I remember as a child being confused by the fact that the region called the Far East was actually west of California. I eventually got this sorted out, but my questions on the subject tied up a second grade class for some time.
I had a similar moment recently when considering Upper West, which is about as far east as you can go and still be in Santa Monica. Not having a second grade teacher to annoy, I called the restaurant and was informed that the restaurant is west of West L.A., so they decided it was a good name. (I decided not to ask about the “Upper” part of the name, which is there despite the fact that they are near the bottom of a hill, not at the top).
Some things about Upper West are clear, such as their intended demographic – this place has the artsy bistro/bar look and modern fusion menu that are more upscale than most other establishments in the neighborhood. Sure enough, the lunch crowd was a mix of businesslike and bohemian, and the place had the energetic vibe that comes from both deals and dates in progress.
Chef Nicholas Schipp spent time in the elite catering branch at the Wolfgang Puck group and also served up American favorites with boutique ingredients at Pete’s Café in downtown Los Angeles, and while both influences are visible on this menu the Puck-eclectic influence is more pronounced. There is an evident love for Greek, Indian and Middle Eastern ideas that is somehow comfortable alongside burgers, schnitzel, and an elitist version of mac and cheese – a heady mix that makes choosing difficult.
My companion and I decided to start with ahi tuna “tacos” which were actually made with not a single traditional ingredient. The tortilla was made from fried plantains instead of corn, and inside was sushi-grade tuna, jicama-cucumber salsa, feta cheese and crumbled rice crackers. It was a brilliant idea, a presentation that led us to expect Mexican flavors and instead represented some place between Japan and Indonesia.
We each had one taco and decided to see who could be more polite and leave the other to take the third one, which we both wanted. We were saved from figuring out a way out of this by the arrival of our main courses, which distracted my companion sufficiently for me to whisk it to my plate.
I had been tempted by the beautifully constructed burgers I had seen going by – these sandwiches were ready for their close-up. However, the curried braised lamb crepes and kale salad with butternut squash were alluring and easier to split between two people, so we ordered those instead. The cilantro-shallot vinaigrette with roasted squash, chopped fennel, and queso fresco was a stunning combination, slightly sweet with a depth of flavor reminiscent of a mild yellow curry. It’s a show-stopper of a salad and filling enough to be a main dish by itself.
The lamb crepes were described as having a Madras curry, and I took the first bite cautiously – South Indian curries are often fiery, with strong sour flavors of tamarind and pickled ginger. This version had a bit of fruity tamarind with a hint of heat, but the sauce was mild by itself and moderated by the spinach cooked with raisins and rich Israeli feta cheese. It wasn’t very Indian, but it was delicious.
We had saved precisely enough room to split one dessert, and though a brioche bread pudding with rye whiskey caramel sauce beckoned, we decided on a triple chocolate torte. I had visions of a multilayer cake, but what arrived wasn’t a torte but a tart – a chocolate pudding inside a ginger snap pie shell. (The words are similar, but they are different things – I should have noticed that the menu mentioned a crust, which would not have been part of a real torte).
We were happy anyway because it was an excellent tart. The rich dark chocolate ganache and ginger were perfect together, and it was even better with a dab of coffee ice cream that was on the side. There was also marshmallow cream, which was superfluous – these flavors didn’t need help from something that was simply sweet.
Our lavish lunch for two with an iced tea and mint lemonade was $41 – a bargain for cooking of this quality. Upper West delivers an exceptional experience at a very reasonable price – and their diner menu is even more intriguing. They offer a Wednesday three-course prix fixe of $33, with other interesting specials. Whether you’re navigating here from the east or west, it’s worth the trip.
Upper West is at 3321 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica. Open for lunch Mo-Fr 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Su-Thu 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Fr-Sa 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. Street parking only, corkage $15, wheelchair access good. Menu at theupperwest.com. 310-586-3111.