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