A Pacific Coast Highway location, how wonderful. Except there are locations and there are locations. This particular one is haunted by the ghost of Les Anges, which for years tried to push nouvelle cuisine here into the depths of Santa Monica Canyon. It has all the PCH parking problems plus near-invisibility from the street and no view.
However, it's a restaurant again, and really a lighter, pleasanter place than Les Anges was, with a display kitchen and walls of muted peach. Though its name, PCH Grill, doesn't offer much much of a clue, it's an Italian restaurant--this is the season of Italian restaurants.
At first glance, the menu looks like any Westside Italian menu, except for maybe a lack of carpaccio and pizzas. You feel the lack of pizzas. The bread looks like thick focaccia , the kind you expect from a pizza oven, but it's the most disappointing thing in the restaurant, with neither the chewy texture nor the rich bread flavor of focaccia : a dull bun, a stale starch sponge.
However, things look up early on. The antipasto display often has very good things, say, four kinds of Italian sausage, thin grilled slices of eggplant and squashes, maybe some veal in tuna sauce or salmon in endive. The salads are vigorously dosed with cheese: insalata tricolore with Roquefort, the endive salad with sharp goat cheese. The same appetizing goat cheese gets wrapped up in grilled eggplant slices as involtini di melanzane .
The menu is set up for a pasta/risotto course followed by a meat course, though naturally you don't have to have both. In fact, the pastas and risottos tend to be the best things on the menu. The tortelloni , with a dense, dark spinach filling, come in sauce of cream juiced up with chunks of asparagus. Ziti have a peppery tomato sauce, fusilli a lively one of chunks of raw tomato ("filets of tomato," in our current jargon).
The pastas tend to be aggressively al dente . This tendency even seems to extend to the risottos, where the rice is distinctly grainy. The risottos are uniformly rich and comforting, anyway, with flavorings such as asparagus and saffron or peas and ham.
The meat and fish entrees are relatively casual, nowhere near as subtle and varied as the pastas. You can get a big (though not thick) veal chop in a thin meat reduction flavored with green peppercorns, or a garlicky roasted chicken, or a special grilled fish in a sauce that is simply vinaigrette with some more of those famous filets of tomato. The best meat dish is definitely the grilled beefsteak, which is sliced, sprinkled with thyme and served with a hash of sweet peppers, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms.
Dessert is not the reason to come, though the chocolate tart is good and chocolatey; it tastes like a brownie with the texture of a chocolate soft center. The raspberry sauce, not an excessively tart model, is particularly successful with the chocolate. For non-addicts, the best dessert might be the arrestingly sharp lemon tart. The apple tart tends to be a bit dry, and the tirami su on the bland side.
They say that on windy nights you can still hear the ghost of Les Anges at this corner, making eerie whistlings in the rafters that sound for all the world like ". . . in sea urchin sauce . . . garnished with crayfish . . . baby vegetables . . . la mort au chocolaaaat . . . ." There are locations and there are locations, and I wish PCH Grill, this basically worthy little restaurant with its particularly good pastas, the best of luck on those windy nights.
PCH Grill, 14809 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica; (213) 454-3939. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking on Entrada Drive. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $37 - $65.