By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
The name gave me pause, because I was sure I had heard it before but couldn’t remember where – was Tiato a minor character in a Shakespeare play, or a province in Eastern Bolivia?
I went to their website to look it up and found that it was actually an herb related to the mint family, which would have been my third guess. That site also revealed that the restaurant has an interesting Sunday brunch menu that includes both standard dishes and stylish takes on Vietnamese food, so a visit was in order.
The Santa Monica location in a mixed residential and business section of Colorado Avenue was a surprise; I hadn’t known that any large eatery was in the area. We had looked forward to dining on their garden patio, a broad space landscaped with herbs and flowers, but the area was being set up for an afternoon wedding so we went indoors. The space with high ceilings has a look reminiscent of a remodeled warehouse with weathered wood siding and exposed beams, and a very good guitar and muted trumpet duet added atmosphere.
The menu is equally divided between Asian items and breakfast favorites like omelets and French toast, with a wide variety of vegetarian selections. We hesitated over our entrees but decided there were two starters we had to have – the house cured salmon on corn blini and the homemade cornbread.
The salmon was a hit though the presentation was odd; the corn pancake was about the size of a quarter, with a ribbon of salmon topped with dill, crème fraiche, red onion and a few capers on top of it. I would have liked enough of that thin pancake to complement each bite of fish, because the flavor and texture were excellent together. I wouldn’t order the cornbread again because it was made in a sweet, cakelike style – I prefer more savory versions that accent the slightly grainy texture of cornmeal and have more of a crisp exterior. One of my companions likes the sweet style and was happy to devour my portion, so it didn’t go to waste.
After hemming and hawing over our options, we decided to order eggplant and tofu with Vietnamese herbs and brown rice, as well as French toast bananas Foster style, and an order of garlic noodles with chicken and vegetables. The garlic noodles are a special of the house, but not usually served this way – the menu offers them with chicken, beef, shrimp or vegetables, but not a combination. I liked the version I was served much better than I would have enjoyed just the meat or vegetables. The noodles didn’t have much texture alone, but the asparagus spears and rounds of grilled zucchini and carrot added depth of flavor and variety. As for the chicken, it had been grilled with lemongrass, pepper and other herbs and added a delicious note.
As much as I liked the noodles, the eggplant was even better; it was dusted with herbed rice flour that made the exterior wonderfully crispy. How this texture was achieved without deep-frying is a mystery, but whatever alchemy it takes is worth it. The eggplant and tofu were served with a salad that had a fresh, minty flavor from leaves of the tiato plant – the herb from which the restaurant gets its name
The bananas Foster French toast had a rich and decadent flavor, but arrived at our table cold – probably one of those glitches that can happen in any kitchen when one entrée takes much less time to prepare than the others. Our server noticed that we weren’t eating it and inquired as to why; when informed, she offered a fresh one or any other entrée as a replacement.
Though we had liked the flavor of the French toast we leaped at the chance to try one of our alternate selections instead and chose a pesto baked tomato omelet with fresh mozzarella and basil, with a watermelon salad on the side. This was also excellent – the fresh burrata cheese was well paired with tomato that had been baked almost to jelly to intensify the flavor.
Though alcoholic drinks were available, including bottomless Bloody Marys or mimosas, we settled for bracingly strong coffee, and our bill ran about $20 per person. It was a fair price for an excellent meal in pleasant surroundings, and if I lived or worked in the neighborhood, this would be my spot for midweek breakfast or lunch. That not being the case, I’ll look forward to a return visit to soak up sun on that patio with a breakfast banh mi, salt and pepper crab benedict, or other delights.
Tiato is at 2700 Colorado Ave. #190 in Santa Monica – validated parking in underground lot. Open Mo-Fri 8 a.m. – 3 p.m., closed Sa/Sun 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. (summer hours). Wheelchair access good, patio dining. Menu at tiato.com (warning: animation crashes some browsers). 310-866-5228.