From kitchen to table, Margo’s presents a masterfully harmonious dining experience

By Richard Foss

The tender herb-and-onion crusted lamb saddle, served with traditional white beans and broiled maitake mushrooms
Photo by Whitney Eshleman / hooplaLAblog.com

I was once in a dance company and spent weekends learning complex routines in which we all had to be in an exact place at the right time while heading in the right direction. If you weren’t there to catch someone’s hand, you ruined the synchronized movement that keeps the audience entranced.

The same attention to pattern is part of the experience at a good restaurant. It all has to work or the spell is broken. From the greeting at the door and the business of ordering to the attitude of the staff, the skill of the chefs, and the attention of staff to water and clearing dishes, each person has a part to play.

It’s remarkable when a new restaurant gets all these moving parts working seamlessly, so when I visit recently opened ones I tend towards leniency. I’ll be easy, I thought, as we walked into Margo’s on Montana Avenue.

The welcome from a cheerful, kinetic fellow named Josh felt genuine, and we were ushered to a table in a candlelit corner in the back of the restaurant. The place has a cool, slightly retro décor accented by soft jazz-pop, and there’s just enough light to read the menu — a combination my wife and I found relaxing. Whatever else they were doing here, our evening at Margo’s was off to a good start.

I had been curious about Margo’s since hearing that the chef is Greg Daniels, who made a splash at Salt Air in Venice. His signature dish there was pea toast, a sweet and spicy mix of fresh peas and pea puree with caramelized onions and cheese. At Margo’s he offers a starter of squid toast, the bread topped with a mix of calamari rings, roasted garlic, scallions, Thai basil and a dash of black sesame and Sriracha.

I was dubious about this, figuring those moist ingredients on crisp bread might make this the kind of thing you have to devour before it falls apart, and I wasn’t far wrong. It was at its best the moment it was delivered — all the textures perfect so you get that crunchy base at the same time as moist seafood, delicate greens and soft roasted garlic. You do have to eat it quickly because it’s fragile, but you will want to do so because it’s delicious.

Our other starter was butternut squash soup, which was poured ceremoniously over croutons at the table. The thick broth had a nice gingery kick offset with gentle herb and mushroom flavors, and it was a great winter warmer. I would have preferred smaller croutons, as these
were gigantic, but the flavors were flawless.

I had eyed the bar as we entered and saw interesting bottles, so decided to go for cocktails instead of wine with our starters. Margo’s menu is heavy on the classics, and I considered a paloma or aviation, but we decided on two originals: a barrel-aged tequila and bitters item called “Pasado de moda” and a “Vintage” of bourbon, black walnut bitters, cherry and orange liqueur. Someone here knows how to use bitters with delicacy, because both were totally in balance and worth having again. We didn’t, because it’s hard to pass up a good Vieux Carre as a second drink. But we thought about it.

For mains we chose halibut with a lemon pepper and herb crust, sliced roasted lamb saddle, and a side of Brussels sprouts with quince mustard, pepitas and sage. I thought I had already tried every possible variation on Brussels sprouts, but this was a new one. Cooking the sprouts with pumpkin seeds and sage was a fine idea, but I couldn’t quite decide whether the quince mustard enhanced or distracted from the total flavor. Since it was on the side, I could dab sprouts in it and experiment at my leisure.

Our entrees were home runs. The halibut was cooked exactly the way I never seem to manage at home — moist with a crisp, flavorful top crust from the broiler and just done through. It was served over cauliflower in a simple herb butter, and while a little greens might have dressed the plate and added variety that’s a minor quibble.

The lamb saddle (often called the loin) is the most tender and marbled part of the animal, and this herb and onion crusted preparation took advantage of the qualities of that cut. We had asked for it medium rare and it came out the proper shade of pink, fork-tender and with a flavorful exterior crust. It was served with white beans, the traditional accompaniment in Greece and parts of Italy and France, and a chunk of broiled maitake mushrooms. Maitakes look like some sort of alien invader, an odd bristly thing
with many small caps growing out of it, and they have an unusually rich flavor and texture. It’s one of the few mushrooms that can be broiled crisp and still have an interesting texture, as was done here.

Margo’s offered three desserts: a croissant bread pudding, chocolate pretzel bar, and a pear tart with brie and ice cream. We went with the tart, having been told the other two were rather sweet. The tart had a fine homemade pastry and was excellent by itself, but it arrived drizzled with unnecessary caramel. Ask for the topping on the side or at the edge of the plate if you order the tart, because it’s fine without it.

Overdoing the caramel, however, was only a very minor misstep in an otherwise superbly executed meal. From beginning to end, the food and service were in harmony in a way that is rare in new places, so I wasn’t too surprised later when I heard that this is an outgrowth of a previous restaurant. Margo’s is a remarkable example of everything in balance, and my new favorite restaurant in the area.

Margo’s 1534 Montana Ave., Santa Monica · (310) 829-3990 margossantamonica.com

 

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