"HAVE you ever actually eaten here?" I hear the wispy-voiced vamp ask her fellow vamp, as the two, dressed in sparkly, bare-shouldered gowns, sashay past our table for the umpteenth time.
"No, not really," she confesses.
And that's precisely the dilemma of Wilshire, a new Santa Monica restaurant. Word of mouth about the hyper-glamorous garden and outdoor bar are drawing a crowd more intent on hooking up or partying than savoring the chef's high-concept American cuisine. Oh, don't get me wrong, some serious diners have found their way to Wilshire too, mostly Westsiders thrilled to have someplace new to go for dinner. But the scene makers far outnumber the foodies. Trying to accommodate both must be positively crazy making.
Only Spago and possibly Table 8 seem to have pulled it off, really, without becoming hostage to their glamour index. And Santa Monica is desperate for something, anything, with a little sex appeal. Here it is, on the site of what used to be Knoll's Black Forest, a German restaurant that was homey to the point of dowdiness. Now it's a chic restaurant and lounge with a spacious walled garden anchored with a bar at the far end.
On a Friday night, I happen to arrive at Wilshire early. There's not an inch of space to stand at the indoor bar -- forget about sitting. I decide to wait for my friends out front.
It turns out to be highly amusing. I watch the babes pour in, teetering up the walkway on impossibly high heels, every one dressed alike, in satin-and-lace camisole tops (no wrap), their curves squeezed into narrow jeans with hems trailing. More and more arrive to a banging of car doors, so many that I'm beginning to worry if there can possibly be a table left inside. Wilshire is big, but not that big.
Out of the ordinary
WE'VE requested a table in the garden, which, as the snippy voice on the telephone explained when we made the reservation, cannot be guaranteed.
We don't get one. Nor even a table in the small posh dining room with antique mirrors and leather banquettes that looks onto the garden. Instead, we're shunted off to a back room, which truly is Siberia. At least it will be quiet, I think, as I follow the host around the bar, down a candle-lighted hallway to our table.
I'm wrong about the quiet. Though there are only 10 or so tables beneath a high ceiling hung with giant white Regency lanterns, the noise level is deafening. I pity the server who has to lean down to hear us order, shouting over the roar so we can hear her. It must be exhausting, yet she manages to come across as amiable and helpful. If I were ever seated at this table again on a weekend night, I'd turn tail and go home. At Wilshire, the garden's where it's at.
Chef Christopher Blobaum, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who was last chef at Surf and Sand Resort and Spa in Laguna Beach, is trying to do something solid with the food. With a commitment to organic produce and local farms, the menu is highly seasonal, changing frequently to reflect what's available in the farmers market.
In a restaurant landscape where menus all start to read the same, Blobaum has developed some unique dishes. How about crispy poached egg with baby purple artichokes, black-eyed peas and smoky bacon? As odd as it sounds, the contrast between the crisped golden breadcrumbs on the outside of the egg and the molten yolk, with the nutty artichokes and earthy peas, is beguiling. His duck confit salad isn't shredded duck, but the real thing, salty and moist, a large piece of duck perched on arugula strewn with persimmons and pistachios. And the September menu touted a calamari and watermelon salad with opal basil and the pickled watermelon rind.
Blobaum offers this year's must-have beet salad; the unusually tasty small red and gold beets from McGrath Farms he uses make all the difference. The jewel-like beets are dressed up with a soft fresh goat cheese, roasted hazelnuts and a honey vinaigrette.
In L.A., tuna tartare became a cliche years ago. Blobaum's is made with the more delicate yellowfin tuna as opposed to ahi, its flavor set off with avocado and mango. For those who have to have it, I suppose it's as good as any other around.
Among the more original appetizers are crispy sweetbreads on a bed of braised greens with orange segments. I like the fact that Blobaum hasn't covered the taste of the sweetbreads with a sauce. Right now there's a lovely red squash and Asian pear soup on the menu; it's garnished with pumpkin seeds and a raft of toast. He's resisted adding sugar to the puree (there's already the faint sweetness of the pear), and as a result, it's very pure in taste and very much of the season.