Ciboteca offers grab-and-go culinary delights, but the quality and variety make it worth sticking around
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
Some people look for meaning in life on a psychological or metaphysical basis, while others seek it in the world of the practical. I look for meaning in words and often don’t find it. I distinctly remember discovering, to my disappointment, that the name Häagen-Dazs doesn’t mean anything in any language.
When I heard about a new Italian-themed café in Santa Monica called Ciboteca, I assumed the name meant something in Italian. It apparently does, though in a non-linear fashion; it’s a made-up slang based on the Italian word for food with an ending that is usually used to mean store. To an Italian this is probably clever and to Americans it’s a memorable name, so this is probably a win all around.
The large café has a sleek and beautiful modern design with lots of floor space and a few tables — a ratio that makes me assume that most of their business is take-out. The uncluttered space does make it pleasant for those who eat there, as we did, and they serve the food on nice china. Those who dine in have the added advantages of being able to browse the small selection of Italian groceries and preview the dessert cases.
Ordering from the counter is simultaneously simple and complicated — simple because the menu is posted, and difficult because the display cases are full of beautiful food. The complication is that although proteins like meat and fish are posted by the serving, vegetables and salads are priced by the pound. A more conventional strategy that prices a protein with a side dish or two would be a lot easier to figure out. We ended up over-ordering and deciding to take some home because there were so many things we wanted to try.
For starters this meant a lamb kebab, fennel gratin and a salad of garbanzo beans, carrot, greens, olive oil and goat cheese. The kebab had three pieces of tender lamb along with zucchini and bell pepper, but was slightly under-spiced by my standards; I think a bit more garlic and pepper would have improved it. Both salads were excellent. I am going to have to try making roasted fennel gratin at home, because the Gruyere cheese and sweet/sharp fennel flavor are delicious together. As for the salad, I had ordered this on a whim despite the fact that I’m not a big garbanzo fan. The carrot sweetness and slight bitterness of radicchio leaves and arugula dominated the beans and feta, but that resulted in a fine balance of flavors and textures.
For main courses we selected an order of pork ribs, half a rotisserie chicken and a piece of roasted salmon. (As I mentioned, we figured we’d take some home. As it happened, we didn’t.) The pork ribs were simply roasted with garlic, rosemary and a little salt, so you tasted the natural pork flavor. The effect was very different from American barbecue; less tender, with little or no smoke flavor, but intensely porky like good carnitas.
The chicken was a bit greasy, as is often the case with rotisserie cooking in which meat is basted continuously, but it was tender and delicious though slightly salty. The cavity of the bird had been stuffed with rosemary, which added to the flavor and aroma. The bird was on the small side, and the half-chicken was appropriately sized for a hearty lunch or dinner.
Ciboteca doesn’t serve wine, so we had a pair of unusual Italian sodas: one lemon-based and the other an herbal concoction called Chinotto. This tastes like a mild Italian bitter liqueur but is non-alcoholic, and it’s very refreshing on a hot day.
The restaurant has an in-house baker who crafts beautiful desserts, and with so many alluring choices it took us some time to figure out what we wanted. We decided on a custard éclair and an “angel roll,” a gluten-free cream sponge cake infused with orange peel. I had ordered the angel roll because I have always been skeptical of gluten-free desserts — they’re usually not very satisfying, and I wanted to see if Ciboteca could make a good one. Wonder of wonders, they did. The éclair was good, and the angel roll was its equal. On a return visit I’ll also investigate their handmade chocolate further, since they gave us samples of a white chocolate filled with matcha tea and a dark chocolate robed yuzu truffle.
Our lunches ran about $20 each, but the quality and variety was extraordinary. You can dine more economically if you don’t try to sample everything in one visit, and a panini with sides cost much less.
Ciboteca is a gem for those who appreciate fast food with European flair, and a great addition to the community from the same team that created Hostaria Piccolo and the associated restaurants. It
deserves to succeed, and I
believe it will.
Ciboteca is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Street parking only. Wheelchair access good. No alcohol. Vegetarian and vegan options available. Menu online.
Ciboteca, 606 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 458-8852 ciboteca.com