Ashland Hill defies expectations with dishes that are beautiful, exciting and unique
By Richard Foss (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ashland Hill calls itself a “craft beer and wine garten.” The Germanic spelling might lead one to expect a schnitzel or bratwurst plate on the menu, perhaps even servers in Bavarian costumes. As it turns out, you can order a lemongrass pork sausage as part of a Hawaiian plate lunch gone Californian, but that’s the closest you’ll get. There are German beers and Austrian wines on the beverage list, but that too is more eclectic than Teutonic.
The ambiance is unimpressive on arrival — all you can see is a long, narrow patio lined with tables and the line of people waiting to order. I suspect there will be a line almost any time you visit, because there are only two registers for a large restaurant.
On our visit, however, the wait was fairly brief — just enough time for us to survey the fearlessly eclectic menu. If they added some Antarctic lichens and a kangaroo tail entrée, they’d have every continent covered.
We decided on starters of crispy cauliflower and a roasted beet, cheese and seed salad, followed by fish tacos and a daily special described as a red coconut curry bowl. Then we took our number and headed for a table. There is a cozy indoor wine bar, but the majority of the seating is outdoors and we took a seat by the lively rear patio.
One of the downsides of ordering from a counter is that items intended as starters are liable to arrive at the same time as entrees, or even after them. This time the starters and entrees alternated in arrival, which we didn’t mind but would be less convenient for diners who prefer the traditional sequence.
The beet and seed salad began things on a high note with a fascinating mix of textures and flavors, and it was beautiful. A mound of mixed heritage grains was topped by a layer of roasted red and yellow beets with radish, watercress and a sprinkle of goat cheese, with a dusting of sesame ash finishing the plate. I’ve never seen sesame ash used as a condiment before, and the smoky ghost of sesame flavor and dry texture were a great match for the moist, sweet-tart salad.
The “red curry bowl” arrived next and confounded our expectations — it was so totally unlike a typical Thai red curry that I wouldn’t have made the connection. At the bottom was a mix of rice, lentils and garbanzo beans topped by a very mild pale curry that looked like it had some of the turmeric usually in yellow curries. Over that were small portions of caramelized brussels sprouts, kimchi and a lightly pickled shredded carrot mix, all with a sprinkling of Japanese nori seaweed on top. Somewhere in the middle were pieces of meltingly tender pork that had been grilled with mild Thai spices.
It may have been the most multicultural dish I’ve tasted all year, with layers of flavor to unpack. There was a certain level of culinary opportunism here, as the sprouts and kimchi are two of the most hip items of the moment, but they tasted great with the other items so I didn’t care. My only quibble is that the ingredients should have been identified at the time ordering, both for people with food allergies and those for whom kimchi is a dealbreaker. My wife is not a fan of kimchi, and she was happy it had not been mixed in because she wouldn’t have enjoyed the dish otherwise.
Our second starter arrived close on the heels of the first entrée, followed after a few minutes by the fish tacos.
The cauliflower was a small portion for $15, but the preparation was world-class — it had been coated with crumbs and crisped, then served with slices of pickled daikon radish and carrot, dusted with sumac and herbs, and decorated with dollops of two sauces, an Italian-style chimichurri and a saffron aioli. I thought I had tried just about everything that could be done when frying cauliflower, but this proved that there is still life in the idea.
The fish tacos were the closest to traditional of anything we had, though rather than fried the Alaskan cod had been sautéed and topped with a charred tomatillo sauce with pumpkin seeds and green onions. The small cabbage salad and spicy pickled carrots had Mexican authenticity, and only the sambal-sour cream sauce seemed slightly out of place. It had a nice mix of cool and hot, so I wasn’t going to complain. It was an elegant take on traditional ideas, and quite successful.
A very filling brunch for two, including two coffees, ran just over $70. Though we ended up having to take most of the pork curry home and could have dropped $10 or $15 from the bill by foregoing one of the appetizers, we were glad we had tried it all.
Ashland Hill needs work in some ways — most urgently in accurately and completely describing the food. We were stuck in line behind two diners who had dietary restrictions and spent many minutes asking what was in everything. I would also encourage the owners to rethink the order-at-the-counter method, both because it makes the timing of meals random and because at this price point it would be nice to skip the line. I’d bet that the increase in repeat beverage orders would make this pay off, as those considering ordering another beer or wine wouldn’t have to leave their table.
I will go back to Ashland Hill despite those inconveniences, however, because they’re doing something exciting and unique.
Ashland Hill 2807 Main St., Santa Monica (310) 392-3300 ashlandhill.com