Aestus lives up to its name with a harmonious yet powerful flow of surprisingly good dishes
By Richard Foss (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Words are not always chosen for efficiency of communication; sometimes a product or place is named for an obscure poetic analogy, or composed of meaningless syllables that just happen to sound beautiful.
Consider the example of a master of branding — a chef named Wolfgang Topfschnig decided to change his last name to Puck and to call his restaurant Spago. The word means “string” in Italian, and Topfschnig chose it because he liked the sound. He didn’t greatly care about the meaning, nor did the diners who flocked to the place.
It’s a fair bet that most people who are dining at Santa Monica’s Aestus don’t know that the name can translate to “a surge” in Latin. Those that do might expect a loud and turbulent place, perhaps attached to a dance club.
Instead they walk into a stylish room with midcentury design and a moderate noise level, then settle in to a menu inspired more by harmony of flavors than outrageous contrasts. Aestus appears serene rather than surging, though anyone who spends much time in the water knows that there can be currents under the surface.
And indeed there are, partly because the menu leaves out some of the details of dishes that have intricately constructed flavors. Consider the items we first ordered, which were described as “smoked salmon rillettes, scallions, aioli,” and “cauliflower soup, almonds, sherry-soaked raisins.”
The first description leaves out the element that makes this item pop: a topping of ikura salmon caviar, which adds fresh flavors of sea wind to the rich salmon hash. (It was also served with toast, the better to scoop up every morsel, but rillettes are almost always served with something for that purpose.)
The cauliflower soup with wine-soaked raisins and almonds sounded great just as it was, but the description omitted the sprigs of chopped chervil and drizzle of hazelnut oil that made it fragrant and even more interesting. The flavors were reminiscent of North Africa, where nuts and raisins are often combined with spices in savory dishes, and though the portion was large we demolished every drop we could reach.
We decided on cocktails to accompany our first courses and discovered in the process that the bar is every bit as eclectic. I had been curious about an ingredient described as “Alpine liqueur” in one drink and asked to see the bottle. A gentleman named Plex Lowery obliged and gave me a taste, and in a brief conversation impressed me so much that I told him to just surprise me. He obliged with a rye whiskey, Cynar liqueur and Amaretto cocktail that was beautifully balanced, while my wife ordered a hot toddy that included that Alpine liqueur. Plex came to our table to grate the nutmeg over it, an eye-catching ritual that made the people at a neighboring table inquire about ordering one.
We ordered wines with our dinners, a branzino filet with peewee potatoes and a heritage pork chop over a bean-and-vegetable ragout with baby carrots and mustard.
The fish was beautifully done and served with North African chermoula sauce, which employs fresh lemon juice with pickled lemon as a base for rich herbs and pepper. The combination of flavors was superb but the portion was small, and some green vegetables would have added color and variety. When we mentioned this to our server she said that people often order a side dish — but you can’t know the size of a portion until it arrives, and that’s a bit late.
The pork chop was a more substantial portion and was every bit as good, with the smoke flavor from the grill, a light seasoning rub and a slight char at the edges all adding to the flavor. The ragout had earthy and rich Southern French flavors, the classic background for a cassoulet and other dishes of Provence.
Our server suggested a Lioco unoaked Chardonnay for the fish, and it wasn’t a choice I would have made but it worked nicely. She mentioned that the owner of the restaurant also owns Lioco, but if there was favoritism it was justified; the Chard was full-bodied but crisp and worked fine with the citrusy sauce. The pork was paired with a Syrah from Stolpman, a more conventional but equally fine pairing.
To finish we chose a Meyer lemon panacotta topped with both fresh and candied citrus and some mint leaves. It was elegant, light and refreshing — cream and complex citrus in harmony — and we agreed that it was a perfect finish to the meal.
Dinner at Aestus ran about $130 with two cocktails and two wines, in line with the neighborhood near the beach in Santa Monica. It had been an interesting evening, stimulating and relaxing at the same time.
Go elsewhere for flashy, in-your-face cooking; come here if you want something subtle with a sense of flow and underlying currents of flavor. The name fits, even if it is unlikely most of their customers will know that.
Aestus, 507 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (424) 268-4433 aestusrestaurant.com