PICO BOULEVARD runs west, straight to the sea, and just at the end, as you approach Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, a swatch of gray-blue waves shimmers like silk between two posh hotels, Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar.
In front of the latter, bellmen and valets are busy with new arrivals and departing guests, but we're interested in a different kind of traveler, chef Michael Reardon. The one-time executive chef for Tra Vigne in Napa Valley has just moved from Casa del Mar's sister property in Santa Barbara, the Hotel Andalucia, to head up the kitchen at Oceanfront, the hotel's restaurant.
Inside, a wrought-iron staircase sweeps up to the hotel lounge, which feels like the grand salon of an elegant oceangoing vessel because of its size and the bank of windows overlooking the ocean at the end of the room.
On some nights the lounge can look like a speed-dating convention with hordes of singles claiming the overstuffed sofas and armchairs grouped in front of fireplaces, knocking back premium tequila or nursing cocktails. Those who want a real sit-down dinner bypass the lounge in favor of a table at Oceanfront.
We're early and decide to wait in the bar for the last of our party. I'm enjoying the quiet moment, desultorily taking in the scene, when I notice an older gentleman hurry over to someone at the bar to tell him his table is ready. On the way back, he recognizes one of my guests, and remembers his name -- despite the fact that it's been something like eight years since my friend was a regular at the Grill in Beverly Hills where the gentleman in question, Allan Ludwig, was a maitre d'.
That's an impressive feat of memory. It also means that the dining room is in good hands.
Our table, it seems, is also ready. And it's a great one, positioned squarely in front of that ocean view. The tall French windows are cracked open just enough to let in a faint salt tang and the gentlest of breezes, barely a tickle really.
Outside, pleated palm fronds are splayed against the sky, slicing the view into slivers of blue and tan. In silhouette, body surfers ride a wave; the athletically inclined jog by while others sit in the sand and stare at the sea as the water reflects the gold and rose of the sky and then slips deeper into indigo.
Our waiter, a veteran from the old Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills, fusses over us without ever intruding. He pours water, hands us the menu with a flourish, uncorks the wine, and suggests it needs a bit more chill, which it does. And as we take a long, cool sip of Sauvignon Blanc, we begin to unwind.
It's a beautiful room, with tall ceilings and light from the windows spilling across the terra-cotta floor. Dark rattan armchairs and potted palms reinforce the sense of the tropics. It's also one of the few restaurants I know where, if you have a corner table, especially, it's quiet enough to talk, but not so quiet that everyone hears your business.
Chef Reardon's menu is one that reflects the seasons. For a California restaurant, that would seem to be self-evident, but not every local chef cooks summer food in the middle of a heat wave, as I've found out these last few weeks. Reardon has a number of light, refreshing dishes that suit the temperature.
CRUDO, raw seafood Italian style, is very fashionable now at progressive restaurants around the country, but the quality of the fish has to be, if anything, even more impeccable than sushi since there's nothing as strong as wasabi in the Italian flavor profile.
Oceanfront's trio of crudo makes a delightful, and very light, first course. It's three bites, really, served on a rectangular slump-glass plate that mimics a slab of ice. The selection changes every day, but it could include an oyster, hamachi garnished with a slice of chile, and a sliver of toro or tuna. Or, you could order the hamachi sashimi with sea beans -- a slightly salty vegetable from the sea, and a splash of mild-mannered soy and aged sherry vinegar.
In the mood for something with more punchy flavors? Try the sea scallops with clams and pureed fava beans. I like the sweetness of the scallops against the briny clams and the bright green of the favas.
The chef has a nice way with vegetables, taking advantage of the farmers market and specialty produce purveyors. Baby red and green romaine is tossed in a gentle, roasted garlic dressing. And asparagus, ramp and morels go into a ragout with gnocchi that are, on the occasion I try them, a bit gummy.
I've had seared bluefin tuna a couple of different ways, once with white beans and cherry tomatoes in a parsley jus and more recently with hearts of palm and watermelon. It sounds odd, but the sweet, watery taste of the watermelon and the juicy crunch of the hearts of palm with the rare sushi-grade tuna make for an interesting combination.