Loews hotel has a reputation of putting top chefs into their dining room, sometimes called “Ocean and Vine.” Remember Alain Giraud when he was there with his lavender ice cream? Well now it’s Keith Roberts, and he’s special.
They’ve added a comfortable sushi bar, with a genuine sushi chef, and they still have the beautiful indoor-outdoor seating for the Sunday brunch, with a great beach and ocean view. Now, when I feel like sushi and my dining companions want a traditional American food menu, this is where we go — the best of both worlds. And the prices are quite reasonable. It usually runs us about $60 a person for a first-class meal with wine or sake included.
First let’s talk about the sushi bar. Yes they have the regular fare. But they are specializing in a different style of sushi. My favorite example is the kaleidoscope plate, a beautiful assortment of about eight or more diverse pieces of sushi with different sauces on top. So instead of tasting the usual where each piece includes the taste of soy and wasabi, each piece has a distinct flavor emanating from its own sauce. I find this plate irresistible, and particularly pleasant with a glass of the New Zealand sauvignon blanc which you can find on the wine list offered by the glass. At $22 the Kaleidoscope plate is quite a bargain.
The regular dining menu, as required for a hotel with only one restaurant, is a mish-mash of lots of traditional items, from cobb salad (excellent) to hamburgers. A few items stand out: the chef particularly likes his lobster lasagna, served with slices of asparagus and a sauce of vermouth cream with a touch of grapefruit juice on the asparagus. The flavors were delicious, but personally I would prefer this dish if the lobster were chopped up into smaller pieces and mixed with something to give it more body, and encased into a smaller frame. My lasagna kept falling apart off the fork, and the lobster pieces dropped out of the casing.
Not everything is on the menu every night, but two outstanding dishes I’ve had here include the best breast of duck in town, with all the fat cooked out of the skin and the meat still moist and tender, and a smoked filet mignon. Since Orleans closed years ago I don’t know where to find a smoked filet. When the smoked filet is not on the menu, the regular filet is also first class, although the sauce on the side is too sweet.
A couple of other outstanding dishes include the flatbread — with sliced apples and sausage and the walnut shrimp, derived from a Hong Kong recipe — and this one is really good.
Not everything is perfect, and, in my opinion, Michelin won’t award it any stars anytime soon. The service is slow, friendly, but not entirely professional. Some of the dishes don’t make it, like an attempt one night at a wild boar chop that was so tough even a bear couldn’t eat it, and the desserts are not to my taste. And the chef scheduling is questionable: sometimes both the chef and the sous-chef are off on the same evening. When that happens the quality is not as consistent. I suggest checking when you call to make sure one of them is expected to be in the kitchen.
The wine list is unfortunately the standard fare from Southern and Young’s, with huge markups, but at least there are wines on it that are perfectly OK to drink with the food. Wine by the glass is $13-$15, but there is no wine sold by the bottle on the list for less than $40. Our friendly waitress Sara knew the flavors of the available sakes, which she expertly described, and her recommendation of the Mizuno Shirabe was appreciated, and I pass it on to you. This sake had good body with a nice fruit undertone.
I think Chef Roberts is a star, and when he talks about food you can taste it just from his descriptions. Under his continued direction this restaurant can only get better and better, and it’s already so good I’ve been there three times this month!
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If You Go
Loews Santa Monica
Ocean & Vine dining room
Sushi at Sunset at the sushi bar
1700 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, Calif. 90401