By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
You’ll find it on a sleepy corner on the Santa Monica-West Los Angeles frontier, just past the freeway overpass, where it appears so unassuming or unremarkable from Pico Boulevard, one might easily overlook it.
Yet step inside Lunetta and one is transported—in atmosphere, in fine dining—to something supernatural and otherworldly, inviting and comforting.
Service may be casual here (“We’re not fine dining,” the eatery’s namesake, Chef Raphael Lunetta, told the Palisadian-Post), yet there’s nothing rambling or slow-paced about the service here, which is top notch.
Lunetta also comes front-loaded with much history. In 1986, Lunetta, who grew up in Venice and Santa Monica, moved to France, where he worked for two years in Paris—at Café Pacifico, La Perla and Restaurant La Posté—before returning to Santa Monica to work in the kitchen of the now-defunct Broadway Deli.
From 1990 through 1996, Lunetta circulated around the city’s top kitchens, including Patina, Capri and Jackson’s.
However, Lunetta’s true acclaim arrived in the mid-1990s with downtown Santa Monica’s JiRaffe where Lunetta became an early adopter of farm-to-table, already taking advantage of the weekly haul of fresh produce from Santa Monica’s Farmers Market.
However, on Valentine’s Day 2015, Chef Lunetta arbitrarily ended JiRaffe’s nearly two-decade, critically acclaimed run on a high note. He told the Post that he needed to spend time with his teenage son and contemplate his next move.
After a six-month vacation, the restaurateur partnered with hospitality veterans Daniel Weinstock and Mike Garrett (owners of Maple Block Meat) to open a new Santa Monica digs, opening the Lunetta in 2017.
“We use copper,” Lunetta said, pointing to a row of pots hanging above his cooks. “Not that many restaurants use copper.”
The attention to detail, Lunetta implies, goes beyond the house-made sauces and dressings, straight across preparation process from beginning to end.
Lunetta continues to source its fresh and organic ingredients from California farms such as Valdivia, Reyes and the Garden of Tamai. That well-placed decision pops when one bites into the Market Vegetables, a pan of smoky cauliflower, broccoli, yams and onions singed to perfection with a dipping sauce; the hearty, bulbous tomato and onion accompanying the perfectly arrived-at Braised Beef Short Ribs (topped with a generous dollop of sour cream); or the arugula within the Frog Hollow Farms Pear Salad, one of a handful of JiRaffe staples that survived, which features an outstanding counter-play of bleu cheese, pomegranate bulbs and pine nuts.
Seriously, the Beet Tartare here, capped with chevre and marinated in Banyuls vinaigrette, looks like a red velvet cake, and even though it’s not dessert, it shares that airiness and freshness.
Another JiRaffe menu hallmark is Caramelized Pork Chop. The white porcine goodness, served with ample long-grain wild rice, is so pure, tender and moist, most diners won’t realize they are eating pig meat.
The menu’s Land section also offers the uniquely titled Snake River Meatballs (with Marscapone polenta, Stracciatella and heirloom tomatoes), Creekstone Black Angus Steak Frites and 18 Oz. Prime Kansas City Steak, accompanied by blistered tomatoes, wild arugula and evoo.
While Lunetta calls his restaurant “California market-inspired, elevated,” there are many European flourishes, from the green sauce the Cast Iron Maine Diver Sea Scallops wade in to the not-to-be-missed, rich and creamy Sticky Toffee Pudding, a triumph of decadent sweetness supporting a scoop of premium vanilla with drizzled caramel that will illuminate your taste buds.
Sea scallops notwithstanding, the menu’s Coast portion offers much more, from the by-now-LA-cliché Wood-Grilled Spanish Octopus and Ahi Tuna Tartare, to the less-traveled Charred BBQ Scottish Salmon and Mediterranean Loup de Mer. Or order some south-of-the-border flair, in the form of Rock Shrimp Ceviche (with fresh guacamole, house-made lime chips) and Wild Mexican Shrimp (accompanied by chili sauce, market veggies).
More than his previous outings, from menu to decor, Lunetta the restaurant reflects Lunetta the man. A gregarious, unpretentious personality and a lifelong surfer who grew up knowing all of Dogtown’s Z-Boys, Lunetta notes that over near the Moon Bar hangs a spread from a surfer magazine chronicling Lunetta’s “Endless Summer”-esque exploits, while Lunetta at Night’s walls are adorned with a beach parasols motif, and one of the house’s signature drinks is dubbed The Gnarly Surfer (rum, pineapple syrup, Blackstrap Bitters).
But that wasn’t the drink we tried. Lunetta’s vibrant cocktail program, alive with such funkily named options as the St. George Green Chili Vodka-infused Spicy Like a Sleepover; and the tongue-scalding, hazard tape-yellow Tired by Wired.
Akin to an Old-Fashioned, the powerful, yummy, Japanese whiskey-based Salted Butter (with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, aperitifs and grapefruit bitters) left us reeling. Mezcal informs the sweeter, syrupy Mariposa Calor while the extensive wine list runs from Santa Monica to Calistoga and back.
Dessert-wise, Lunetta has more options to accompany your cappuccino than the next guy if you delve into Lunetta All Day’s baked goods. Unlock that additional menu, and you’ll discover everything from loaves of vegetable and fruit-informed breads (Pumpkin Pie Mini-Loaves, Zucchini Pecan, an even-better mocha bread) to crusty, buttery croissant and Lemon Cream Cheese Loaf. Gourmet desserts.
If the “devil is in the details,” as the old saying goes, consider this place Satan’s lair … meant in the best possible way.