Friday, August 6, 2010

Santa Monica Place: Truly a dining destination

The night before track meets in high school, my team and I would often meet up for dinner at Atrium Court, the food court at Fashion Island mall in Newport Beach. I enjoyed spending time with my friends, but I hated the ritual. Even back then I was notoriously particular about what I ate – especially before races – and I was never excited about any of the dining options available at the lackluster food court.

While my teammates gobbled down burritos from La Salsa, congealed slices of pizza and questionable sushi, I would inevitably get a plate of spaghetti with watery marinara sauce from Pasta Bravo. More often than not I’d sit there pushing the limp noodles around the plate thinking about what I could eat when I got home, while my friend Katie flicked pieces of wasabi at me.

Needless to say, I’ve avoided food courts (and mall dining in general) ever since.

With today’s grand opening of Santa Monica Place, a contemporary, upscale mall and dining destination next to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, I imagine that I’ll soon be changing my opinion about mall and food court dining. Not only does the completely revitalized space feature more desirable fast casual options like Pinches Tacos and made-to-order sushi, the third floor Dining Deck is also home to six chef-driven restaurants that I was lucky enough to sample during a hosted media event on Tuesday evening.

Each restaurant offers a unique experience to diners and, as such, are as much a reason to visit the glossy shopping center as the Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s department stores on the lower levels. At Xino, Chef Chris Yeo brings modern flare and flavors to classic Chinese cuisine. The clean, chic space with a beautiful view of the Promenade, will bring dim sum to the Westside with savory bites like the portabello and shiitake dumplings with truffle oil. On Tuesday night, I was also able to sample a delightful spoonful of tuna tartare and sashimi, and a Thai spice and lemongrass-marinated lamb chop with pumpkin risotto that floored me with its tenderness. The chop, that I ate like a popsicle, was my favorite bite of my culinary tour along the Dining Deck.

The Dining Deck also features two restaurants from Chef Richard Sandoval who has created an empire of successful Modern Mexican restaurants across the country. Zengo, an export from Washington DC, delightfully dabbles in Latin-Asian fusion cuisine with fun bites like Achiote-Hoisin Pork Arepas served on corn masa, and a messy, but satisfying Charred Tuna Wonton Taco with sushi rice, mango salsa and guacamole. I was also impressed with the samples from the larger plates on the menu – a silky Chipotle-Miso Glazed Black Cod over braised daikon and a robust Braised Beef Short Rib with Oaxaca cheese mashed potato. While Latin and Asian cuisines seem inherently at odds, they blend together beautifully here. I was sad to abandon the rest of the lemongrass panna cotta as we departed for our next dining location, Chef Richard Sandoval’s other restaurant on the Deck, La Sandía.

The menu at contemporary Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar is nothing I haven’t seen before at Border Grill, CASA and Red O, but the fashionable space fits into the scene on the Dining Deck nicely. Appetizers feature items like Pork Carnitas Sopes, Chicken Flautas, the standard tableside prepared guacamole, and a shockingly well-balanced and flavorful Rock Shrimp Ceviche with creamy-citrus habenero sauce. I would happily stop to savor this potent bite during a shopping trip to the mall.

I would also happily make a stop by Pizza Antica next door to La Sandía for a glass of Chianti, the burrata and spinach-topped bruschetta and a thin crust, Roman-style pie perfected in a wood-burning oven. The mozzarella is made in-house, and the dough is aged three days to achieve the perfect balance of crispiness and chewiness. While the margherita topped with a tangy tomato sauce and ribbons of fresh basil is a classic preparation, my heart beat fastest for the potato and truffle oil pie.

On nights when diners would prefer drinking their dinner, Sonoma Wine Garden is an oenophile’s dream. With over 70 wines available by the glass, as well as wines on tap, the wine bar and restaurant offers fatigued shoppers the perfect respite from the dressing room. At this juncture in our tour, I was more than ready to savor a glass of the 2007 Domaine Bruno Colin Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru Les Chenevottes from Burgundy. The lemony French Chardonnay is surprisingly light for the typically heavier white wine, and one I would certainly return for while nibbling on tender slices of jamon, and bread with an addictive red pepper cheese spread.

Of all six restaurants, I’d probably be least likely to return to Ozumo, a contemporary Japanese restaurant that caters to both sushi-lovers and sushi-snubbers. While I imagine the elegant space will be a boon for late night revelers, with so many other tantalizing options at the mall, I’d most likely gravitate toward Xino or Zengo for a nice meal on the Deck instead. I was only able to taste a couple of the rolls and vegetarian sashimi in the chic space, but while tasty, neither left me feeling compelled to dive deeper into the menu of sushi, sashimi, robata-yaki, hot pots, and other small plates.

Despite my preconceived notions and bad experiences with food courts in the past, Santa Monica Place has changed my perception of mall dining. Where I once dreaded meeting friends for an evening of tepid pasta and wasabi ball-dodging, I can imagine that in the months to come I will look forward to meals on the upscale Dining Deck. I might even be the one to suggest a restaurant there first – especially if it means I can stop by Ted Baker on the first level to find a new dress for the occasion.

Dining Deck at Santa Monica Place
395 Santa Monica Place
Santa Monica, CA, 90401

For additional coverage from my fellow tour mates, check out Caroline on Crack and LAist.


Lauren said...

oh my god yum. thank goodness i can finally eat some of this stuff. great pics, buddy!

Esi said...

Interesting concept to have chef driven restaurants there...however, I hate going down to that area. Not sure I'd brave the crowds if I could get similar food closer to home.

weezermonkey said...

This looks so promising!

Well, except for those xiao long bao. They looked sad and dry.

stuffycheaks said...

After reading your post, I am sooo excited to check out Xino (Chris Yeo is Singaporean yay! and Ive been to his restaurant in SF). Im just nervous about the crowds that SMP will draw.. I was at the Pier last night and the traffic was HORRIBLE, parking was all full. The Mall hadnt even opened yet! Sigh..

Diana said...

Lo - Me too! We definitely have to go back to Sonoma Wine Garden for some of their wines on tap. :)

Esi - I haven't had anything like Zengo's Latin-Asian fusion cuisine before. I definitely think some of those bites, as well as the eats at Xino are worth battling the crowds. Maybe it would be better trying on a week night?

Weez - Aww they were actually quite tasty! Very satisfing for a veggie-filled dumpling.

Stephanie - I am really excited to try the rest of Xino's menu after that lamb chop. It was crazy delicious. But I imagine you are right about the crowds... eek!

Sheila Viers said...

Yuuum. Can't wait to pop over there and check it out, especially Pizza Antica. :-) Might wait til things calm down a bit... its been a madhouse all around this area the past few days!!

Anna A. said...

whoa talf, slow down! i can't keep up with all your super fabulous eats. dang.

Sapphire said...

Don't even bother going to any of the resturants at the mall right now the lines are just outrageous and not worth the wait for overpriced meals. We went to Zengo because we were told thier was no wait, well that was a big fat lie and we had to stand around over the 15 minutes that was quoted to us even though there were plenty of empty tables, just not enough staff to serve the amount of people who came to vist the new mall opening. The menu was not very appealing at all and after we saw mexican food we had our hearts set on that so when the mexican resturan told us their sister resturant could take us we couldn't wait to go eat, intead we got to starve a little longer. The hamburger I ordered was not bad, though it was not worth the 15 bucks it cost either, I could have had a better meal at Carl's JR!! AUnt ordered steak, but they overcooked it and she could barely eat it but being hungry she just ate what she could. And don't even start me on the waitress we had, let's say she did not receive a tip and we will not be eating at this resturant again. We plan eating before coming to this mall maybe after awhile the food courts will be ok and we may try to eat at one of them. This mall has mainly high end shops so purchas-ing anything is out of the quest-
ion but looking and walking around
might be a good way to spend the afternoon. I recomend visiting the Fox Hills Mall, they have more to offer and Ihad no problems when I attended their grand opening.

nelehelen said...

It took forever for this place to finally open! But, sounds like it was worth the wait. My friend is working at Ozumo so I'll definitely be in to test them out. Maybe I can hit up all of them while I'm there? haha... I must be delusional. =P

Nichole said...

Went to Ozumo last night sooo yummy! The tempura was amazing and my husband enjoyed the kobe burger... my next stop La Sandia... Love this new dining deck!