And, it turns out, dinner was worth the wait. Formerly Thomas Keller's right-hand man, Cerciello and his team are turning out some wonderful country cooking in the city. The ingredients are impeccable, the execution skilled. Service is crisp and assured, and servers know a great deal about the food. Ask any question about a dish, they know the answer. Wine service under Michel Darmon, another veteran of Keller restaurants, is excellent too, and his list holds some delightful, well-priced finds.
You just have to find your way past closed storefronts to the heart of the Brentwood Country Mart and the front (or back) door of Farmshop. Right now the "shop" element consists of a table in the middle of the dining room selling baked goods, granola and sometimes gorgeous fruit from Frog Hollow Farm. But come the holiday season, the adjoining space reserved for the shop will be open for business selling baked goods, charcuterie and other items dear to a cook's heart.
The dining room is now much cozier in feeling than it ever was as City Bakery, with aquamarine velvet banquettes, beautifully crafted walnut tabletops and, for the giant communal table in the middle, satin-smooth wooden benches. At breakfast and lunch, sun streams in above the cafe curtains. At night, fat candles sheathed in glass set the mood, and the open kitchen pops in the light, the better to watch Cerciello and his team put together dishes. Their moves are a dead giveaway to their training.
When dinner service started, the concept was one three-course menu per night, no choices (except for a vegetarian option) and a fixed price — the same format as Keller's casual Yountville restaurant Ad Hoc. I love Ad Hoc, so I was thrilled. But I wondered even then whether the idea would fly in Brentwood. Everybody has to eat the same thing (radical concept). It's called family dining, but more often than not, in our culture, family dining means every man or woman for him or herself.
On that first visit, the evening's menu is smoked trout salad, prime eye of rib-eye and Etude cheese (or dessert) for $52 per person. There's none of that jostling over who's going to order what, and you can get right down to visiting with friends and enjoying the meal. I've always appreciated that concept at Chez Panisse — and Ad Hoc. Only at Chez Panisse the menus for the entire week are posted so you know ahead of time what you'll be getting before you reserve for dinner. Farmshop posts its dinner menu each morning.
What follows is so graceful in execution. The menu may sound basic, but skill and passion are in the details, starting with the quality of the ingredients. Meals are served family style, again like Ad Hoc, and plated with an artist's eye. The smoked trout salad is presented in a handsome Heath pottery bowl. Jagged arugula leaves, ribbons of yellow zucchini, chunks of moist smoked trout and fresh-picked filet beans in a perfectly balanced whole-grain mustard dressing are lovely against the coral bowl. More dressing is served on the side.
And speaking of more, the waiter mentions that you can have more of anything: Just speak up. The prime eye of rib-eye comes from Snake River Farms in Idaho. The beef is at least 2 inches thick, faintly rosy, laid out on a huge black oval serving dish, also from Heath, with crinkly shishito peppers and strewn chunks of roasted Autumn Flame peaches. Salsa criolla with lots of garlic and a spark of heat pulls the elements together. Magic.
Then each of us gets a wedge of the ivory Etude, a goat's milk cheese in the style of tomme from the Pyrenées, made by Andante Dairy in Santa Rosa. Some dreamy honey and handmade crackers. Dessert is an apple empanada, a hand-sized apple tart hot from the oven with a luscious filling the texture of applesauce and served with a puddle of dulce de leche sauce.
I tried to go a few more times after that September visit, but whenever I logged on to Farmshop's site in the morning to see that evening's menu, it was beef. Or more beef. Or roasted chicken. The beef always sounded similar to what I'd already had. And how exciting could roasted chicken be? I kept trying, and then one day they added an à la carte menu. In addition to a half-dozen first courses and several main courses, anything on the prix-fixe menu is available à la carte. All right! It just became possible to bring those friends who don't want to be told what to eat.
On a recent visit, appetizers include a beautiful Keller-inspired salmon rillettes topped with a bright green layer of snipped chives. It's brilliant, truly the salmon equivalent of pork rillettes made with fatty fresh and lightly smoked salmon. There's an earthy herbed farro salad with kernels of sweet corn and avocado, a plate of sumptuous speck served with translucent marinated melon and a dusting of fennel pollen. I like the pasta with ricotta cheese and walnut-mint pesto, though it is somewhat oily and overdressed. Wild king salmon melts in the mouth. We have an order of roasted chicken too, which makes less of an impression than the sides — smashed beets with spiced yogurt and wild arugula or the rounds of fried eggplant with that same dreamy local honey. The chicken is good, but it somehow doesn't get noticed.
But when I go back a few nights later for the prix-fixe menu (this time $46 per person), that same roasted chicken is among the best I've ever had, the skin crispy, the flesh dense and delicious. It comes plated with heirloom eggplant and a pistachio-studded salsa verde. Same dish, different presentation. Serving ourselves from another handsome Heath platter, dinner feels festive and special.
And it's possible I might not have ordered the first course of chickpea hummus if I were ordering à la carte. And I would have missed something. Light on the tahini, it has a rustic, grainy texture and a garnish of whole fried chickpeas. Dessert is a silky lemon custard turned out of a mold, something like a lemon-drenched panna cotta presented with crumbly delicious pistachio shortbread. We can't help also ordering a giant snowy meringue filled with lemon crème fraîche with huckleberries spooned over the top.
All in all, a meal that would have anybody coming back to Farmshop. But by 10 p.m., there are only two tables left. I can't help be a little worried. Is the neighborhood going to support this smart, soulful restaurant? Stay tuned.
Rating: two 1/2 stars
Location: 225 26th St. (at San Vicente Boulevard), Santa Monica, (310) 566-2400, http://www.farmshopla.com.
Price: Three-course prix-fixe dinner, $46 and up, changes every day. Dinner à la carte items, $10 to $14.50; main courses, $18 to $35; sides, $4.50 to $8; cheese, $9.50 to $15; desserts, $8. Brunch items, $8 to $24. Corkage fee, $25 per bottle.
Details: Open for breakfast 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday to Friday, for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, for brunch 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday (until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday).
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.