On rare occasions I am invited to dine at a restaurant that I think I already know and am blown away by how different it is than I originally thought. And so it was at the Inn of The Seventh Ray.

When our daughter was young (a long time ago) we owned a horse ranch with our cousins (who still live there) in Topanga Canyon. Across the street from our entrance was the Inn of the Seventh Ray, known in the community as a converted church bought by a couple of shrinks and serving weird food to weird people. Strange things like brown rice and organic vegetables.

That image was still in my mind when I was invited there last month. Boy was I surprised. First of all the place was redecorated into beautiful. The little stream was still running in the back, but there were a number of new rooms and seating areas, inside and outside, and a roaring fireplace on the cold afternoon we were there.

Intimate dining areas like this one make the Inn of the Seventh Ray a romantic place to dine. (Photo courtesy Google Images)

Intimate dining areas like this one make the Inn of the Seventh Ray a romantic place to dine. (Photo courtesy Google Images)

The menu was nothing like I expected. Yes there was warm brown rice, but it was flavored with avocado, dried sea vegetables, garlic chips, sesame seeds and other flavorings, making for a delicious dish. There were flatbreads and pastas. There were some expected dishes like pan seared salmon, but vastly improved with sautéed asparagus, truffle flavor, and lemon beurre noisette into something I would have expected at a high-end French restaurant.

I didn’t try many of the dishes, such as the bouchot mussels in white wine and garlic or the beef burger with heirloom tomato, onion, cheddar, organic ketchup and whole grain mustard. But I saw others eating some of them and was impressed with what I saw.

I did try the oven roasted turkey and artichoke panini with Brie cheese, basil, arugula and cranberry rosemary aioli, and I found the flavor combination to be unusually delicious. I tried a great pork belly, one of my favorite dishes anyway and very hard to find properly prepared — even in France. This one was lean with a lot of pork flavor, with a pumpkin sauce on the side and a maple glaze. I noticed the chef likes maple flavor, and it happens to be one of my favorite flavors. I suppose this should have tipped me off to where he was raised.

The grilled lamb sliders were not our favorite dish, but might appeal to some.

There was another of my favorite things: the Vietnamese barbecue short rib. This turned out to really be a pulled pork sandwich with the slight vinaigrette taste I like.

Don’t think I’ve described the entire menu. There is way too much for the limited space my editor gives me. There are soups, salads, cheeses; all eclectic and beautifully described on the menu.

Then there is a tempting desert menu — note the maple cheesecake — but I settled for the gingerbread and maple popcorn, which came with burnt cinnamon ice cream, hachiya persimmon and condensed milk caramel. I didn’t see all that stuff in the dish but it sure was good.  Unfortunately the coffee was not so good.

A separate drink menu contains lots of interesting drinks, including root beer, lemonades, almond milk — drinks that one doesn’t often see offered. And then there is an exceptional wine list, that is if you are a big spender.  The wine list is not oriented toward value, but toward offering very special and thus expensive selections you don’t often find. While normally I would find that objectionable, I don’t here. This is the kind of special place to come at a special time, when you are ready to relax and eat something very special. And that is the time to order that unique bottle of wine you would not normally spring for. This is one of the few places that deserves the name “romantic.”

And don’t be turned off by the number of negative reviews on the Internet. The restaurant will not appeal to everyone. First of all, they don’t get the same kind of staff as in the big city. Yes the service can sometimes be slow, and the staff doesn’t always know how to fix a problem.  But this is a place to slow down and relax. And the food is not what many might expect in this setting; it is much higher end and complex, and perhaps more expensive than some expect. I’m amused when I see posts on the Internet complaining about the parking. Yes you actually have to park the car yourself and walk down the stairs!

Chef Bradley Miller's 48-hour lamb belly dish, so named because the lamb marinates for 48 hours. (Jared Iorio editor@smdp.com)

Chef Bradley Miller’s 48-hour lamb belly dish, so named because the lamb marinates for 48 hours. (Jared Iorio editor@smdp.com)

Having been so extraordinarily impressed with the food, I had to find out more about the chef. That too turned out to be a surprise. Here we were in the backwoods village — if that — of Topanga, in the middle of a bunch of horse ranches. Who is this Bradley Miller and where did he come from? Surprise, he comes from Ottowa, Ill., very near my home town. We were both raised a few miles from one another, and his family probably knew my Uncle Abe. More to the point, he worked at Patina restaurant, which I consider the best restaurant in Los Angeles.

It was a day of surprises, and a culinary experience I will remember with pleasure.

If you go

Inn of the Seventh Ray

128 Old Topanga Canyon Rd

Topanga, Calif.

90290

(310) 455-1311

www.innoftheseventhray.com/

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 mervynhecht@yahoo.com.