Have you been to Michael’s lately? Because the Stellas are still on the walls, the Charles Garabedian drawings are still kind of naughty, and the guys at the front bar are still drinking complicated things that involve whiskey more expensive than you can afford. It’s all very disco-era until you get out to the tented patio, where it is still pretty late-’70s except that the Robert Graham frieze is as good as anything you’ve seen at a museum lately and the foliage springs eternal; the seaside California we all wish we still lived in, where the people at the next table are just back from the Venice Biennale and you could probably throw together a gallery exhibit featuring nothing more than the customers’ shoes.
But that bowl in front of you — it might contain a bit of chopped summer squash, some cherries, rose geranium-scented cream and crisped grain; a vegetable appetizer that could pass as dessert. The wine in your glass is likely to be an orangey-pink skin-contact white from Slovenia instead of a Napa Sauvignon Blanc, and the bread on the table is dark and profoundly sour. Your last course may have been an uni-frosted spoonful or two of the Japanese custard called chawan mushi; your next may be include pork neck, cauliflower and a vaguely Thai-inflected coconut cream. The chef, Miles Thompson, late of the defunct modernist Echo Park restaurant Allumette, likes dusky greens and splashes of citrus, whole grains and pungent cheese, fermented things and custardy sauce.
If your memories of Michael’s revolve around dishes like sautéed rouget with tomatoes, bacon-and-egg salad, and Heath bar cake, you may well feel as if you have stepped into an alternate reality, one where well-dressed humans drink focused, intensely yeasty Ultramarine blanc de noirs from Sonoma instead of pink Champagne and occasionally consider griddled potatoes with furikake aioli and curls of shaved tuna to be a main course. Either Michael’s has changed, or it’s you.
Michael’s, of course, is the place that kick-started California cuisine when it opened in 1979, the Santa Monica restaurant that established the tropes of produce obsessiveness, bright colors, clean flavors and taut-wire acidity that would become the hallmark of American cooking in the 1980s. Its auteur, Michael McCarty, furnished it with heavy silver, breathtaking tabs and an aesthetic rooted in French nouvelle cuisine. Ken Frank, Mark Peel, Billy Pflug, Nancy Silverton, Jonathan Waxman, Kazuto Matsusaka, Gordon Naccarato and Sally Clarke came out of its kitchen. The Manhattan branch of Michael’s has been a media power-lunch spot for decades.
Still, when I reviewed the Santa Monica restaurant in 1997, I regarded it as a nostalgia play, a place to stop by for shad roe in season, a nice Cabernet, and excellent aged shell steak with fries. Several years before that, I was already marveling that the squab with raspberry vinegar and the pasta with grilled seafood and Chardonnay cream were basically unchanged from the restaurant’s first months, and that its rather formal cooking might be a relic at a time when the best new restaurants seemed to be serving rustic Italian cuisine. With the exception of Sang Yoon, who left Michael’s in 2000 to start Father’s Office, it is hard to think of another chef the kitchen has produced in the last 20 years.
Then Thompson signed on as chef. The waitstaff leans more art school than prep school these days. Sommelier Roni Ginach introduced a slew of natural wines onto the list. The signature dessert is a light, creamy fluff flavored with roasted barley. The old Michael’s would have beaten up the new Michael’s and stolen its lunch money, but well-heeled restaurants are different now. Is Thompson’s version of Michael’s what Mugaritz is to Martín Berasategui in San Sebastian or Septime is to Taillevent in Paris? Not quite, although I suspect both Thompson and McCarty would like it to be.
So there are chewy ping pong balls of ricotta with crumbles of lamb sausage and flecks of lemon; crisped octopus with lime curd; baby broccoli with Chinese black beans; and those weirdly rich potatoes a la plancha. The chawan mushi custard with crab, uni and crisp grain has been broken and watery every time I’ve tried it, but the layering of flavors and textures has been solid.
I’ve found myself enjoying the broiled yellowtail collar, silky strands of rich, miso-infused flesh pried free from the bones, more than I’ve liked Thompson’s more conventional branzino slicked with brown butter. The crunchy, tonkatsu-like pork, marinated with molasses and a dash of fish sauce before it is breaded and fried, is surprisingly good when you fish it out from under a salad of mint leaves and fruit. And while I might still have trouble pointing to a Denver steak on a diagram of a steer — it’s a well-marbled, newly “discovered” cut carved from deep inside a beef shoulder — the juicy, deeply charred steak, sliced thin and served with sautéed morel mushrooms and a bordelaise sauce, is something you might consider, especially if there are a lot of you at the table.
As you might have expected if you’d dined at Allumette, Thompson’s version of Michael’s is a sharing-plate restaurant, which is harder to negotiate on a white tablecloth than you might think. And it may be something to keep in mind if you dread battling three other people over a single barbecued quail, or if your dessert requirements extend past a single spoonful of cheesecake mousse snagged from a communal plate. If old-school service is among your requirements, the restaurant may not be for you. But against all odds, Michael’s feels alive again. It’s a fair trade.
A new sharing-plate chef comes to an old market-driven restaurant
1147 3rd St., Santa Monica, (310) 451-0843, michaelssantamonica.com.
Small dishes $6-$19; large dishes $20-$40; desserts $11-$13.
Dinner Mon.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking (and city lot next door).
Dungeness crab chawanmushi; fried quail; pork Milanese; roasted barley pot-de-crème.
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