In Europe, a lot of the best restaurants are in fancy hotels. Generally that hasn’t been true in California, but it’s getting more common. A good example is Whist, located on the ground floor of the Viceroy Hotel on Ocean Avenue.
If you look at reviews of Whist on the Internet, they are not so favorable. But it’s misleading because the restaurant has undergone a change of chefs three times. I’m quite optimistic about the new team and the new menu.
Also, Kelly Weastler’s décor offers an unusual setting for good food and drink. The out of the ordinary furnishings are, at the same time, soft and comfortable and all in all pleasing to the senses. There’s a nice sized bar that’s separated and yet close to the dining room that offers both tables and booths — or you can take the most popular option and sit outside on the beautiful patio. When I was last there, the Red Bull company was having a little get-together with drinks and appetizers for 300 people — yet we didn’t hear a bit of noise from the crowd. In fact that’s one of the best features of Whist: it’s quiet.
The newly installed chef, Tony DiSalvo, began cooking when he was 13 at the Hotel Thayer in Highland Falls, N.Y. Later, he studied at the Culinary Arts Institute and received an AOS degree there. But perhaps his best training comes from his externship at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s renowned restaurants Vong and Jo-Jo, and his long-term association with that well known chef.
When he graduated in 1995, DiSalvo worked at La Goulue in New York under the tutelage of Philippe Schmidt, from whom he learned the basics of French-Mediterranean cuisine. Then he moved to one of New York’s most popular restaurants, Gramercy Tavern, where he worked with Tom Colicchio.
In 1998, DiSalvo became the sous chef at Jeans-Georges Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant, Jeans-Georges in New York’s Trump Tower, where he became the executive chef in 2001. In 2004, he moved to La Jolla, Calif. to open Jack’s La Jolla as executive chef and partner.
So he’s moved around quite a bit, but let’s hope he stays here. I had the pleasure of eating my way through his tasting menu last month. Chef DiSalvo is definitely in the same league with Michelin-starred chefs now working in Santa Monica. We started with a small slice of blue fin tuna on ciabatta toast, accompanied with a salsa verde of anchovies and capers, and nicoise olives and cherry tomatoes on the side. On the plate was a fennel salad in a Meyer lemon sauce. Next was a small beet salad, with one beet picked and the other roasted, served with a truffled cream. This was truly delicious.
The rich and creamy porcini mushroom soup with chestnuts has an earthy aftertaste, I could be satisfied with a bowl of this for a complete dinner. At $14 it is quite a bargain. After the soup came eggplant three ways — fried, diced and pureed, with a small piece of perfectly cooked wild sea bass with a crisp skin. The dish was redolent of Moroccan spices delicately applied.
This marked the half way point in dinner! But the portions were small, there was plenty of wine (more on that later) so we were not over-saturated. That was serendipitous because next came one of the chef’s best creations, the ravioli with lobster — pancetta, corn, tomatoes and basil, a wonderful buttery specialty that demonstrates the chef’s ability to mix a number of flavors and textures so that none is overpowering but all are flavorfully interesting.
Where’s the beef? Forget that. For the meat course we were served a piece of Colorado lamb flavored with cardamom and perhaps cumin (again a Moroccan accent) accompanied by an orange and goat cheese salad.
Yes, there is a dessert chef. Her name is Brooke Mosley, and after tasting both a chocolate filled donut and the apple tart with caramelized nuts and blue cheese ice cream, I’m in love with her. I can do without the blue cheese ice cream, but I don’t think I can live without more of that apple tart.
We had a number of different wines: a nice acidic pinot gris and a Bon Climate chardonnay (very little flavor) with the fish courses, a Heitz zinfandel (not a pleasant taste) and an excellent Hitching Post pinot noir. In general, the wine list is pretty ordinary, but they didn’t have a wine person, so I’m sure it will improve. Meanwhile, on Mondays and Tuesdays they have a discount wine list at $25, so the price is right.
Prices at Whist are about what one expects in Santa Monica, and I consider the price range to be quite reasonable considering the setting and the quality of the food. Expect to spend about $50-$60 per person for a really good dinner, plus drinks.
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
1819 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, 90401
Breakfast: Monday through Friday 7 a.m. — 11 a.m. Lunch: Monday — Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Every day, 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.