By Invitation. Punch Grill. There's No Place Like Home. Santa Monica, CA.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3001 Wilshire Blvd. (at Berkeley St.)
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Lunch 11AM - 4PM
Dinner 4PM - Close