WINE bars are popping up all over the Southland like mushrooms after a rain shower. Santa Monica, usually so quick to adopt any trend, has been lagging behind, though. But with the opening of Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen on Wilshire Boulevard near 11th Street, the city by the sea gets a wine bar and a real restaurant all in one neat package.
Judging from the crowds inching their way up to the small bar, where you can order any of 20 wines by the glass from the list scrawled on a blackboard, something like this -- casual and up-to-date, with reasonably priced California cooking -- is long overdue.
The idea for the restaurant grew out of a series of dinner parties that a group of friends -- including the restaurant's owner, Josh Loeb -- held periodically at a house in Rustic Canyon. Loeb, who lists Capo on his resume, has tried to adopt some of the same warm and spontaneous spirit of those dinners in his new place. The servers are certainly in the groove: They're all friendly and accommodating to a fault.
The graphics are good to go too. There's a well-designed website where you can peruse the menu and wine list ahead of time, and servers are decked out in light brown T-shirts stenciled with the restaurant's logo: a tree in silhouette.
Loeb may want to rethink the bar area. The noise level is acute. And the space is simply too small for all the people who want to drop in for just a glass of wine, considering that it also has to hold the overflow of people waiting for a table. Getting one feels like a real achievement. You might prefer the front banquette or a table in the middle of the room over those swell-looking booths: They're almost too cozy, built for teeny-tiny people.
Start with something everybody at the table can nibble, namely the mixed Moroccan salad plate with chickpea puree, beautiful olives, roasted peppers and more, along with grilled flatbread and a dab of fiery, delicious harissa. Another option is the salumi plate, which features Fra' Mani's excellent handcrafted salame and some luscious Humboldt Fog goat cheese.
The kitchen turns out a particularly fine pan-roasted chicken (half a bird) served with roasted root vegetables and sauteed bitter greens from the farmers market. Other items in the comfort-food vein include braised short ribs with wild mushrooms and a very creamy polenta, or grilled flat iron steak with sauteed pea tendrils and a heap of excellent fries. I didn't get a chance to try the signature "cast iron" burger with apple-wood-smoked bacon and Point Reyes blue cheese because they were sold out for the evening. Maybe it's because it's a modest $14.
Don't skip over the sides because you'll find some good stuff here, like the wonderful pan-roasted Jerusalem artichokes or a yam and Gruyere cheese gratin.
In keeping with the wine-bar theme, Rustic Canyon offers a well-edited cheese plate. But for those who prefer to use the calories for dessert, Spanish rice pudding with a buried note of Valrhona chocolate is definitely the way to go.
Excitement about the new restaurant is high enough that reservations are advised unless you relish hanging in the bar sampling wines until something becomes available.
There's a lot to like about Rustic Canyon -- the wines, the food, the studiously nerdy and/or uber-trendy crowd.
Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen
Where: 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica
When: 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; bar open to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights. Beer and wine. Valet parking.
Price: Small plates and starters, $6 to $14; mains, $14 to $26; sides, $6 to $8; desserts, $8.
Info: (310) 393-7050, www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com