Oh boy! Another really good restaurant to use up my discretionary food money. And this one comes with special features I rarely find: a great wine staff and wine selection.
In front of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel’s south entrance on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue sits a huge 135-year-old non-bearing fig tree. Inside you’ll find the Fig restaurant that’s bearing some really good food. More than that, there’s a great staff, and the service is perhaps the best I’ve seen anywhere in Santa Monica.
That might be because some of the top people came over from the Belvedere at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, which selects people who are interested in restaurant service, not in becoming actors, and trains their staff the old fashioned way. So in the kitchen chef Ray Garcia from the Peninsula holds forth while on the floor the sommelier Matthew Lehman, one of the most knowledgeable and articulate wine people I’ve met in Los Angeles, helps customers select wines.
You can tell the staff has been trained in wine service when they check with the diners before pouring more wine into your glass.
The first time as we sat in one of the two quiet corner booths, I started with the chanterelle and sweetbread fricassee tart, a melt-in-your-mouth, simply delicious appetizer. On my second visit the chanterelle mushrooms were out of season, a compliment to the chef as they do feature seasonal dishes changing the menu accordingly. A companion had the braised tongue, an unusual but delicious hors d’oeuvre.
For me, the top four menu selections include the duck leg on a bed of cabbage, with real wild rice on the side; the steaks (three sizes, ranging from 8 oz to 16 oz, $24 to $31 respectively), the kurobuta pork tenderloin served on a bed of spinach, and the sable-fish nestled on brandade. These dishes although not unusual are very good quality and well prepared. Although if I were the chef, I would skip the blue cheese on one of the steak selections, and the brandade could use more garlic and cod flavor. The vegetable side dishes are particularly good. My favorite is the Brussels sprouts with bacon served in a skillet.
In addition to good food and service, there are three very special features at the Fig that warrant a visit:
First feature: the charcuterie/cheese bar and plates. All of a sudden Charcuterie is hot in Los Angeles. It’s a specialty at the new Bazaar, the lead restaurant in the SLS hotel, but now that they got 4 stars from Irene Virbila you probably can’t get a reservation there unless you’re a friend of Sam Nasarian, the owner. Then there is Anisette, the only other restaurant in town, I believe, with a four star chef (Alain Giraud) with its three- tiered cheese and charcuterie platter — you might get a reservation there, although it’s very crowded every night. Third is the Saluté Wine bar on Main Street that I reviewed recently (and specifically mentioned the charcuterie as it too is exceptional). And now we have the Fig, with a charcuterie plate and selection up there with the best of them, plus a fromageur stationed at the bar to discuss the sheep fromage blanc from Sonoma, or the Laura Chenel chevre.
Second feature: the indoor/outdoor seating, where in the spring and summer this will surely be a favorite spot for anyone who likes to eat poolside, with the Pacific breezes wafting overhead.
And the third feature: the wine selection. Say goodbye to the same old commercial wines that you’ll find in most hotel restaurants, and say hello to especially selected, small production, delicious wines of all types and price ranges. The first time I was there we started with an excellent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for $32. With lots of acidity and a floral nose, it was dry, crisp and grassy. We moved on to a California Syrah with a nose of violets from a very small vineyard I’ve never heard of. At the bar we started out with California Rhone-style wine which was very flavorful, but a bit too concentrated for my taste. Then we switched to an excellent Bordeaux. The nice thing about Matthew is that when you explain your wine taste to him, he understands you and can find a wine that matches your taste and your food.
Other little touches that make this restaurant special: freshly brewed tea and the server offered simple syrup to sweeten the iced tea. The coffee tastes fresh and not burned. And there are chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I suggest that you forego their signature dessert, the fig bar.
Prices are pretty reasonable at the Fig. You might get by for $35 or so per person, or you might spend $50-60 per person with a good bottle of wine.
So where is the negative? Easy. It’s the music. As is so often the case, the music might work at a pop concert but it’s all wrong in a restaurant setting and it detracts from what could otherwise be a relaxing ambiance.
The Fig is open for dinner only (and will open for lunch in the near future, I’m told) Tuesday through Saturday, with free valet parking. Call (310) 576-7777 for reservations.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org