Chef Maire Byrne already had one superb restaurant in the neighborhood, and now she has two
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
Ocean Park Boulevard has a split personality. It’s a mainly residential street that suddenly turns into a mega-office complex. The restaurants that thrive along that strip are generally more aimed at pumping out quick business lunches than serving the people who live there, and many don’t even bother to open for dinner.
One that bucks that trend is Thyme Café & Market, which I reviewed here last year. Owner Maire Byrne has done so well at that that modest but characterful café that she recently opened a more ambitious eatery a block away. The name itself is a statement of intent: Local Kitchen and Wine Bar. The former liquor store has been remodeled into a stylish bistro, and contemporary ideas and ingredients from our region are both at the fore.
On arrival we were offered high-top seating on the patio but chose a standard table indoors; the patio was quieter, the indoor seating more comfortable and the light better. We also had the option of backless bar stools at a counter with a good view of the wood-burning pizza oven, but comfort won out over kitchen voyeurism.
The menu here is based on Northern Italian traditions and adds personal touches; Chef Maire obviously likes variety pickles and combining seasonal fruits with meat, as those ideas recur in many selections. So many enticing items were offered that it was difficult to decide on our meal, and we relied on the advice of an enthusiastic server named Becky. She helped us winnow our starters down to a white bean, anchovy, olive and bottarga bruschetta, lamb meatballs over a chopped vegetable mix, and a plate of the Italian cheese dumplings called malfatti.
I had been interested in the bruschetta because it included anchovy and the funky salted fish roe called bottarga, big seafood flavors that are rarely featured in American restaurants. Both were present but subtle, well blended with the olives and smooth white bean. I had been expecting the flavors to be more assertive but was well satisfied with the gentle salt and seafood tastes integrated into the spread.
The lamb meatballs had a fuller flavor thanks to the topping of tangy gremolata, a mix of garlic, oil and parsley similar to Argentine chimichurri. These were served very rare, so if you don’t like your meat this way you should ask for it to be cooked more than usual. I won’t, because the moist and fragrant lamb was delicious, especially as a contrast with the flavors of the gremolata mixed with roasted cauliflower and pecorino cheese. I could have happily made a meal of these, and might when I come in for lunch.
Malfatti are showing up on more menus these days — they’re dumplings similar to gnocchi made with ricotta cheese, flour or breadcrumbs and a lot of chopped vegetable, usually spinach. These had Swiss chard, which is often more bitter and strongly flavored, but in this case the buttery cheese flavors were dominant. I might have preferred a bit more sharpness to contrast with the bed of heirloom squash and cheese fondue, though the toasted sage leaves and slices of roasted pear added some interest. I’d also serve this with some bread, because that fondue was good enough that I didn’t want to waste any.
While we had initially focused on the culinary side of the menu, a glance at the reverse showed both a fine selection of by-the-glass wine and some interesting cocktails. The Dark Machine blended Diplomatico rum with bourbon, black tea, citrus and mint, and the flavors fit the style of the food — this is mixology with a chef’s sense of flavor. Our server offered tastes of a few wines, which helped our selection of a Longoria Albarino and Justin cab with our meal.
We had decided on grilled branzino (seabass) with a pickled mushroom and celery root salad as well as a plate of brick-flattened chicken with a side of roasted cauliflower. Branzino is almost always served unsauced because it’s so tasty when prepared simply; this had a simple salt and herb crust. Some mint salsa was provided, but not necessary. The pickled salad was an exceptional pairing, and each bite of slightly bitter arugula with tart vegetables prepared you for another nibble of the rich fish.
Brick-flattened chicken is a traditional Tuscan technique that helps the bird cook evenly and quickly, producing very moist meat and a crisp skin. This one was done perfectly and topped with a balsamic glaze, served with roasted sweet cipollini onions and green chiles; I found the chiles superfluous but the rest was outstanding. The only minor flub was with our vegetable side: The cauliflower had been chopped large and hadn’t cooked all the way through.
We saved just enough room for hazelnut doughnuts beignet-style, balls of fried dough with a sweet and salty sauce on top and a small pot of bitter chocolate for dipping. It was a fine end to an ambitious and broadly successful meal, and we departed comfortably full and chatting about which flavors we had most enjoyed. Our food had cost about $90, with the beverages adding another $50, but had we been in a beachside neighborhood a few minutes away it would have cost much more.
Local Kitchen is a step in transforming a neighborhood, one likely to attract a crowd from a wider area.
Local Kitchen & Wine Bar, 1736 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 396-9007 localkitchenandwinebar.com