Intent on saving money while eating out, I’m always looking for bargains. So when I heard that Josiah Citrin of Melisse was operating the kitchen at a new hot restaurant, and that we could get the same great cooking at half the price of Melisse, I naturally rushed over to Caché to enjoy those benefits.

When I couldn’t find a parking place and finally drove up to the valet parking and saw a sign announcing an $8 charge, I was not happy. That is what I expected to pay for my main course! And when I walked toward the restaurant entry and saw a security guard, with a sign saying “24 hour security,” I was concerned at how much that might add to the bill, and I also realized that I better not forget to pay the bill!

But then I entered the restaurant and was greeted by two tall, friendly blond young ladies with big smiles, and that put me in a better mood. While they seated Harvey and my wife, I took a walk through the restaurant.

What a beautiful spot. An outside garden area centers on a fire pit. An indoor-outdoor hallway leads to a small, lovely indoor dining room, with a double-sided bar at the entrance that was full of fun loving drinking folks. In the middle of the hallway the open kitchen sits behind a few tables. Everything looked very inviting from where we were seated, which was in a grotto-like open/covered area with stone walls. Our table was pleasant and comfortable. Since the seating is so spread out, one doesn’t feel crowded.

The next good thing that happened: Tony Trincanello showed up to say hello and explained that he left the Penthouse and was now the general manager at Caché. That’s a plus because he’s a good manager and knows wine well. Just about then some delicious bread showed up, followed by menus.

Well, the prices are less than Melisse, but not like I’d hoped. Bonnie ordered the pork chop, I ordered the tea smoked ahi tuna, and Harvey ordered mussels. We also ordered the sautéed calamari appetizer, the special spring truffle risotto ($30) and one flatbread.

Every dish except the risotto was excellent. The calamari was much better than the breaded version served in Italian restaurants. The flatbread was as good as I’ve ever had, and is destined to be the star of the restaurant. The mussels were just right. The very tender Kubata pork chop served with a sweet pineapple relish pleased my wife Bonnie as she likes everything sweet. I ordered the tea smoked tuna because I’ve tried a number of times to prepare this dish at home, and I can never get any tea smoke flavor into the fish. I felt vindicated as Josiah couldn’t either, but the tuna itself was delicious despite the lack of the smoky flavor.

French trained chefs don’t seem to know how to make risotto. This one lacked the intensity that comes from reduction into a slightly sticky rice texture. And the black truffles, while plentiful, didn’t have much flavor, which was not compensated for by any mushroom flavor in the base.

We drank one of the few inexpensive wines on the list, a white blend of Viognier and Semmillon for $27, and a glass of red cabernet franc ($13). Both were very delicious. Unfortunately when they reduced the prices of the food, they did not reduce the prices on the wine list, and — like so many other restaurants in Santa Monica — there are plenty of wines if you pay between $50-$200, but very few wines for those of us who like to drink bottles in the $24-$36 range. Paying $6 to $9 a person for everyday wine seems like a reasonable expectation, but apparently that is not so in Santa Monica right now — except at Santa Monica Seafood.

That said, the total bill was about $60 per person, just about half of what I paid for dinner last time we ate at Melisse. So the rumor was true — compared to Melisse this was a bargain.

We skipped desert from an uninteresting list, and just sat there enjoying the surroundings after dinner. A group of very handsome young people came in around 9 p.m. and ordered beers and flatbreads. They had, I think, already discovered the very best the restaurant offers.

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.

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