Food And Style

Restaurant Review: The Church Key

By Michael Aushenker | Contributing Writer

Photos by Rich Schmitt | Staff Photographer

On the evening “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for best picture, the movie’s crew and family watched filmmaker Barry Jenkins and co-screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney from this vast, contemporary Sunset Strip restaurant. The movie’s producers rented out the entire establishment to hold its viewing party.

Oscar night, however, was an anomaly—not the usual Sunday for The Church Key, which, on this day of the week, usually witnesses a frenzy of brunch business, replete with a DJ spinning background music.

On our night here, the staff seemed unpretentious, down-to-earth and kibbitz-ready, including Chef de Cuisine Christopher Fox, who implemented a menu crafted by Executive Chef Ryan Ososky.

Christopher Fox presents Beef & Broccoli

Christopher Fox presents Beef & Broccoli

“Church key” is slang for a familiar type of can opener once employed at this restaurant to open canned cocktails. (That might return soon). Closed on Mondays, Church Key offers a different program on each of its active weeknights. Tuesday Night Chicken Dinner turned out to be a terrific time for our first-ever visit—more mellow and subdued than the weekend nights, which gave us a chance to really immerse ourselves in this incredible environment.

Hands down, this was one of those rare restaurant outings where there was not one false note in the cuisine. We started out strong with a few items off of the gourmet dim-sum cart.

Empanadas, filled with pork sausage and aioli, arrived in a smear of whole-grain mustard and tasted scrumptious. Our Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice, topped with a slice of jalapeno, evaporated quickly. Even something as light-hearted as Fried Mac & Cheese, two small fried fingers with macaroni and cheese filling, was made to perfection, delivering a terrific smoky aftertaste.

One of the most (deservingly) popular appetizers at Church Key is Chicken “Marsala” Agnolotti, an ambitious mélange of confit chicken (made of chicken livers) with mushrooms and marsala jus, all topped with shredded aged Pecorino.

Much appreciated were Ososky’s Potato Pierogies, on a bed of heirloom apple butter and accompanied by five-year aged Gouda, sour cream and chives. Rare is the Los Angeles restaurant offering pierogies—little dough pockets stuffed with soft potato filling—and we have Ososky’s Polish heritage to thank for this addition.

Known around the kitchen as “Foxxie,” Chef de Cuisine Fox introduced us to our first entrée, the popular Crispy Pork Belly, a Korean chili glaze and sesame-covered affair with escarole kimchi and cilantro—all topped with a sunny side-up egg. Decadent for sure—those savory porcine morsels colored by the piquant kimchi.

Crispy Pork Belly

Crispy Pork Belly

“We try to do fun food,” Fox said. “[Comfort food] that’s been tweaked.”

Beef & Broccoli is bold and direct—slices of grilled 8 oz. hanger steak with charred broccolini and crispy maitakes on a bed of fermented Chinese black bean vinaigrette. The 26 oz. Bone-In New York Steak comes with raclette potatoes, rainbow baby carrots and red wine sauce. For seafood lovers, there’s Dungeness Crab & Spinach Dip, with aged Gruyere and grilled sourdough.

Then came the entrée to top all entrees. At $21 a half order—or $34 a whole order—CKFC, a basket of boneless buttermilk-batter fried chicken with amazing house-made (yet not spicy) cheddar jalapeno biscuits and two chef sides, was formidable in both quality and quantity. Our perfectly tender and moist chicken came with tasty, fluffy blue corn waffles and cherry Kool-Aid-marinated watermelon, which made for a sublime chicken and waffles experience that was simultaneously playful and gourmand.

For dessert, it doesn’t matter whether or not you typically enjoy eating donuts. Church Key’s sublime Brioche Donuts, with its brown butter glaze, cinnamon caramel and side of milkshake, will divide and conquer you.

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Operated by four partners, including managing partner Tatiana Brunetti, Church Key is the only restaurant this team runs; its stylish and sleek, yet earthly and inviting, environs created by interior designer Carrie Livingston. Billing itself as “modern American cuisine,” Church Key is indeed a cross-cultural melting pot of epicurean delights, cross-referencing comfort foods from different corners of the world.

Framing our terrific meal were the alcoholic concoctions of our magic mixologist Floyd, who told the Palisadian-Post that he aimed to create a cocktail program that is “fun, approachable and whimsical.” Floyd told us that he studied molecular gastronomy and indeed proved to be part-Bill Nye as he whipped up a cosmic glass of The Classified, with a big blue orb of ice at its center.

Next to this drink foamed up a nice, bright, glass of Peachy Lips—a small volcano of Hangar One Vodka, Peach Espuma and champagne that did not rely on egg whites for its sudsy layer but tastes as light and refreshing as it is colorful and visual. (Floyd also creates a stunt drink employing an Otter Pop and liquid nitrogen.)

Cucumber Basil Smash features quality gin and Chareau Liqueur with muddled cucumber, blueberries and citrus. I’m a sucker for a good Old Fashioned, and that shotgun-to-the-chest hit of Thai Old Fashioned—bourbon, tamarind and Thai basil—did not disappoint. Tequila is the narrative thread flowing through many of Floyd’s libations, from Jamberrie, incorporating Herradura with homemade blackberry jam, citrus and toasted cinnamon, to the flashy, Classified and Chipotle Sour-infused Border Patrol.

Thai Old Fashioned and No Money, No Honey

Thai Old Fashioned and No Money, No Honey

What’s interesting about Church Key is that the restaurant is constantly changing and challenging itself. As Foxxie mentioned, the menu mutates every six weeks or so.

Assistant Manager Leana Raynauli explained tentative spring plans for Livingston to turn the front area into a “Church Key Café,” complete with patio-esque atmosphere.

One might be hard-pressed to find a culinary destination as daring and original as The Church Key, and while the restaurant’s name might be pseudo-ecclesiastical, the cuisine within is indeed a revelation.

FOOD REVIEW: The Venue

3470 Wilshire Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90010

213-221-1251

thevenuela.com

Price: $$

By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer

Photos by Rich Schmitt | Staff Photographer

It’s easy to overlook The Venue, the latest addition to Koreatown’s vibrant nightlife.

Facing out of an office building from a diagonal angle on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, the new restaurant and karaoke bar doesn’t jump out at you amid the neighboring signage.

However, The Venue is not a destination that you want to pass by.

Here’s what it’s not: Another upscale Korean restaurant—even though Executive Chef Kayson Chong does add Asian touches to his menu.

It is also not a traditional nightclub. There is a corridor devoted to small private dining rooms where some hardcore karaoke goes down, complete with flat screens telegraphing the lyrics to your favorite songs over some humorously cheesy filmed randomness.

Admittedly, it is also not easy to cross the Westside to Koreatown.

What The Venue is, though, is totally worth the schlep.

Why? Because Chong, who has been with the restaurant since its Jan. 26 opening, has established a diverse, delicious and, above all, very creative menu.

Executive Chef Kayson Chong with the Striped Bass

Executive Chef Kayson Chong with the Striped Bass

Our winning meal began with a bunch of terrific starters. For us, the standout from the first course was Nonna’s Meatballs, six hearty spheres comprised of beef, pork and veal in a house-made marinara with thyme, topped by a fuzzy heap of Parmesan shavings. Dazzling to behold, this dish, a conscious approximation of good, old-fashioned Italian meatballs, tasted as wonderfully savory as it appeared.

Nonna’s Meatballs

Nonna’s Meatballs

Farro Toast introduced to our table featured pickled sunchoke purree, golden raisons, capers, olives and cranberries. For a different direction, Three Cheese Fried Mac, four fried fingers filled with fontina, cheddar and blue cheese, comes with an accompaniment of chili dipping sauce topped with cheddar shavings. The Fried Mac is as “sports bar” as the food here gets and the ground beef chili tastes pure but surprisingly spicy.

The main attractions came in the form of delicious entrees. Ample and mouth-watering, 3 Day Short Rib comes smothered in a horseradish cream and flanked with black radish and chervil. For a different steak dish, try the 22 oz. Bone-In Rib Eye, with confit tomatoes and braised chard. This prime rib, with its spectacular mélange of flavors, arrives as a platter of ample meat—about a dozen slices, plus the meat off a hulking bone. It’s flavorful and saltier than its predecessor, and accompanied by a nice, light dipping sauce.

Three-Day Short Rib

Three-Day Short Rib

We very much enjoyed the Striped Bass, sea bass served with pea tendrils, sunchoke chips and romesco sauce. Once again, the quality of the fish matched the pizzazz of the presentation.

There are many sides to choose from, from Grilled Brocolini (with golden raisins, pickled shallots and white balsamic vinegar) to the loaded Braised Kale (bacon, caramelized onions, sherry-molasses). I recommend Brussel Sprouts, a smoky bowl topped with cranberries, almonds and red wine, which makes a great argument for anyone contemplating going vegetarian.

Complementing Chong’s menu, mixologist Devon Espinoza has whipped up a specialty cocktails program that goes down nice and easy.

There’s the Mic Drop, featuring New Amsterdam gin, raspberry Bonal Gentiane-Quina and fresh lime; Seana contains Absolut Elyx vodka, yellow Chartreuse, eucalyptus lemon, passion fruit and angostura bitters—all colossally and colorfully showcased inside a brass pineapple pedestal.

Sip a Whiskey Houston and you’ll taste the Jameson Caskmate come together with clover honey, lemon and kumquat as smoothly as its namesake’s singing voice.

Whiskey Houston and Stop Screaming

Whiskey Houston and Stop Screaming

There’s even a drink here called La La Land (chicory smoked Barcardi Superior rum and Giffard Banane Du Bresil Liqueur with pineapple and lime) that may or may not be evoking a recent multiple Academy Award-winner.

My favorite libation here: Stop Screaming, made of Old Overholt Straight Rye whiskey with a spiced pear liqueur infused with cured plum and plum bitters.

Like Chef Chong and his cuisine, Espinoza gets his ingredients from local farmers markets, including those in Hollywood and Santa Monica.

“Every cocktail list should be well-rounded,” said Espinoza, who described his cocktail program as “fun, whimsical and upscale.”

Yet as fun as these cocktails were, dessert is an area where The Venue excels.

Investigate the Caramel Popcorn Cake, a buttermilk-based confection topped with salted caramel popcorn and feuilletine. Yes, it’s as sickly sweet as it sounds and it’s also irresistible.

Caramel Popcorn Cake

Caramel Popcorn Cake

Rivaling this cake is the Blueberry Tart, a pitch-perfect pastry, topped with scoops of blood orange sorbet and vanilla ice cream. As stuffed as we were by this point, that tart did not make it off our table alive.

In addition to the good food, you get plenty of nightclub-ish atmosphere—charcoal walls, dim lighting, comfy seating—and a friendly, competent staff who do not miss a beat.

The Venue is just getting started, Chong said.

“I’m going to have Korean influences,” the chef added, including an Apple Bacon Fritter with a kimchi puree and white balsamic. “Seasonally, the proteins will stay the same but the vegetation will change.”

So consider it an adventure
and go seek out The Venue.
Chances are you won’t be sorry … unless someone in your party can out-sing you!

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

By Michael Aushenker | Contributing Writer

Photos by Rich Schmitt | Staff Photographer

Restaurateurs Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax are no strangers to their profession or even to Brentwood.

From the second floor of Brentwood Gardens plaza, their seafood-dominated Bottlefish (which opened Dec. 8) overlooks the last establishment Rosenfield and Flax opened, right across the landing; a little chain called California Pizza Kitchen (affectionately known as “CPK”).

The owners, along with Rosenfield’s wife Esther, were in the house on the packed Tuesday night we dined on. As Rosenfield explained to the Palisadian-Post, he and Flax sold CPK—which had grown out of the flagship S. Beverly Drive location in Beverly Hills—back in 2010. At the time they sold it, the pair had created 212 CPK locations across North America, plus another 40 worldwide, in places as far as Chile, Australia and Dubai.

Opening Bottlefish, Rosenfield continued, was definitely a different experience than when the pair founded CPK back in 1985.

“I don’t have the same level of fear,” said Rosenfield, now a successful, experienced restaurateur.

Sleek, modern and dimly lit with a nocturnal overview of prime San Vicente Boulevard action, Bottlefish is vast, with a ginormous 5,000-square-foot interior and ample patio space, readymade for large parties.

Despite the CPK back-story, there is not much on Bottlefish’s menu that will remind you of California Pizza Kitchen fare (quality notwithstanding). Bottlefish swims up its own stream, offering a range of delights crafted by the restaurant’s young founding chef, Executive Chef Jackson Kalb, who leads his action-packed staff of cooks out of a transparent kitchen.

The categories here—Starters, Greens, Simply Prepared, Plates and Sides—are refreshingly direct and unpretentious, and so is the food.

Among the appetizers (starters range $11 to $23), we tried the particularly unique offering Black Cod Meatballs, a bowl of (a bit salty but still tasty) fish balls marinated in a precision house-made Marinara sauce and garnished with arugula.

Even better were the offerings from the restaurant’s raw bar: Jumbo Lump Crab Cake, accompanied by a run of Creole mustard sauce, and a nice plate of Yellowtail Sashimi—five heavenly slices. The savory quality is beautifully counterbalanced by the sweetness of orange wedges, plus kaffir lime ponzu, thin slices of Fresno chiles and fried shallots.

Another butt-kicker: Tuna Tartare, a scrumptious mound of hand-chopped sushi-grade ahi with cucumber, shallots and avocado mousse (and a slice of toast on the side). The raw plates are exceptional: The crab cake is light, flaky, flavorful and not overall deep-fried, while the yellowtail—mouth-meltingly delicious—is on par with any that you’ve had at a sushi house.

Bottlefish offers three types of salads: Spicy Caesar Salad, Sesame-Crusted Tuna Salad and Shrimp & Crab Louie (topped with a hard-boiled egg and avocado).

We moved into the Simply Prepared section. Of the grilled items, which arrive with a choice of salsa Roja, Sicilian herb sauce or lemon butter caper sauce—including Eastern Barramundi, Scottish Salmon and Ruby Red Idaho Trout—we went for the $29 Pacific Swordfish. Probably the plainest-looking item visually of our evening, this nevertheless tender, perfectly cooked swordfish steak was so tasty.

There were plenty of
directions to take with our main entrée, as the Plates
portion offers everything from Sea Bream “Tacos” to Lobster Roll to Herb-Marinated
Flat-Iron Steak
.

We chose one from each major category: fish (Sauteed Branzino), beef (Creekstone Farms Cheeseburger) and chicken (Rosie’s Organic Half-Roasted Chicken). The Sauteed Branzino, we were told, was Bottlefish’s most popular dish, and it’s easy to see why. Expertly cooked to perfection, the Greek sea bass was not only a delight—from its soft and flaky interior to its crisp, golden skin—but it benefited mightily from an interplay between the fish and the small pool of lightly curried lentils and cucumber labneh which it bathed in.

Creekstone Farms Cheeseburger

Creekstone Farms Cheeseburger

Truth be told, the cheeseburger was decent, if inessential, but Rosie’s chicken, with its balsamic chili glaze, Corto olive oil and a dollop of Bottlefish’s own Banyuls Vinegar Smashed Potatoes (which can be ordered as a side for $8), made for as sublime and hearty a roast chicken experience as you will find in Los Angeles.

Speaking of sides (priced at $8), there are many here, but believe your waitress or waiter when they tell you the Crispy Brussels Sprouts are Bottlefish’s most popular. This is gospel, and the truth lies in the generous bowl of flavorful veggies, magnificently marinated in an understated Thai vinaigrette.

From the “fish” part, we now move on to the “bottle.” While Moscow Mules, Old Fashioneds and cucumber martinis may seem exceedingly trite for a Westside restaurant in 2017, the drinks here (all cocktails run $14) are nevertheless well made and solidly satisfactory. Naked and Famous, comprised of mescal, aperol, yellow Chartreuse and lime with a grapefruit twist, tastes nice and light. An Eastside, infused with Sipsmith gin, cucumber juice and fresh mint, hits the cuke-drink spot. The biggest alcoholic revelation here though was Dark and Stormy, an exceptional potion of Black Magic spiced rum, Cruzan Black Strap Rum, fresh lime and ginger and ginger beer; sweet, with a nice edge to it.

Seafood platter

Seafood platter

Consider this Brentwood destination as the start of something bigger to come. While Rosenfield and Flax have not yet found their second location, the plan, Rosenfield said, is to start opening more Bottlefish restaurants by year’s end. So despite its second-floor location, here you’ll feel as if you’re dining on the ground floor of something really special.

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.”

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