By Invitation. Punch Grill. There's No Place Like Home. Santa Monica, CA.

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No matter where I find myself living at any point in my life I usually claim one of these special spots. Whether through my parents’ frequent visits, a friend’s introduction or my own accidental discovery, I’ve always managed to adopt a local restaurant as my neighborhood joint, a home away from home, an eatery where everything feels just so and I feel welcomed. They’re the kind of places where one implies ownership by calling the restaurant mine or ours. This sense of ownership, perhaps, might be the greatest tribute one can pay to an eatery. In a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles where anyone can feel small and lost, having a restaurant that feels like home or is a close enough approximation to one’s ideal of home is nothing short of miraculous.

When my family first immigrated to the United States and settled in LA’s Chinatown, we were fortunate enough to live near a really good restaurant. Whenever Momma was too tired to cook, my father would gather everyone together and we’d all stroll to the corner noodle house for steaming bowls of won-ton noodle soup with stout brisket chunks and bobbing bits of tender tendon. Back then only a few places could offer new Chinese immigrants a precious and authentic taste of home. The Mayflower Restaurant was one of them. Our little neighborhood noodle house was a no frills kind of place where any torn vinyl on the booths is patched up with glossy gray duct tape. Our usual table had a precarious tower of Coca Cola and 7 Up teetering next to it. There was always some fruit offering to Buddha and maybe incense burning next to the cash register. The unisex bathroom was to be avoided before eating and was home to many unidentifiable stains. If LA County’s restaurant hygiene grading system was in effect at the time, The Mayflower surely would’ve saw a big, fat, red “C” hanging by the entrance. (That “C” wouldn’t have stood for “Chinese” either.) Regardless, the place pretty much reminded us of home. This explains why we rarely had guests over.

When I lived in Santa Monica two years ago, another Chinese restaurant would become my chummy neighborhood fill-up station. The now defunct Royal Star Seafood was one of only two dim sum options on Los Angeles’s west side at the time. Having Royal Star in the neighborhood meant that I didn’t have to subject myself to the haphazard hazards of the 10 freeway or endure the typical dim sum restaurant’s hour plus seating list just for a sniff of har gow. Believe it or not, sometimes I’d even walk to Royal Star. Most importantly, at my restaurant, I wasn’t just another number scrawled onto a scrap of paper. I was a face with a name and the folks at Royal Star could place both.

Entering the Punch Grill on Wilshire Boulevard at Berkeley Street in Santa Monica, I couldn’t help but notice the dramatic transformation from my favorite best kept Westside dim sum secret, Royal Star Seafood, to the sharply appointed “American Classic” restaurant it has become. Glancing around the new place, I felt woeful that my little dim sum parlor had shuttered its doors and lamented the idea that, perhaps, “the best kept secret” part of Royal Star is what had ruined it. However, it didn’t take very long for me to go through the various stages of grief as I soaked in the new environs of this warm and stylish restaurant.

Though the décor is slightly outdated (namely the faux finishing on the columns and beams), the dining room still manages to be mostly contemporary yet cozy. A fleet of plasmas clings to the walls lining the lounge ensuring pristine HD views of any televised sporting event during Punch Grill’s sports nights. On Fridays and Saturdays the scene changes up from sports to jazz. The evening I was there a female vocalist, accompanied by her pianist, crooned her way through a selection of appetizing jazz standards. Along with the music, the clinking of silverware, the tinkling of glasses, the inviting murmur of dining room conversations and the occasional underscoring laughter all harmonized to create Punch Grill’s dinner soundtrack. This is the kind of dining scene I think of when I recall meals I’ve enjoyed in towns like San Francisco, Chicago and Manhattan. It was sophisticated without being stuffy. The clientele appeared to reflect this attitude as well.

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Sizzle.

The appetizer section of the dinner menu leaned towards seafood so we opted for one of the seafood choices—the Skillet of Roasted Mussels. The sizzling iron skillet was brought out heaped with enormous and plump Prince Edward Island mussels that were pan roasted with garlic butter and gremolata. These mussels literally were bursting at the seams and exploded with mainly garlic flavor. I love garlic like nothing else, and this starter was an homage to “the stinking rose”, from the cooking fat to the seasoning and, lastly, the garlic butter dipping sauce. Sometimes roasted mussels disappoint because they’re overcooked and turn rubbery and dry. Not so with these mussels, every one of the bloated bivalves were delightfully juicy. They were shell lickin’ good, which is precisely what I did. After all, I felt like I was at home (plus, the high booths give enough privacy for such familiar behavior).

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Grooey & garlicky.

Next the roiling ramekin of Spinach Artichoke Fondue with Gruyere Cheese was presented. Very hot, very cheesy and very garlicky. Intermittent hints of spinach and artichoke managed somehow to sneak their way past the dominant garlic flavor. This was a tasty plate. The oral delivery vehicle for the fondue was the garlic crostini. It was creamy garlic meets crunchy garlic. Did I mention this dish was garlicky? How about a kiss?

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Uptown chili.

What I feared would be a gimmicky appetizer, the Filet Mignon Garlic Chili with Cheddar Cheese, Onions and Crostini, turned out to be the appetizer I couldn’t stop eating. If you love chili, this hearty bouquet of tart, sweet and spicy heat is near perfection. This chili is so robust and substantial it eats more like a stew. The prime chunks of filet mignon are exquisitely tender and melt with each bite. There are beans in this chili and they nicely round out the textures and flavors of all the components. This isn’t just a fancy pants version of chili; it’s simply what excellent chili should be.

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C-YEOW!-pino.

Our first entrée was the much anticipated cioppino. Punch Grill’s Southern Style Spicy Cioppino is not to be confused with the more common North Beach variety. You’d be in for a fiery surprise if you did. The very spicy, tomato based broth was pregnant with clams, mussels, whitefish and calamari. Although teeming with quality ingredients, I found this version of cioppino much too spicy, but my wife enjoyed it just the way it was. She is half-Italian after all.

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So-so buco.

When the night's dinner special Lamb Shank Osso Buco arrived, my eyes were the first to feast. It was a picture perfect lamb osso buco. The meat was beautifully browned and moist, the bone glistened and the rosemary garnish jutted. Osso buco translates literally to “bone hole”. (Heh,heh. Dude, you said "bone hole.") The bone hole is where the divine marrow lives, and the marrow is what helps enhance the meat’s flavor. Despite its dead sexy good looks, there was much to be desired, like flavor. If only this mild lamb had the same generous application of garlic that the other dishes enjoyed, it would’ve been picture and flavor perfect. And, although the meat was fork tender, it was still a bit on the dry side.

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The Burger King.

Our server Kate was very excited when we ordered the Lamb and Feta Cheese Burger. In fact she gave us a tip on how to actually maximize the burger’s flavor. The waitress giving the customer the tip for a change. This ought to be good. She recommended that we request extra feta cheese to be tossed on top of the lamb burger. Since the normal preparation has the feta worked into the ground lamb, much of the cheese’s scrumptiously odoriferous and pungent characteristics becomes diluted. So topping off the lamb burger with a handful of feta crumbles really puts the feta back into the lamb and feta cheese burger. Feta brings out the lamb burger's full flavor and is perfectly complementary to it. I was completely expecting this to be an interesting tasting burger but what I absolutely did not expect was to proclaim this as the best burger of any kind that I’ve ever eaten in my life. Every part of this burger contributed something good to its unbelievable flavor and texture profiles: The chewy (not fluffy) sesame seed roll and its toasty flavors; the salty, stinky, chunky feta cheese; the thick, juicy and mildly pungent lamb burger with additional feta inside. The only way to improve this burger is to include the extra feta cheese on top of the lamb patty without having to request it. I can not wait to go back for another one.

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Sweet-tart.

Clearly our piggy selves did not save any room for dessert. We were so stuffed we probably couldn’t even fit chocolate flavored air because it sort of hurt whenever we took a breath. But we ordered the Lemon Meringue Tart anyway. This perky dessert was very pleasant and just what we needed to help mellow out all that garlic we ingested. The tart’s presentation was attractive, not fussy. The dense, moist crust was extra sweet which equalized the zesty sourness of the tart. Very nice.

But it’s not just enough to feel at home in a restaurant that you’d like to call home. It also has to taste like home. Hopefully, home is a place where the food is generously portioned, tasty and comforting. Honest food. Punch Grill feels like this kind of home. Here, you can have a party or just a burger. The prices are very reasonable and the plates are big. In that sense you feel like you’re invited back. Even if you don’t get that subtle invitation, the restaurant’s managers Fred and Claude will personally make sure you do in a much more direct manner. The Punch Grill is slightly hidden from view although it sits on busy Wilshire Boulevard. However, once you’ve been there, you will always find your way back. Just like home.

Note: The meal was courtesy of the restaurant.


Punch Grill
3001 Wilshire Blvd. (at Berkeley St.)
Santa Monica, CA 90403
310.828.8812

Lunch 11AM - 4PM
Dinner 4PM - Close

Comments

Eddie, you garlic ho. I myself was absolutely stuffed after reading that post. Especially that artichoke spinach cheese fondue- think you could crank a recipe out of 'em?
Juliet said…
How funny! I was going to write a series of posts on some of our favorite restaurants, and here you do something along those lines. Well, I'm going to do it anyway. ^_^

Everything sounds yummy! Especially the shrimp (I am a spicy food fiend!) and the garlic and feta burger. I love lamb and feta, and that must be a refreshing change from beef burgers with American cheese.
dingobear said…
Eddie, your description of the Mayflower brings back memories of a place my family used to frequent (a hole-in-the-wall called Toon's, complete with ubiquitous red vinyl chairs and the cheapest carpet economically possible). Toon's is now no more, having recently been torn down for a new condo development.

Terrific post; it's making me hungry. I need a Punch Grill in my neighbourhood.
Brian Gage said…
Dang! that looks like it beats hot wings at The Prince @ 1AM.

But really, Eddie, does anything really beat The Prince?
rameniac said…
my grandfather eats at mayflower, though not as much since they moved locations. these days he goes to "good taste" chinese restaurant, which is now called something else i believe. they should rename it "god awful." hehehe... kinda like your secret dim sum spot here, a big part of me wishes they would just gentrify the rest of chinatown and be done with it.
sarah said…
ew.

i went there.

not invited.

the food was *ick*
Eddie Lin said…
jennie,

garlic ho. i'll take that as a compliment. i'm totally slutty for garlic. in fact, i stink of it right now. i just ate a bunch of homemade pork and shrimp dumplings with a raw garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar dipping sauce. garlic fume is the only evidence of this meal.


juliet,

cool! i'm going to check out your favorite places.


dingobear,

TOON'S!! what kind of restaurant was it? a themed one maybe? my condolences.


brian gage,

bite that tongue of yours. or have someone else bite it. that's hot.

nothing but nothing beats the prince and its hot wings. happy turkey day. save me a wing.


rameniac,

you're one tough customer. yeah, i agree. la's chinatown is crap. there is so much potential for that part of town. i swear to buddha, it has changed so little, super little, barely noticeable, since i was a kid and that was over thirty years ago, mo' fo'!


sarah,

"not invited." that's the problem. food tastes so much better when it's comped. just kidding!! shit, someone's gonna quote me on this (like you) and discredit my foodblogging butt.

well, ms. sarah, pray tell, what did you have that made you go *ick*. for i hardly believe you would or could eat one-eighth of what we scarfed down that night. i didn't like it all but overall it was a great time. i'm sure you didn't have the feta cheese burger. that thing was out of this world. go back and try that if you didn't. i definitely plan on returning and paying my own way.
elmomonster said…
How can I get in on that action?! I.e. comp'd meals!? Anyway, still a very balanced review. You didn't pull any punches. Well done!
Eddie Lin said…
elmo,

call 1-800 SHILLIN...like a villain.
One Food Guy said…
Excellent review! I'll be in the Santa Monica neighborhood in a couple weeks, I may have to make a trip to the Punch Grill! Thanks for the review.
Jonah said…
food tastes so much better when it's comped

Got ya, ha! I know that you're (sorta) kidding, but I think that there is a point in there. For instance, look at "one food guy's" comment, he's coming into town and this is the review he reads. Without Punch comping you, you probably never would have written it up. I have gone back and forth on this issue, but currently, I can't see how it fits the la.foodblogging mission to write up comped meals. I went through it with my review of West and in the end, I'm glad I did it for the experience, but it showed me that free food is different.
Eddie Lin said…
one food guy,

please let me know what you think if you do go. try to be there on a friday or saturday night. live jazz really enhances the experience.


jonah,

you wrote: "Without Punch comping you, you probably never would have written it up."

this is a faulty premise since there are a multitude of reasons why i wouldn't write up any particular restaurant, like not knowing it exists for one.

i don't have a policy against writing a review for a restaurant that comps my meal as long as they understand that i am going to write an honest review about it even if it's not favorable. if this condition is unacceptable to them, then i won't do it. as you can read from my punch grill review, i didn't like everything i had that evening. furthermore, if you'll notice, the dishes i didn't enjoy were the expensive entrees. that wasn't planned. it just happened to be.

also, i feel there is a benefit to my readers from my "special treatment". take for example, my server, kate, shared with me her advice on requesting extra feta to top off the lamb and feta cheese burger so as to enhance its flavor. she told me that this is what she tells all of her tables who order this burger. i can't confirm whether this is in fact true or not. however, i do know that i have shared this tasty piece of information to everyone who reads this piece. if the server does in fact tell her customers to request the extra feta, then none of this matters. however, if i was really being treated with extra consideration because of my food writer status, then this insider info is extra valuable to my readers who, if they do go to punch grill, will now be armed with this knowledge and benefit from it.

here's the thing, if a food writer is being treated as a VIP because he or she is being comped but keeps the special treatment a secret, then that's just plain taking advantage of the situation. however, if the writer reports publicly that this is the kind of service he or she received, then the restaurant now has to live up to a reputation and, in my opinion, that benefits everybody who dines there. if the restaurant raised the bar for me, they had better keep it raised for everyone else.

the one thing i did learn from your comment is never make offhand remarks about comped meals tasting better even if it is just a joke.

by the way, if i say i'm going back to a restaurant on my own dime, i will. that should be evidence enough that i mean what i wrote regardless of the meal's payment status.

thanks for opening the debate, jonah. it's better than a cup of coffee.
Rose said…
I really should stop reading... it's making me hungry. Especially the lamb and feta burger - my Mom does a similar thing, but on little tiny kaiser rolls and with Danish feta.

Gosh, I wish you could come to my house and let my Mom feed you.
Jonah said…
this is a faulty premise since there are a multitude of reasons why i wouldn't write up any particular restaurant, like not knowing it exists for one.

I think that this lends credence to my premise that you may or may not have written up Punch (saying "probably" before implied that I thought you most likely would not have written it up).

Speaking purely for myself, I have a backlog places that I have eaten but haven't taken the time to write up yet. When I was comped a meal at West, I bumped it up to the front of the list. I can't speak for you or for the other local food bloggers who have written up West or Punch (repped by the same PR folks), but I suspect that they also gave priority to these reviews. Correct me if I'm wrong, though.

I do have the benefit (and fortune) of knowing you in person, so I can be sure that you are honest in your review, I don't doubt that part of it.

For me, what it boils down to is paid placement. I haven't asked the PR folks, but I wonder how many comped meals they would give us if no review was ever written. I know that we are allowed to write whatever we want, good or bad, but what about no review? I suppose I could ask.

I agree with the point that there is value in you writing up Punch. You're a great writer, you have proven that you can make the nastiest cuisine sound like an exciting adventure.

Not all reviewers share your ordering style either. For instance, at Foodie Universe she says in her review, "I'm really not a steak person, to be honest, but how could I not order the filet mignon when it was free?" For some reason, that just negates her whole review to me.

In the end, there is no "right" answer here, but I do think it is an interesting debate.
James said…
have you tried Fried Cow's Udder
and kopi luwak?

http://bertc.com/fried_cow.htm
Eddie Lin said…
rose,

whenever i get to your awesome country, i'll let you know and your momma can cook for me. i'd love to have a tour guide too!


jonah,

i actually don't have any backlogged stuff which is why i don't post as frequently as others. i put up what i have. once in a great while i'll have more than a couple of stories waiting but that's rare.

like you said, it's good to debate.


james,

haven't tried fried cow's udder. however, we do have a post for kopi luak.
2nd-favorite said…
I don't think there is anything wrong with meals being comped for writers. The only problem I would have is if the relationship was not disclosed, which it was. I am new to flogging (food blogging) and have not yet faced this dilema, but hope to soon enough.
Funny though, I was already planning on making Lamb Burgers tonight. I put parm. reg. in mine but I think I might try putting some feta on top, thanks to this review. I am glad that I now have a new addition to the list of Burgers to try in LA. Great review, as always.