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A Different Take

The Fourth Remake of a Handsome Santa Monica Space Could Be the One With Staying Power

June 16, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

The space at 1413 5th Street is one of the best-looking in all of Santa Monica, or the whole L.A. area for that matter, yet no restaurant has been able to make a go of it for long.

Did anybody ever try good food?

Yes, John Sedlar--twice. The provocative chef spent extravagantly to create the innovative, upscale Bikini, only to close as a result of setbacks from the Northridge earthquake in 1994. He came back with the more moderately priced Abiquiu. It only lasted a year or so, but I'm still dreaming about his sweet corn souffle. Brilliant chef, impractical businessman.

Entrepreneur Will Karges then put his stamp on the site, envisioning the Rat Pack revisited. Steaks and martinis and limos full of babes drew an aggressive young crowd, but the constant backbeat of live music on the rooftop patio riled the neighbors. Rix, too, did not last. Once the buzz wore off, the trend-seekers sped on to the next new thing.

Now Jeff Peterson, who also owns Geoffrey's in Malibu, has given the handsome space a slightly new look. At the new all-American Union Restaurant and Bar, the tall, double-story windows are framed by formal pleated drapes, and a new water feature, a steel sculpture, hovers overhead, water coursing down the sides of its metal wings. It's interesting to note that Union's remodeling cost was just slightly more than the Derek Orr water sculpture originally installed for Bikini. Sedlar had built a second full kitchen on the second floor to serve diners there, but Peterson has removed some of the upstairs tables and created a lounge area to make the restaurant more intimate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 14, 2002 Home Edition Times Sunday Magazine Part ..PG: 4 Page 4 ..CF: Y 23 inches; 842 words Type of Material: Correction
The photographs that appeared with the review of Union Restaurant and Bar (June 16) should have been credited to Shana Cassidy.

In the nearly five months the restaurant has been open, life at the upstairs bar, which opens out on the rooftop patio, has gradually picked up. But manager Chuck Craig, former maitre d' at Spago, doesn't want to emphasize the bar scene, which includes a mesmerizing aquarium populated with junior jellyfish. The plan is to make Union known more as a restaurant, and it has a supper club feel. Cool jazz recordings--Stan Getz, Diana Krall, Shirley Horn and John Coltrane--play in the background. Yet the noise level is low enough that diners can easily converse.

Union's chef is James Grey, one of the best cooks to go through the revolving door of Les Deux Cafes in Hollywood. His instincts there were in the right place--great ingredients, simple French cooking--but his abilities didn't always equal his ambitions. Here he's cooking American and, for the most part, doing a good job of it.

As a starter, there's a delightful corn chowder that tastes of sweet corn and Yukon gold potatoes, with an occasional nugget of littleneck clam. A smooth butternut squash puree is more than just another innocuous vegetable puree. A pretty butter lettuce salad is showered with shallots and tarragon--and a sharp dose of red wine vinegar. Baby back ribs, listed as an appetizer, are covered in a smoky, subtly hot sauce as thick as chocolate. Santa Barbara mussels steamed with white wine and shallots revel in a swirl of cream, though sometimes these local mollusks can have a strong, funky flavor. Grey gives shrimp cocktail a Southwestern spin with a cocktail sauce that includes lime, cilantro and avocado.

Those are the highlights. An interesting-sounding blue cheese tart with caramelized onions misses entirely in terms of texture and flavor. A ruddy shrimp bisque, while technically difficult to make, tastes more of roasted shrimp and tomatoes than shrimp.

I'm pleased to see trout on the menu but wish it were served whole. Dusted in cornmeal and sauteed in oil, the delicate freshwater fish is crisp and golden, strewn with toasted hazelnuts. I like his moist Atlantic blackened salmon on a bed of Southern-style greens, too. One night a filet of rosy coral char is snuggled into a creamy brandade surrounded by a fresh pea sauce dotted with fava beans and green peas the size of freshwater pearls. It's the essence of spring.

You can't go wrong with the rack of lamb, although medium rare seems to mean rare in this kitchen. It's served with a plucky parsnip puree, a fine gratin of potatoes and a honey lavender jus that tastes very little of lavender. A remarkably thick grilled pork chop, a special, is cooked to a juicy pink, but no Southerner will recognize the wrongheaded "dirty" rice, which is more rice with a meat reduction and nubs of pork. Short ribs, that newly popular item around town, are disappointing. Somehow all the flavor has been leached out of the beef in the braising.

As any Santa Monica chef worth his mettle, Grey shops the farmers market there, bringing back fresh greens, root vegetables such as parsnip or rutabaga, and the much- maligned Brussels sprouts, which he cooks with applewood smoked bacon. Those short ribs, for example, are garnished not only with baby carrots but also red and gold beets--and purple Peruvian potatoes.

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