Style, substance and creative energy are on the menu at 1212 Santa Monica

By Richard Foss (

Seafood risotto served in a sea urchin shell is one of the most interesting dishes in town

Seafood risotto served in a sea urchin shell is one of the most interesting dishes in town

The Third Street Promenade is the kind of calculated tourist attraction that I generally dislike, but I have to admit that every time I go there I see something thought-provoking or delightful. Sometimes it’s someone rather than something — it’s a great place for people watching, and you have to be pretty curmudgeonly not to catch the enthusiasm of tourists who are awestruck by the whole scene.

I’ve been less enthused by the dining options there, which are mostly either generic or calculated to separate tourists from their money. A typical example of both was Monsoon, which had a Victorian Asian environment worthy of a movie set but mediocre food and service. After Monsoon closed last year I assumed something else touristy would move in, and I visited the new restaurant — 1212 Santa Monica — out of curiosity as much as anything else.

My skepticism lasted about five seconds, because as we approached the hostess stand a server went by holding one of the most outrageously presented dishes I have seen in some time. It was a hollowed out sea urchin shell, spines and all, filled with what I was told was a seafood risotto. I knew immediately what I was going to have for dinner, and headed into the dining room with a spring in my step.

The multilevel dining room that had previously sported ornate balconies was still impressive, but in a minimalist geometric fashion. It is decorated in warm oranges and browns and feels open and spacious.

The modern feel fits the menu, which is eclectic without being scattershot. I had expected the usual formulaic combinations of popular ingredients, but there was a sense that Chef Walter Greenwood, whose previous experience includes a stint at the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, has a sincere interest in experimenting with Mediterranean and American flavors.

We ordered three starters that proved this point. They were lobster arancini, pork belly with a bourbon maple glaze, and duck-and-mushroom potstickers.

Arancini are usually stuffed with meat ragu or cheese, so the lobster was a great innovation — the rich seafood inside a crisp rice crust is the kind of thing you devour as soon as it’s cool enough to eat safely.

From the minimalist description of the dumplings I had expected an Asian flavor, but the intense mushroom reduction that was drizzled over them reminded me more of French or Northern Italian cooking. It was more a pan-fried ravioli than a potsticker, but by whatever name it was delicious.

My wife had ordered the pork belly, which I wouldn’t have done because I’ve had so much pork with maple that I’m a bit tired of the flavor. But this one was so well-executed it made me reassess my fatigue. The maple lent the dish a subtle sweetness that contrasted agreeably with the pickled onions and micro-greens that topped the dish. It wasn’t my favorite item of the meal, but did remind me why the pork belly craze has been so enduring.

We continued by sharing a snow crab and avocado salad, a great intermission from the artfully composed starters. This was about natural flavors of seafood, avocado and bitter lettuce, with just a bit of dressing to augment the experience. It was a fine reboot to prepare us for the main courses.

For me that was the sea urchin stuffed with scallop, shrimp, lobster and Arborio rice. Eating most creatures out of their own skeleton would be a bit creepy, but nature has gifted the sea urchin with one that is perfect for the purpose. The risotto was so good it would have
been superb even from a Styrofoam cup, but presentation does make a difference and this was striking.

My wife chose a farro puttanesca, a twist on traditional pasta puttanesca that was an improvement on a classic. Farro is not just healthier but adds a slight nutty flavor that goes quite nicely with the spicy tomato sauce with olives, capers, anchovy and liberal shots of red and black pepper. Some people might find this puttanesca too spicy, but if your taste buds are up for a deeply complex and robust dish, this is it.

The cocktail list at 1212 has some strange concoctions like a carrot juice, rum, egg white and ginger item that sounded weird. The person at a neighboring table who ordered it drank the entire thing sip by sip and still had trouble figuring out whether he liked it. We played it marginally safer with a kombucha and cranberry cosmo and a tiki-inspired concoction that included mescal, peppercorns, pineapple and kiwi juice. Both were thought-provoking; smoky mescal is rarely used this way, but it adds body and depth to the sweet and tart juices. There is also a well-chosen wine and beer list for those who prefer more traditional tipples.

The dessert menu is the only aspect of 1212 that is out of balance; our server warned us that everything on it was very sweet. We ordered the item he said was least sugary, a caramel malt semifreddo with crushed candied pralines and a caramel mousse. (When candied pralines with caramel are one of the less-sweet dishes, something needs to be done.) The presentation was spectacular, a sugar globe filled with nuts over an ice cream dome with geometric embellishments. I only had a few bites because it was well past my sugar tolerance, but
I’m glad I tried it.

Dinner for two with two cocktails and two glasses of wine ran $170, but we had ordered almost enough for three people. For a high-style meal in a prime location, it was a bargain.

1212 Santa Monica, 1212 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica (310) 576-9996