next door to Innovative Dining Group’s Sushi Roku/Robata Bar/BOA Steakhouse trifecta. Plan Check Santa Monica is in great company—and also strong enough to hold its own.

Two days after the restaurant opened its doors, we were invited to partake in a number of plates created especially for the seaside location. We started innocuously enough with a Pickle Plate ($3)—cucumber, kombu and dill spicy cucumber with Sriracha sauce and sesame egg in pickle juice with jalapeño. It was a nice starter; the equivalent of a plate of Kosher pickles at the deli or some edamame to nibble on before the real food arrives.

Then came the waves of Santa Monica-inspired dishes.

Perhaps it’s a personal preference, but Plan Check’s seafood items scored the highest with me when not so deep-fried in batter. The Hamachi Crudo ($15) is pitch-perfect, if a bit pricy for just four pieces. Nevertheless, this is sushi-grade yellowfish, expertly accented with apple, cucumber, candied ginger, crispy shallot, radish and a lemongrass serrano ponzu.

Nashville Hot Fish Sandwich

Nashville Hot Fish
Sandwich

One of the most epic orders you can place here is the Seafood Platter (small, $39; large, $75): an excellent smorgasbord of lobster, shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, a yuzu cocktail and tartar sauce. A standout at the center of this abundance of riches is the Dynamite Crab Dip, which, for $14, can be ordered independently with masago, charred tomato, nori and toast.

Normally, cioppino is a fish stew of Italian-American origin. Here, Plan Check puts a Far East twist on it, presenting the Korean Cioppino ($28), mussels, calamari tossed together with gochujang (a red pepper sauce), soju bomb and kimchi to give it Asian cred. The result is delicious: like a smaller version of their Seafood Platter but saucier and spicier.

Korean Cioppino with white wine

Korean Cioppino with white wine

If you’re going down the fried path, consider the Nashville Hot Fish Sandwich ($16), with a hearty piece of crispy mahi-mahi at its center—the inside alive with tasty, fluffy white meat and not greasy—plus a kaffir lime slaw, spicy pickles and cayenne.

Also quite winning: the generous pan of Fried Calamari ($13), which packed sweet and spicy chiles, Thai basil, a Sriracha lime cream and garlic. It’s not spicy to a detriment and the quality of this fried calamari is more or less on par with equivalent orders at the better seafood restaurants lining Ocean Avenue.

The lobster items are where the plan doesn’t check out. I wanted to enjoy the Plan Check Lobster Roll + Fries ($24), kewpie mayo, gochujang, shallot, key lime, chive, more than I did, but in the end, I found it just passable. Perhaps the evening’s biggest disappointment was Lobster Pot Pie ($25), a skillet of curried lobster bisque, beets, green beans, corn, carrots and potatoes baked within a golden crust. Simply put: just not enough lobster meat inside once you get past the fancy hood ornament.

Plan Check Lobster Roll + Fries

Plan Check Lobster Roll + Fries

On the plus side, there’s the creative Chowder Fries ($12), a hearty pile of French fries blanketed in a housemade clam chowder with steamed little neck clams, celery and juicy, savory chunks of bacon. This epic side order is kind of a twist on poutine with the clam chowder a much more welcome substitute for gravy. Easily a Plan Check guilty pleasure.

Also on the fried side is dessert—Key Lime Pie Donut ($10), which is as sinfully sweet and decadent as it sounds. It’s nice to see that Plan Check is honest enough not to disguise this under the “beignet” designation. Straight-up donut!

At the Sawtelle location, I’ve always enjoyed their craft cocktails, like the Ginger Grant ($12), made up of a pisco brandy, aperol, sake, blood orange and ginger—which they also have here. Two new additions featured for us were winning: El Pomelo Rose ($15), a concoction of Mezcal El Silencio, grapefruit rose liqueur, Campari, agave, lime and egg whites. With its edible decorative miniature bouquet floating on the surface, this drink is bright, colorful and satisfying. For an edgier experience, order the Pimm’Sin Ain’t Easy ($15), a borderline bizarre-tasting libation made of Pimm’s (a fruity English liqueur) and Kin white whiskey, with cucumber, watermelon, radish, lemon agave, and a hint of mint and sea salt.

Pimm’Sin Ain’t Easy and the El Pomelo Rose

Pimm’Sin Ain’t Easy and the El Pomelo Rose

Keep in mind that the above seafood-centric plates are new to “the Plan” and unique to this Santa Monica locale. The original’s old reliables, including the blue cheese-informed Blueprint Burger ($15) and the sumptuous, Swiss-adorned Pastrami Nosh ($15), are here, too.

So anyone seeking to replicate the original’s plein-air Sawtelle Boulevard experience, only closer to the Pacific (and to the Palisades) won’t be disappointed. When you consider the quality menu, the solid drinks, the excellent hospitality and the sleek, inviting atmosphere, this Plan Check is very definitely worth—to paraphrase the Beastie Boys—ch-ch-ch-ch-checking out!

FOOD REVIEW: Roast

548 Palisades Drive

Pacific Palisades, CA

310-230-6000

roastdeli.com

Price: $

By MATTHEW MEYER | Reporter

Seated comfortably on the back patio of Roast, it’s easy to forget you’re not visiting a friend’s modish backyard barbecue. With artificial fire pits and lanterns casting a soft glow across the outdoor dining area, guests lounge casually in first-come, first-serve seating arrangements ranging from umbrella-d tables to wicker couches and accompanying coffee tables.

Roast Manager John Rjbarich

Roast Manager John Rjbarich

On the cool evening of my visit, patio heaters combined with fires to keep the area cozy. Add a cold beer and the Dodger game (displayed tastefully on a corner big-screen), and I was lulled into a sense of comfort reminiscent of the backyard get-togethers that are synonymous with the social lives of so many Southern Californians.

Adding to that sense, my company for the evening: Roast owner and patriarch Whitney Werner, who—between schmoozing with regulars and lecturing kitchen staff on proper coleslaw consistency—plopped down beside me to share Roast’s guiding philosophy.

The restaurant’s Palisades location—at the edge of the Highlands on Palisades Drive—is Werner’s second branch of the deli, a spin-off from his successful Brentwood locale. The long-time chef explained that the new location (opened in September of last year) shares the original deli’s popular emphasis on organic, farm-to-table food. He said this approach to ingredients is about “more than just using a buzz word”: His sustainable model gives everything from his meats to his vegetables more appealing texture and more flavorful bites.

The Palisades location differs from the original Brentwood deli, however, in its menu’s emphasis on (relatively) affordable, family-style dining. Soups, vegetables and meats can be bought in bulk to feed the entire family, and the menu also features some straightforward staples that benefit immensely from Roast’s fresh ingredients but still don’t break the bank. Werner said he crafted the Palisades menu to include these items because he, “felt the need for simple things done right—the kind of stuff I like to eat.”

Nowhere does he execute this idea more perfectly than with the Palisades Burger ($8), a mouthwatering offering served with a grass-fed beef patty, slice of cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickles and Roast’s “secret sauce.” Inspired by counter burgers from other Los Angeles favorites like The Apple Pan, the Pali Burger comes to the table wrapped in a perfect package. The six-ounce patty has a hand-formed, loose feel that lends to its flavor—no machine packed, fast-food nonsense here.

Palisades Burger with Arnold Palmer Photo by RICH SCHMITT Staff Photographer

Palisades Burger with Arnold Palmer
Photo by RICH SCHMITT
Staff Photographer

Roast also ditches the spongy, massive brioche buns found on too many restaurant burgers for a simple, lightly toasted alternative. The condiment proportions make the whole package nicely balanced. Think In-N-Out with some extra “umph.”

In Werner’s words, it’s a simple thing done right.

That trend continues with Roast’s Classic Fish ‘n Chips ($16). The plate features generous slabs of wild cod—sourced fresh from Santa Monica Fisheries—battered lightly to create crisp bites that don’t weigh you down with grease. The fish is served with a small cup of coleslaw, vinegar and tartar (don’t let Whitney catch you neglecting the vinegar). The fries are simple and tasty—thin and crispy, without the artificial sheen of fast-food fare.

Fish ’n‘ Chips with Lemonade Photo by RICH SCHMITT Staff Photographer

Fish ’n‘ Chips with Lemonade
Photo by RICH SCHMITT
Staff Photographer

The Roast Classic French Dip ($14 for a sandwich with tater tots) is another can’t-miss item, with beef that comes closest to the “melt-in-your-mouth” cliché that I’ve ever experienced. Pile on the au jous horseradish sauce for some extra kick.

Roast Classic French Dip with Tots Photo by RICH SCHMITT Staff Photographer

Roast Classic French Dip with Tots
Photo by RICH SCHMITT
Staff Photographer

Even more decadent, I also sampled the Boneless Chuck Short Ribs ($24 for a plate with potatoes, veggies and gravy). A favorite among regulars, the ribs are impossibly tender, another testament to the quality of Roast’s ingredients.

Boneless Chuck Short Ribs Photo by RICH SCHMITT Staff Photographer

Boneless Chuck Short Ribs
Photo by RICH SCHMITT
Staff Photographer

The price-conscious should check out the sliders (beef, pork or fish for $3 each) and cheap beer during Monday Night Football, or head over for Taco Tuesday (chicken, carne asada or fish, for $3 each). Taco Tuesday became so popular that Werner added tacos to the Palisades’ standard menu, week-round.

Wash it all down with a fresh-squeezed Lemonade ($4), which Werner and company give a more bitter, sophisticated taste by oven roasting the lemons and using zest from the rinds before sweetening the drink with organic agave. It makes for great Arnold Palmers ($4), and one could imagine it also lends itself to drinks of the alcoholic variety (though not expressly offered).

While it’s only in LA that an $8 burger without sides can boast the “affordable” tag, Werner’s new Roast location certainly succeeds in his vision for an approachable, family deli that takes its ingredients seriously. The care that Werner—who works 10-plus hours most days to keep things moving—takes in crafting his menu items shines. The food tastes incredible, through and through. Add the relaxed atmosphere and you have a winner: You can’t go wrong with a lazy evening spent on Roast’s back patio.

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