Enter the Proper Hotel, the new luxury lifestyle hotel on the corner of Wilshire and 7th Street, and you’ll immediately be impressed with the casually elegant lobby. Walk through and hop the elevator to the top floor; then experience the wow factor as the doors open onto Calabra, Santa Monica’s newest rooftop bar lounge, where you can expect farmers market fresh ingredients, not just on your plate but in your cocktail glass.
Pool adjacent but separated by a short breezeway, Calabra boasts spectacular views of the Santa Monica mountains and the city beyond, as well as ocean views. The circular center bar is surrounded by low-lying tables and cushioned chairs rimming the walls (if it’s too chilly, you’ll be handed a blanket!). The ambiance is “vibrant”— expect crowds of locals and hotel clients with a ratio, so far, of roughly 60 percent locals and 40 percent visitors. And it’s already popular; at 6 pm on a Wednesday night, the place was packed with people at the bar, the tables with a private party going on in the inside lounge.
It’s not a full dining restaurant – that’s coming soon downstairs, when renowned local chef Jessica Koslow (SQIRL) and Gabriela Camara (of the acclaimed Contramar Mexico City and Cala in San Francisco) team up to open Onda, due in September.
But if you make an early evening of it, just a few of the dishes on this elevated bar food menu will fill your tummy and tickle your taste buds. There’s a compact, but impressive menu of seasonal cocktail creations, packed with premium ingredients. I asked our waitress Amy to recommend one, and without hesitation she mentioned the Sandia Punch, a pastel pink glassful comprised of Angelisco Blanco tequila, Domingo mezcal and Aperol mixed with watermelon, parsley, fennel and cracked pepper.
It’s deceptively refreshing but be careful! This punch definitely packs a “punch.” Which didn’t stop me from ordering a delicious glass of Bonaccia ‘Molino del Piano’ wine 2013 vintage, a delicious Italian red (and at $27 a glass, definitely a top-dollar drink), to go with the rest of the dishes we ordered. Wine selections by the glass are highly curated and there are just a few to choose from. There’s a nice choice of beers as well.
The views across the city, the Santa Monica mountains and overlooking the ocean, make it worth riding up to Calabra for a beer or a drink. But stay for the food. It’s definitely upscale but very approachable.
Executive chef Kaleo Adams and his chef de cuisine Justin Abram have created a fresh farmers market array of “meze” (loosely speaking Mediterranean inspired appetizers), a selection of small plates and a few select mains. I was most impressed with the Beet and Walnut dish with lemon garlic cream and transparently thin slices of radish, served with grilled laffa, a middle eastern bread that’s chewier and thicker than pita, custom-made and cut into bite size pieces for every table. This irresistible combo made with roughly pureed raw beets and walnuts has a wonderfully smooth-crunchy texture, that creates both a tang and a sweetness, the perfect way to begin.
Next, we shared an outstanding dish from the small plates menu, Sweet Potato with jalapeño dill aioli, harissa pomegranate molasses and the piece de resistance, “burnt onion soil,” a pulverized gritty sprinkle atop the sauce that obviously isn’t “soil” but enhances the flavor and contrasts with the silky smooth texture of the potato.
Then we were treated to grilled shawarma baby corn, an absolute must if you come here. Shawarma is usually grilled and seasoned meat but the combination of spices elevated the crisp bite of the perfectly cooked baby corn, and dabs of a sweet, delicious corn pudding balanced the acidity of the aioli. There’s also a bit of spicy kick to this dish.
A plate of small, sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers, roasted and served with black garlic lime aioli, mint and pine nuts, is deceptively simple but the flavors linger on the tongue.
We needed some protein, so I ordered a main dish, Pork belly with mango Amba glaze (akin to chutney flavoring), herb tahina, dusted with fennel pollen sumac, and my dining companion looked to the small plates menu, choosing crispy salt and pepper prawns with lime and mint. Good sized shrimp, deep fried with tails and heads on, they were very fresh, succulent, not overly spiced with a great crunch.
If small plate menus make you worry that you won’t have enough to eat, trust me — we were already getting full by the time the third dish arrived, and had no room for dessert.
It’s not inexpensive but you could easily share two or three dishes, have a beer or a glass of wine and that’s all you’d really need for a satisfying evening; the views and sunset are priceless.
Calabra has been open for just over a month and it’s already caught on; stop by and see what the Proper Hotel group has done with this combination of a historic property and a newly constructed building with a good selection of dining choices.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.