Business owners spend a lot of time thinking about “curb appeal” – that indefinable something that makes someone outside decide to come in. It’s about projecting your style, the cues that tell someone that you have what they want, and you provide the atmosphere in which they’d like to buy it.
In the case of an Italian restaurant called Sara the Wine Bar in Culver City, that involved painting their building bright purple. The spattered paint along windows shows that exuberance sometimes overcomes skill, and along with black doorframes and tribal accents in dark blue, the building looks like a dorm room that was decorated at a party. It’s a sharp contrast with the other restaurants in neat white buildings that share the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Mesmer Avenue.
The paint job is misleading in a way – the colorful abandon suggests casual energy and fun, but not home-style Italian cooking. In contrast to the modern chaos on the walls, the flavors here are disciplined and traditional.
We arrived during happy hour and took an outside table – the only inside space with tables available was in a slightly cramped side room. The view of the parking lot was nothing special, but the neat patio had a certain charm, and after a glass of wine and a look at the menu we had no complaints.
The food selection is composed largely of shareable plates, and the three of us decided to just keep ordering things until we were full. Since there’s only one item above $10 and the portions are generous, this offered ample variety on a budget.
We sat over glasses of Pinot Noir, Chianti, and a delicious Astoria Prosecco for only a short while before things started arriving, starting with a caprese salad of cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls coated with basil shards and herbs, served on toothpicks. It’s a canap/ caprese, a finger food version of the Italian favorite, and the 10 little skewers were perfect for sharing.
The lasagna and eggplant Parmesan that arrived afterward were more traditional in style but no less enjoyable – both were graced by a sauce that had a rich, cooked-down intensity. The lasagna was firm and dense, not the watery version common around L.A., and it held together to the last bite. The eggplant had a vegetarian variant of the same sauce, and the layers of fried vegetable with mushrooms and cheese were fresh tasting and lightly spicy.
While these pastas were both quite good, the stars among savory items were the polenta and homemade meatballs. The polenta is available with either a meat sauce or sausage, and we picked the latter. We had expected a sauce with ground sausage, but instead received a lump of polenta covered with sauce and chopped link sausages that had been grilled. The slight char from the fire added a dimension to the dish – the corn flavor of polenta, that excellent sauce, and the smoky sausages mixed a bit differently in every bite.
As for the meatballs, they were comfort-food heaven, dense and fragrant with herbs, and we used slices of baguette to get every last morsel. The glass of Montepulciano that I ordered was a stellar companion to the hearty Italian flavors, and at $6.50 for a generous pour, it was a steal.
We had enough room for one dessert and decided on tiramisu. After we ordered it nothing happened for so long that we thought our order had been forgotten. Our server later explained that it is made to order, so it takes a few minutes. We wished we had been told that immediately, but it whetted our appetite for the dish.
It was worth the wait – each layer had a different flavor, and the ladyfingers hadn’t been soaked to mush as often happens when it is made in advance. The velvety chocolate and espresso topping sealed the deal – this was one of the best desserts I’ve had all year.
Our meal for three was $92 with several glasses of wine, and it would have been less if we had arrived during happy hour. It was an exceptional deal for a fine meal and I highly recommend you try it. Given the paint job on the front of the restaurant, this is one of the rare times I can say, “you can’t miss it” and be certain I’m right.
Valet parking, beer and wine served, wheelchair access to most areas. Open daily except Monday, dinner only. Menu at sarathewinebar.com.
Sara, 11800 Jefferson Blvd., Culver City
310-228-4750. Got a tip for Richard? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org