CULTURE WATCH

By Sarah A. Spitz

Michael’s: Timeless and Contemporary

Michael’s Restaurant has achieved the nearly impossible: after 38 years, it’s still a trendsetter, without the pitfalls of hipster trendiness.

In Los Angeles restaurant years, this is practically an eternity. If you’re a fan of red banquettes and martinis you can still find the old-school classics like Musso and Frank’s in Hollywood, Taix in Echo Park, even the Rat Pack hangout, Matteo’s in Westwood.

Michael’s of Santa Monica (and New York), however, is anything but old-school; but neither is it the hippest, hottest place in town. And that’s a good thing.

Instead, it is a both a destination restaurant and a neighborhood gem (in New York, it’s a place where power players dine to see and be seen), with a beautiful garden patio for special occasions or romantic trysts, a restaurant whose menu has changed with the times, but has not fallen into kale, yak butter or pumpkin spice territory.

Michael McCarty does not follow the herd; he leads it. And he’s still setting the standard for casual elegance, in a restaurant that’s classic and classy, casual and contemporary, warm and inviting with a menu that, throughout time, has always featured top quality ingredients prepared deliciously.

McCarty not only helped launched the movement we now take for granted—seasonal California cuisine—but he hired a who’s who of rock star chefs before they were known.

Case in point: Nancy Silverton (Campanile, Mozza), Mark Peel (Campanile, Prawn), Sang Yoon (Father’s Office, Lukshon), former Chez Panisse chef Jonathan Waxman (New York’s Barbuto) and Brooke Williamson (Playa Provisions, Small Batch), a champion on TV’s Top Chef.

What’s amazing is how his latest young chef, Miles Thompson, fits in with this tradition as he completely revamped the menu.

Miles’s pedigree is impressive for a guy who’s not even 30 years old. He worked at world-renowned The Shed in Healdsburg, a roster of top L.A. hotspots including Nobu, Animal and Son of a Gun, and he ran his own restaurant, Allumette in Echo Park, named by Bon Appétit as one of 2013’s Best New Restaurants.

Keeping with one new trend, however, Michael’s now features smaller plates with creative flavor pairings.

And the wine list is curated by a down-to-earth sommelier (Roni, she’s new to the Westside and to L.A.) who not only pays close attention to enhancing the tastes on the plates, she also advances your knowledge of wine with some surprising choices.

I have never enjoyed texturally disgusting, rubbery, chewy, deep fried calamari. But I bravely took a taste of octopus, because of Miles’s renowned skill with this dish. His features lime curd, Thai chile and shrimp vinaigrette.

The balance between the sweet curd and the acidic vinaigrette helped each bite of this remarkably tender dish explode in my mouth.

If you’re a bread lover you mustn’t let your fear of gluten stop you from ordering the irresistible buckwheat sourdough bread with toasted barley butter. We only stopped after one order (plenty for two) because we had so many courses coming. It’s as perfect a bread as you’ll find at local artisanal bakeries.

Order the Hamachi collar. I had no idea what this was but it is actually the neck of this fatty fish, and it comes out looking quite crunchy.

We were fortunate enough to have Michael himself show us how to break it up and eat it – and eat it, we did, dressed with baba ganoush, honeydew melon and marjoram vinaigrette.

As far as small plates go, this one’s so big we had to take half of it home. The double-cut pork chop is served (for now—Michael’s is seasonal) with summer squash hash, tomatillo and pickled red onion.

See what I mean about Miles Thompson’s creative flavor pairings? The menu depends on what is at the market, and Miles’s experiments with ingredients we might not ever consider together. Go in expecting surprises and trust that they’ll work.

Not one but three somewhat “deconstructed” desserts later, we politely tapped our napkins to our mouths after indulging in whipped cheesecake, roasted barley pot-de-crème and hazelnut chocolate ganache. Total satiety.

Michael’s is a great place for holiday parties, so if you or your business are considering doing something special this year, the patio garden and restaurant can accommodate up to 350 people for receptions, 50 to 150 for dinner.

Or, if you anticipate a smaller crowd, the private Palisades room upstairs can handle groups of 10 to 75; and for very intimate gatherings, the Santa Monica room has a spacious round table that can accommodate 2 to 10 guests, with your own private outdoor terrace for cocktails or post-dinner nightcaps.

On a personal note, I want to acknowledge that Michael has been a generous supporter of the non-profit I am involved with, Food Forward (gleaning and harvesting for the hungry), as well as C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) and many others.

Michael’s is still located in its original setting, with stunning artwork everywhere (Michael is a collector with exquisite taste), just north of Wilshire on 2nd Street in Santa Monica. It’s a wonderful night out.

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