Upper West, Santa Monica, California
If you’re having difficulty finding Santa Monica’s Upper West restaurant, chances are you’re in the wrong part of town; the restaurant’s name pays homage to Manhattan’s Upper West Side but is located away from the madness of 3rd Street Promenade in the upwardly-mobile eastern fringe of Santa Monica. Upper West is located in the sleek shell of what were formerly Santa Monica Bar & Grill and 310 Lounge & Bistro, having transformed the space into a modern yet comfortable place to kick back and enjoy great food and cocktails. The restaurant is capped with the original domed wooden beam roof and features full-height glass walls that fill the space with light; movies (with subtitles and no sound) and sporting events are frequently projected on the white wall of the glassed in area. The restaurant features colorful canvases by local artists that rotate with approximately the same frequency as the menu, which itself reflects a flair for the artistic.
On my recent visit with friend Eddie Lin as guests of the restaurant, I was faced with the joyful dilemma of trying to decide what to try off the menu. The decision called for careful consideration and nerves of steel, so I decided to order a cocktail, in this case the trippy and delightful Pepperoncini Martini. This wild concoction married the essence of a brewery with a Mexican Bloody Mary – the drink was inebriated with Belgian white beer and Hornitos Reposado tequila with a pepperoncini floating face down in a pool of its own tomato and capsaicin-laden blood. Fortified by the drink’s spicy kick, we ordered a couple of appetizers and what amounted to an unusual ‘surf-and-turf”.
The appetizers alone were a main event – we started with PEI mussels cooked in a garlic saffron broth with chunks of ham and finished with ciabatta croutons made in-house. The aroma of the dish permeated the air around the table, and the smell was intoxicating. The mussels were perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful, but the broth was like ambrosia – when the mussels were gone I began using one of the shells as a spoon to ladle it into my face. I had tried using the ciabatta bread brought to the table in a basket to sop up the nectar, but unfortunately the ultra-porous bread was not up to the task. I considered putting the dish on the floor and lapping it up “doggy style”, but I somehow managed to keep what little dignity I have and stick with the mussel shell spoon. Our other appetizer selection was the wonderfully deceptive lamb crepes, tasty lambs in a blanket disguised as a breakfast dish. The pancakes looked thick and spongy, but while being sturdy enough to ensnare the moist, curried meat they melted away to nothing on the tongue. The lamb was accentuated with just the right amount of wilted spinach and a sprinkling of feta cheese.
I could have died satisfied after having finished the appetizers, but welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends – we were now staring down the entrees. A slightly spicy roasted fillet of black cod nested on a bed of snap peas, butter beans, yellow bell pepper and cherry heirloom tomatoes and was finished with roasted shitake mushrooms and fresh cilantro. The taste was clean and oddly terrestrial – a few forkfuls in I forgot I was eating fish. As flavorful as the cod was, nothing could have prepared me for the lamb shank. This dish came to the table looking like a meat weapon with the lamb’s leg bone sticking out a good 6 inches from the braised chunk of flesh. The meat was wading in a shallow puddle of its own juices next to a mound of polenta (which oddly tasted more like grits, but still complemented the meat well). Perched atop this meat axe was a scoop of apricot habanero relish, a formidable and foreboding orange mound that bore the cautionary orange habanero color, but to the palate proved to be largely apricot. The condiment was sweet and tangy, with just a slight burn from the habanero, adding flavor without overpowering the lamb. And what of the lamb itself? The meat was braised to where it melted off the bone like butter, every bite a delight. You could have fed the meat to a baby, but only if you really and truly loved that baby.
Although I don’t consider myself a desert person, I was fascinated with the concept of the bacon maple ice cream and ended up ordering a sampling of the creamy pork confection as well as a scoop of the basil coconut and cucumber sorbet. The bacon maple was infused with the essence of bacon, but didn’t have crumbly chunks of the meat suspended in it; it was smooth and creamy, with the pork flavor taking a back seat to the maple. The basil coconut sorbet was more coconut than basil, and the cucumber sorbet was subtly flavored, but both were cool and refreshing.
Executive Chef Nick Shipp (proudly hailing from the home of three of the largest grain elevators in the world) served time at a ripe young age under Wolfgang Puck and is bringing his A-game to Upper West with a menu that features creative dishes using local, fresh ingredients (many gathered weekly at the local Santa Monica Farmers Market). There’s a place for us, and whether you’re a Shark or a Jet, you’re sure to find Upper West to be… cool.
NOTE: This cost for this meal was provided by Upper West. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the restaurant or its staff.