We're a' Movin' On Up! Upper West. Lamb Lovers Unite! Santa Monica, CA.
The length of Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica between the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway (aka the 10) and Cloverfield Blvd. has long been neglected like a pretty stepdaughter forced to wear tattered rags while mopping up the estate all day. With the exception of the esteemed Valentino, which lately resembles a San Fernando Valley McMansion or Las Vegas gentlemen's club, that portion of Pico has been pretty much left floundering.
Even with the convenient location off of the Centinela exit from the 10 Freeway, there just wasn't much of a destination eatery for this underserved stretch, especially for those looking for a relaxed yet sophisticated environment where friends and colleagues can gather for happy hour or a full meal.
Well, Weezy, buzz the chauffeur because (sing it with me) we're a' movin on up to the Westside and headed to Pico Blvd. where a sexy, young restaurant called Upper West sits, breathing new life into a stale area.
The location where Upper West lives now, way back in the day, used to house a rundown club with all the hospitality of a roach motel. Fortunately for the neighborhood, the proprietors of Upper West saw the potential in the spot and gave the building an extreme makeover. It looks and feels good. Not too stuffy nor too Cabo casual. Certainly a restaurant where lingering is welcome.
There are well placed spaces within Upper West which cater to the guests' dining needs without separating them from the "action" in the rest of the restaurant.
The group dining area, with its open partitions, give a clear view to not just the main room but also the street scene. If you need even more visual stimulus, there's a digital projector screening classic films on a wall. The bar area is set slightly apart from the dining area but without the feeling of abandonment as with some other restaurant bar sections.
Additional smooth touches, like the mounted wall art created by local artists and an old school phone booth on the way to the bathrooms, give Upper West that stylish neighborhood hang vibe.
Where everybody knows your name...
Now, the food at Upper West is definitely up there with the top "American" grills around town. And Executive Chef Nick Shipp does, ahem, run a tight ship over there with a lean one-page menu incorporating the right mix of small and large plates including imaginative desserts. Delectably irresistible creations like beer cheese soup, the ice-cream cone flight and braised lamb crepes were enough for me to click the "like" button. But it wasn't until I actually tasted the food that I wanted to click the "love" button.
The Prince Edward Island Mussels, simmered in a garlic-saffron broth, morsels of smoky tasso ham and from scratch ciabatta croutons, accomplished exactly what a good starter should — making my palate bloom with anticipation. The pungent, aromatic, smoky and saline bouquet of a broth was a delicious potion.
The meaty PEI mussels were perfectly cooked peeking out of their bivalves and the flavors were intoxicating after sponging up the intense broth. But, the broth was all I could think about as I tried, unsuccessfully, to sop it up with the crusty, soy-buttered bread. Good thing the mussel's shell kinda looks like a spoon because that's how I funneled the broth down my gullet.
Once in a great while there are those special items on a restaurant's menu that really defines the place. The Braised Lamb Crepes is absolutely one of those spectacular dishes.
Brought to the table looking like a dessert crepe with what appears to be a chocolate sauce, it is actually a savory crepe filled with a port braised Colorado leg of lamb, russet potato and garlic spinach. The crepe itself is flavored with Madras curry but without the heat associated with that potent seasoning. For a crepe, it's thicker than typical but doesn't at all get in the way of the luscious lamb within, in fact the dynamism of all the exotic flavors blend harmoniously. Puddled with a lavender demi-glace and topped with Israeli feta crumbles, this lamb crepe dazzles with rich meaty flavors which is accentuated with curry, lavender, garlic, cheese and wine. As far as mouthfeel, the spongy crepe bundling the tearfully tender lamb is just a joy to eat. The Braised Lamb Crepe is the must try plate.
Mary had a little lamb crepe.
The Pan Roasted Black Cod came highly recommended by the art gallery owner sitting at the next table. She's a regular and claims the cod is too die for. And as far as black cod is concerned, this was the most colorful plating of it I've ever seen, essentially, a piece of cod with crisped skin still adhering to the moist flesh frolicking in a vegetable garden. Stewed tiny tomatoes and bulky white beans mix it up with roasted shitake mushrooms, snap peas and yellow peppers, all on which the cod rests. Fragrant cilantro is heaped on top with lemon zest and aji amarillo spice brightening up everything. It's worth noting that Chef Shipp personally picks out his produce each week at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer's Market. There's a lot of fresh flavor with this fish dish and it's clear from the very first bite.
In cod we trust.
Lamb made an encore, because I love it so, but the second time, as a braised shank. Listed on the Local Farmers Market Special and leading off the menu was the Braised Lamb Shank. This was a no-brainer after tasting the succulent gift to foodies that is the Braised Lamb Crepes. The shank was beautifully Frenched with the fat and tendon trimmed leaving a gleaming white bone jutting out of the lush flesh like a massive meat-sicle. The wonderful braise allowed the meat to slip off the bone without a struggle. Its mild lamb flavor was tamed further by a heaping of sharp cheddar soft polenta. Although the apricot habanero relish was intended to bring the heat (or pain if we're talking serious habanero), it registered more fruity than fiery which was a relief though some heat would've been nice. The inventiveness and creativity injected into this classic dish made it that much more delicious.
Praise the braise!
If you love dessert, then the more the merrier. And why have one ice cream cone when you can have a flight of them? Upper West doesn't really have a "Flight of Ice Cream Cones" listed on the menu but I'm calling it that because why else would they have a triple ice cream cone holder gizmo laying around?
The trio of cones included: Bacon Maple, Cucumber Sorbet and Basil Coconut. While hoping for bacon bits tucked here and there within the scoop of Bacon Maple, there was none to be found. But the smoky sweet flavor did remind me of a nice porky pancake brekkie.
They should offer every guest at spas across town the Cucumber Sorbet. Because after a taste, you feel refreshed, relaxed and totally zen. There really is no more invigorating way to eat cucumber than as a cold sorbet with, perhaps, Enya piping through invisibly-mounted Bose speakers.
The interesting combo of Basil Coconut ice cream brought to light the egregious absence of any Italian-Hawaiian fusion cuisine in the food scene today. Luckily, the first step in the long overdue direction was taken with this unique flavor because sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes an herb.
Three is a tasty number.
The rest of the menu at Upper West, even the basic grill items, are made with thought, heart and full of comforting yet novel tastes. Nothing seems to be half-baked or taken for granted. On the contrary, things are well-braised and freshly made. The crowd is diverse and friendly. That elusive good vibe is definitely there.
It's a far cry from the dingy dive club it stems from long, long ago. But, sometimes you gotta hit bottom before you can step up.
3321 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90405