Curiouser and Curiouser
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I wanted to like Curious Palate in Mar Vista as soon as I laid eyes on the place – the name so epitomized the first step on the way to adventurous dining.
I do know people who approach unusual food without a sense of wonder, who lack culinary adventurism, but I don’t understand them – how can you not want to try what just might be the most wonderful things you ever tasted? I get that items like durian fruit and edible insects might be beyond the pale for most people, but don’t they wonder even a little about what it would be like?
The Curious Palate focuses on quality and style rather than outlandish food – you can get a high-end turkey sandwich, BLT, or even peanut butter and jelly, albeit with housemade peanut butter as well as jelly. Seeing this made me want a PBJ sandwich for the first time since I was a kid, and there were other everyday items that were described so alluringly that it took quite a while to decide.
The glass case of arcane cheeses and meats (available by the pound), freshly made salads, and other goodies certainly whets the appetite, and the specials board deserves a look. We finally picked starters of corn and lentil salad and so-called double pork chili – actually three kinds of pork with beans, apricot puree and ale in the mix. The restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol but has some unusual soft drinks, so we ordered three kinds of ginger ale for a comparative tasting.
The corn and lentil salad was a simple thing – fresh corn, cooked lentils, chopped green onion, cold slivers of roasted red bell pepper and just the barest hint of any dressing. I had ordered it at the suggestion of the woman who took our order, who said that it was the most popular of their specials. I see why, since the simple fresh flavors were well suited to each other and needed no embellishing.
The chili, on the other hand, went a bit overboard on the oddness quotient, and was the only stumble in an otherwise excellent meal. Mixing Berkshire pork shoulder and belly with bacon wasn’t a bad idea, but the chili hadn’t simmered long enough for the fatty belly to meld its flavors into the stew. The cupful was mostly meat by weight with no perceptible heat, and the slight apricot sweetness blunted the cumin and spice that gives chili its character. There were good ideas here, but they didn’t come together.
Of the soft drinks we ordered, the hands-down winner was Bruce Cost brand ginger ale with passion fruit and turmeric, which was spicy and fruity. The astringent but refreshing Blenheim was second, followed by Grown Up Soda Extra Dry with real ginger root, which had a lighter character and less flavor than the others.
For main items we selected a Thai chicken satay sandwich and an Italiano panini – three kinds of cold cuts, lettuce, tomato, purple onion, roasted peppers, gruyere cheese and balsamic dressing on sourdough. Sopressata, salametto, and rosa are all variants of salami, and I pulled pieces of each out of the sandwich to see what they were like and savor the balance of garlic, pepper and pork. Together with the gruyere and dressing, the meats made a fine sandwich, and the kitchen gets points for not over-toasting the bread. Paninis may look better with heavily browned crust on the outside, but it’s not worth having the sandwich shatter at first bite.
The Thai chicken satay sandwich was unlike any I have had before – the grilled chicken thighs topped with peanut sauce were layered with Japanese pickled cucumber and avocado. The combination works well – the avocado richness combines with the peanut sauce, and the cucumber is a refreshing counterbalance. I’d order this again but for the many other intriguing possibilities on the menu.
Both sandwiches were served with a slice of homemade pickle and a scoop of quinoa salad with curry and currants – another idea I’m going to try duplicating at home. We should have split an appetizer, or even gone without one – the tab for lunch was on the high side at about $46, but the two appetizers and sandwiches were a more-than-ample meal, and we took leftovers home.
The Curious Palate offers breakfasts and lunches and is open until 8 p.m. most days, so whenever you’re looking for gourmet light meals to dine out or eat in, they’re an option. We dined at an outdoor table in Mar Vista, which had people watching at the cost of street noise – we’ll probably dine inside on our next visit. They have another location in Santa Monica, so we now have two destinations for those days when we get curious.
The Curious Palate is at 12034 Venice Blvd. in Mar Vista (other location at 395 Santa Monica Place, different opening hours, phone 310-395-2901). Open Mo-Sa 7:30 a.m. – 8 p.m., Su 7:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. No alcohol served, parking in rear, wheelchair access good. Menu at thecuriouspalate.com. 310-437-0144.