A meal at The Shangri-La Hotel is a luxurious and romantic splurge


By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

The decadent berry napoleon Photo by Richard Foss

The decadent berry napoleon
Photo by Richard Foss

I grew up eight blocks from the beach, but I rarely go there when everybody else does. When the sun is high and the tourists are packed elbow to elbow, I’ll be almost anywhere else. It’s amusing to watch the throng at play for a few minutes, but then I’m off to someplace for shade and cool beverages.

After nightfall, that changes. A cool evening, with the moon reflected from the sea and the sound of the waves uninterrupted by traffic and human activity, is tranquility itself. All of these delights were in flower on a recent evening when, strolling the beachfront in Santa Monica, we decided to dine at a hotel named after paradise — the Shangri-La.

The sleek art deco architecture here is no modern fake. The hotel was built in 1939 and survives almost unaltered. The menu in the dining room is up-to-date, though — new chef Kareem Shaw revitalized what had been a lackluster kitchen with a focus on premium ingredients from the nearby farmers market. Offering Euro-Asian contemporary food in this space would be jarring, but the American classics are enlivened by modern touches.

I was immediately attracted to the oysters with an array of seasonings and the charcuterie. But I wanted to test the kitchen, so we ordered escargot sautéed in herbed vodka garlic sauce and an heirloom tomato salad that was served over garlic cauliflower puree. Escargot is usually an excuse to eat garlic butter, but while the snails don’t have assertive flavor, there is a light, shellfish-like aspect to them. This was enhanced by the sauce; although vodka is almost flavorless, cooked into sauces it can extract oils from herbs and intensify flavors. In this case the garlic and herbs had a vivid but not overpowering flavor that complemented the snails, and this may be the most successful escargot dish I’ve ever had.

The salad wasn’t quite perfect, but only because the golden beet and heirloom tomato chunks were too large. It made a beautiful presentation, but I think whoever cut them was thinking more about visual impact than utility. It was worth ordering, however, because under the layer of fruit, vegetables, cheese, pine nuts and frisee lettuce was a creamy, rich garlic cauliflower sauce. This was slightly like some Middle Eastern dipping sauces I’ve had — cool, creamy and rich — and it was a delight to pair it with the other flavors on the plate.

For main courses we took our server’s advice and ordered Colorado rack of lamb and the Kurobuta pork chop — real Japanese Kurobuta, we were informed, fed on grain and beer and massaged daily. (Much pork sold as “Kurobuta” is raised elsewhere from the same breeding stock and doesn’t get the spa treatment.) Kurobuta lives in such a clean environment that it can be ordered medium-rare, which our server advised. I tried it that way and found it very good but not mind-blowing; tender and certainly more flavorful than the industrially raised pork, but I couldn’t identify any distinctive note. The big chop was well complemented by tart cherry gastrique, delicious scalloped potatoes and the spray of root vegetables and asparagus that rounded out the plate.

I was more impressed by the Colorado lamb — three meaty, good-sized chops topped with a cognac-cream sauce. Lamb isn’t often topped with cream sauce; it’s a rich meat even without it, so most chefs use herbs, garlic and tart sauces for contrast. There were herbal and sweet overtones here, but they emphasized the richness of both in an appealing way. Colorado lamb has less of the “gamy” flavor that many people don’t like; I prefer that flavor, but have to admit that the Colorado has superior texture and tenderness. It’s lamb for beef eaters, and though it commands a premium price it is worth trying.

We asked our server Raylene to pair our courses with wines, and she did a fine job: a Stag’s Leap Karia Chardonnay and Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc for the starters, Byron Pinot Noir and Seeker blend with the entrees. The wine list here is small but well-chosen, and the restaurant gets points for having a knowledgeable staff.

We finished with Shangri-La’s version of a berry napoleon and a brandy poached pear in puff pastry, a dessert so time consuming that most places don’t offer it. This was very good, despite it being well past pear season; the chef is finding good fruit somewhere and treating it very well. I was less impressed by the napoleon — it was a stack of puff pastry, whipped cream and berries in a sweet coulis, and could have used some tartness to balance it.

Dinner at the Dining Room at The Shangri-La Hotel is expensive but not priced out of line given the historic landmark status, oceanfront location and general luxury. Our meal ran $209, and, at $52, the lamb we ordered was the most expensive item on the menu. This is a place for a romantic splurge, with a walk on the bluffs overlooking the beach and pier afterward, to unwind from whatever is hectic in your life and simply relax.

Dining Room at The Shangri-La Hotel is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Valet parking. Corkage $25.

Dining Room at The Shangri-La Hotel, 1301 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica (310) 394-2791 shangrila-hotel.com