OCEAN AVE — Saying that Chef Keith Roberts has a difficult job to do is quite the understatement.

Not only is he responsible for running a $10 million culinary operation for Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, catering to the sophisticated business traveler as well as the demanding bride to be, but he also has to please picky, pre-teen eaters and their parents, who may not necessarily be looking for an expensive, fine-dining experience but do appreciate quality cuisine.

That’s why Roberts, a 30-year-veteran who studied under legendary French Chef Andre Moreau for more than seven years at The Rive Gauche in Palos Verdes where he mastered true Escoffier-style cooking, has created a menu that features accessible, fun dishes that are flavorful and fresh.

Roberts does this by relying on local farmers, including his own collection of exotic trees, incorporating fresh fruit into recipes either through mouth-watering dipping sauces (mango-habanero and pomegranate-red wine vinegar reduction) or finishing touches, such as the melon balls he served along with a honey-walnut shrimp dish that one would normally see in Asian restaurants.

That was one of the many dishes Roberts prepared for me and a friend last week during dinner at the hotel’s seaside restaurant, Ocean & Vine. I had a chance to sample some of Roberts’ dishes, chat with him about his plans for the restaurant, including his desire to add a California-fusion style sushi bar, and sip some fine California merlot.

“We have a commitment to using the freshest, top quality ingredients and try to have a lot of fun with them,” said Roberts, a friendly, good-natured native of Manhattan Beach who as a child would visit hotels with his father so he could watch the cooks prepare meals. “As a hotel, we have to cater to the moms and dads, too. This will not be quite as exotic as some of the other places in town. It’s simple food with an emphasis on freshness.”

The restaurant and lounge feature warm earth tones and plush couches surrounding a modern, metallic fireplace, allowing guests of the hotel or those stopping by for a drink after work to soak in sensational views of the Santa Monica Bay and the world famous Santa Monica Pier.

The hostess and server were polite, attentive and knowledgeable about the menu, which is a must when dining with my guest, who is very inquisitive when it comes to her food, asking questions about where the fish was caught or if it was farmed, for example.

The wine list was extensive but leaned heavily toward California varieties (Sonoma, Napa and Russian River). There were some New Zealand vintages available by the glass, a German Riesling and French Champagnes.

Roberts characterized the menu as “understated, yet imaginative.” His inventive approach celebrates a truly regional style that takes full use of California’s skilled farmers, fishermen and artisans. The result is an approachable menu designed to still surprise and delight with unusual flavor combinations, including brulee scallop carpaccio, lobster lasagna, and mango apricot cobbler with chai tea ice cream and macadamia nut brittle.

Roberts started us off with an amuse-bouche of ceviche made with fresh, raw chunks of tuna topped with cilantro, pico de gallo and lime, resting on crunchy, fried tortilla. This definitely rocked the taste buds and started off the culinary adventure on the right foot.

I followed that up with one of the best dishes I’ve tasted while dining out in Santa Monica — the chili. A hold-over from the previous menu, the Santa Monica Chili, as it is labeled in the menu, is really more of a bouillabaisse that contained scallops, shrimp and crab meat in a savory broth with a dash of red chili flakes for spice. My date and I devoured this offering and pledged to come back on another occasion for seconds and thirds. This chili is truly a must-have for those who love gumbos, soups or stews. It really captures Santa Monica’s beach vibe.

Speaking of capturing Santa Monica’s vibe, in a city with four Farmers’ Markets each week you would have to expect Roberts to have a green thumb. Aside from growing his own fruit in his backyard with his wife, Roberts intends on creating a mini-garden adjacent to the kitchen. The garden will feature traditional varieties, including lemon verbena, thyme, rosemary and oregano, as well as the more exotic miracle fruit, sugar-apple, dragon fruit and jaboticaba. The organic ingredients will be used to create savory cocktails, edible garnishes and signature jellies and jams, including cape gooseberry preserves and dragon fruit jelly.

For my main course, I ordered a full rack of lamb that came with some of the best prepared chard and spinach I’ve ever had. Usually, when I cook chard, I have to add a lot of butter and some pieces of bacon to cut down on the bitterness. Roberts keeps it simple, using lemon and a little salt and butter to create a truly tangy experience that had my tongue quivering. The lamb was perfectly prepared with a nice red coloring in the center and a thin crust on the outside that brought out the flavor of the meat. The pomegranate dipping sauce gave it a kick, but I didn’t need it. I ate the whole rack pretty much without sauce because the meat tasted so good on its own.

To finish it off, we ordered the banana split, an adventurous dish in that the banana, flambayed with some sugar, was topped with what seemed like mountains of chocolate and vanilla ice cream and freshly-made whipped cream and berries. Describing the dessert wouldn’t do it justice. You have to indulge personally. Let’s just say that even though we were full, we still managed to eat every last bite.

The menu is comparable to other hotel offerings, around $15 for an appetizer and $30 on average for an entree with wine around $10 to $14 a glass.

It was a relaxing, fun evening and Roberts is a delightful person to share a meal with. He has the talent and the experience to carry out his vision and he is sure to please many picky eaters and their parents. Those looking for a little more sophistication, which I often find is more pretentiousness than anything, Ocean & Vine is not your spot. But for those of us who want to feel comfortable and relax with good company while we eat, it has everything you need for a fun evening out.

kevinh@smdp.com

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