Students serve a meal every bit as good as the pros — and at a third of the price
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
I met a friend for lunch at exactly the wrong time and place — it was that stretch of Ocean Park Boulevard with many office buildings and few restaurants, and it was the peak of lunch hour. As we stood in a long line at a sandwich shop and scanned fruitlessly for available tables, it suddenly occurred to me that we had an alternative.
“Hey, want to go to Bistro 31?” I asked. “I think we’re only a block or two away, and they should actually be open.”
He had heard about this place as a source of frustration, as I always seem to remember its existence when it’s closed. That’s most of the time; they are open only three days a week, and for less than two hours a day.
If that sounds like an unlikely business model, it’s because Bistro 31 is no ordinary restaurant; it is run by the culinary program at the Santa Monica campus of the Art Institutes of California. The restaurant is primarily a classroom where students practice their skills, so it doesn’t need to be open as often as one where profit is the main priority. What you pay reflects this, as the most expensive items on the menu — the short ribs braised in Guinness and the fennel-crusted salmon — are only $9.
You wouldn’t guess that price point from looking at the dining room, which wouldn’t be out of place at any upscale eatery in town and has a nice view into the kitchen. The menu offers eight starters and salads, five main courses and three desserts, most in the American contemporary mold, and you can accompany a meal with soft drinks, coffee or espresso.
My friend and I ordered starters of Tuscan bread salad and polpette meatballs with romesco sauce. The salad was excellent: kale, croutons and oven-dried tomatoes topped with balsamic vinegar pearls and a chip of crisped prosciutto. The beef and pork meatballs had a good flavor but were slightly overdone, dry almost to the center. The mild Spanish sauce helped, and the flavors of sweet pepper and ground nuts with herbs was good enough that I mopped up every dab with rounds of the housemade baguette that arrived at our table with butter, vinegar and oil.
We had dithered over the smoked chicken with preserved lemon or a burger with housemade pickles, but ended up ordering a roasted vegetable pot pie and the fennel crusted salmon with mashed potatoes and rainbow carrots.
The pot pie was pure comfort food, a mix of beets, onions, carrots and other root vegetables with green garlic, topped with a very light flaky pastry crust. It was fine as it arrived and was improved a bit by a dash of pepper and salt — a world-class bargain at $6.
The salmon was even better, the crust of fennel seeds and herbs accenting the perfectly cooked fish. At $9, there are restaurants a few blocks away that would charge three times that amount for an identical dish.
We finished our meal with a slice of cheesecake made with a fluffy mix of goat cheese and cream cheese atop an almond crust. It had been topped with sliced kumquats in syrup, and there was a swirl of rhubarb puree on the plate. The balance of rich flavors with unctuous cheese was flawless. After we left, I wished that I had asked about buying the rest of it to share with my family.
Our meal ran $32 with a cappuccino, which was at least a third below what it should have, and the service was as professional and courteous as any I’ve had in town. The staff here are focused on their jobs in a way that puts the people who are “only doing this until I sell my screenplay” to shame. The people at Bistro 31 have made a career choice, and they care about every element of what they do.
If reading this makes you want to rush out and visit Bistro 31, be aware that there are challenges. Besides the short opening hours, it’s not easy to find because it’s tucked into a campus building on a side street.
Stop in anyway, because a meal here is an experience. You may enjoy a meal from the hands of a future culinary star, and your palate and wallet will both thank you.
Bistro 31 is typically open from 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays only. Menu changes frequently. Call ahead to verify hours and reserve a table.
Bistro 31, 2900 31st St., Santa Monica (310) 314-6057 artinstitutes.edu