Chef Nick Barainca has brought a whole new meaning to “pop-up” in Santa Monica.
Like his renovation of the term, at his month-and-a-half-old nighttime eatery “Gargantua,” ran out of OP Cafe on Ocean Park, he has been completely transforming the place every Thursday through Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
You might be familiar with the busy atmosphere and unbranded breakfast entrees at OP, but at Gargantua, the five-course taster menu, restyled aura and seasonal, local dishes have a composed character unlike most pop-up joints. That is why Barainca calls the place a “residency.” It’s more permanent, he says, as he plans to stay at OP until the end of the year. In a year from now, he sees Gargantua having its own location with taster menus for dinner, lunch and breakfast.
“Pop-up had its day,” Chef Nick said. “And I think people almost expect it to be not as polished, not as good, they already come in with that mindset of ‘Oh, we’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt,’ but we don’t want the mercy of the connotation of a pop-up.”
An amalgamation of Southern California’s finest organic staples, Gargantua offered pork toro from San Diego and black coffee from Ojai, since none of Chef Nick’s ingredients come from beyond Santa Barbara.
“I think for me and the world in general, this has how it’s been forever and we’ve gotten so far removed from what this region has to offer,” he said.
The five course taster menu changes frequently, and spontaneously. In the last week of June, the menu offered garlic bread, a sprouted grains and English peas plate and then sweet potatoes for it first three courses. Now, the sweet potatoes have been replaced by a “melon ceviche” dish with white corn cream and salted cucumber.
His appreciation for what locals have to offer goes beyond the food. All five courses are served on cazuelitas and other artisan ceramic dishes and bowls crafted by LA artist Delphine Lippens, creator of Humble Ceramics. Other clever interior design changes such as hanging, cloudy lights and tiny, circular candles give the place a subtle touch that differentiates it from its daytime persona while not being forced.
But for an “unassuming spot that serves food that’s more ambitious than its surroundings,” as Chef Nick describes it, Gargantua has not been receiving enough business. On the last Friday night of June, only two parties of guests were there.
Chef Nick said the restaurant’s lack of business is due to flakiness of potential guests. They recommend RSVPing online, which people do, but many cancel last-minute, apparently “a growing problem in Los Angeles,” according to Chef.
To solve this problem, he plans on charging those who cancel less than 24 hours in advance. The money kept will act as an IOU, and the customer who cancelled can come back at a different date.
But for those who don’t cancel last minute, Gargantua is a surprising solace from the usual business and impersonality of many LA restaurants.
Chef Nick talks to customers to get to know them and to answer questions about the menu, explaining that some of the items were sauteed or left cooking for over 48 hours in advance of being served. Of the two tables filled one night, one was a double date with one couple from Sherman Oaks and the other just around Gargantua’s corner.
Each one had a different favorite dish. One said the pork toro was one of the best he had ever had, the woman sitting next to him loved the grains and peas dish.
The diners praised Gargantua for having nice food with a casual atmosphere and being able to bring their own wine. They liked the secretive of the place, which makes visiting feel like getting into a club with a few select members. Still, they hope that doesn’t last for long since it means minimal business for the place.
Gargantua closed that night at around 10:15 p.m., a whole 45 minutes earlier than expected for the place, which states its closing time as 11 p.m. on its website. The team of four reverted the place back to its daytime character. More chairs and tables were brought inside the restaurant, each one now about two inches apart, giving it a crowded breakfast diner-cafe vibe. The Sweet n’ Low sugar packets and paper napkins went back on the tables and the tiny, annular candles came off. Light bulbs that dimly illuminated the restaurant, previously hanging from black rope on the ceiling, came down and the bright lights flickered black on.