(Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles…)
TABLES lined up along the windows at One Pico offer not only an ocean view, but also a glimpse of Santa Monica's glitzy new Ferris wheel. Its complex computer system dials out the colors, changing light patterns the way a kaleidoscope does when the barrel is turned. In the foreground, palms nod their shaggy heads in the breeze, and the sand below is dimpled with hundreds of footsteps. Joggers streak down the beach as the waiter in a fitted vest pours glasses of Guigal Viognier from northern Rhone.
Something is different about the restaurant in Shutters on the Beach hotel in Santa Monica, and it's not just the reasonable wine prices or the interesting selection. To celebrate the iconic beach hotel's 15th anniversary, One Pico has undergone a much-needed makeover. And the powers that be have had the good sense not to go for a trendy restaurant-slash-lounge, but a comfortable and casual place with an updated California menu that emphasizes simplicity over complication, seasonal ingredients over the pricey and precious. It's a strategy that's bringing in locals along with summer's hotel guests.
Menu prices seem almost moderate for such a high-end hotel. The menu from executive chef Michael Reardon is atypical too. It's smart because it's not too fussy. The food sounds uncomplicated and delicious, very much in the California-Italian vein. If you're just in from Sydney or Shanghai, do you really want to dress for dinner at a formal restaurant serving extremely rich and elaborate dishes? The Tim Zagats and John Marianis of this world may be game, but I'm betting most jet-lagged travelers would rather wander into the lobby, sip an aperitif in front of the sunset, and then go into dinner for some handmade ravioli or spit-roasted seafood.
THe MENU isn't the only thing at One Pico that got a makeover: So did the room. Shutters is 15 years old this year, and the dining room was very much in need of a makeover. Enter designer Michael S. Smith, who has graced many a shelter magazine and is author of "Elements of Style." He has given the restaurant a lovely and understated update. Blue and gray boat hulls weathered to a vestige of their original color hang overhead. He's installed brass-trimmed lanterns and hung pale seascapes. Beach grasses are planted in the window boxes. The effect is genteel beach resort, relaxed and casual.
Once we sit down, I immediately notice the luxuriousness of the blue- and natural-striped linen napkins and the blue herringbone linen tablecloth. When so many restaurants have gone to bare tables and place mats, it's almost startling to see real linen. Service is crisp, and servers, at least on the nights I was there, aren't plaguing the table with water refills every two seconds. They also know how to pour wine without overfilling the glass.
We watch the sun go as we wait for our first courses. Grilled octopus arrives slightly charred and chewy but tender, served with a warm smashed potato salad drizzled with olive oil and a little vinegar. A warm Pecorino (sheep's milk cheese) flan has a fragile, custard-like texture. I like it just as it is, without the tomato sauce alongside it on the plate, but it's there if you want it. Fritti misti is a bouquet of beautifully fried calamari, clams, asparagus, artichoke and other vegetables. It's such a delightful way to start a meal, I always order one for the table with that first glass of wine.
A light seafood salad of steamed clams, rosy prawns, rings of calamari and bites of lobster drenched in citrus gets a California twist with the addition of grassy ripe avocado. Huge white beans are paired with grilled shrimp for another summery salad that includes young arugula and a squeeze of lemon. Crisp hearts of romaine are flecked with anchovy to make a respectable Caesar. The original, of course, had no anchovies, but it's part of the tradition here in L.A. But this one could use a jolt of garlic.
The fish menu sounds wonderful, given that Southern California doesn't have that many local fish. So the fish proposed are Mediterranean sea bass and snapper, Alaskan halibut, John Dory and petrale sole, all very straightforward preparations like you'd get at a seaside resort in Viareggio in northern Tuscany or the Cote d'Azur. Which is just how you want to eat fish in summer.
MoST ARE grilled, sometimes whole, or spit-roasted. Some are served plain (you can order sides). But the beautiful piece of halibut, for example, comes with roasted artichokes, porcini mushrooms and celery. The kitchen, though, has a tendency to overcook the fish, not in a major way, but enough that, if you like your fish on the rarer side, you're left wishing you'd specified how you'd like it. But what's not to like about a piece of John Dory simply grilled and seasoned with lemon and thyme? Or a spit-roasted Mediterranean snapper? You want to taste the fish, not a sauce.