Whist, the restaurant in Santa Monica's excruciatingly trendy Viceroy Hotel, opened with a bang in 2002. That was when Tim Goodell (Aubergine, Red Pearl) was doing the food, and it was startlingly good for a hotel restaurant. I remember pork belly filigreed with chile-laced caramel, skate wing with baby artichokes barigoule, potatoes au gratin for two and especially the desserts. If you ordered trifle, you got a whole bowl for the table, apricot pie, an entire pie. But foodies and a raucous bar scene didn't mix.
Goodell came and went, other chefs, too, and not one seemed to be able to retool the hotel's image into a gastronomic destination. One wonders why the management even kept trying. Then a few months ago they brought in yet another chef.
The restaurant's track record had been such that I was hesitant to run out to see what the new chef was doing. Instead, I put Whist on the back burner, fairly confident that nothing there had radically changed. But the more I heard about the new guy, Tony DiSalvo, the more I realized he just might be something different.
For one, he really does have quite the résumé. He must like California sunshine, too, because after working his way up to chef de cuisine at Jean Georges, one of New York's -- and the country's -- best restaurants, in 2004 he took a job as chef at Jack's La Jolla and when that folded, moved on to Santa Monica and the Viceroy.
DiSalvo is a keeper. He's turning out food in a fresh, contemporary style that suits both the hotel and the casual spirit of Santa Monica. But hardly anyone seems to know about it as yet.
Taking on the executive chef position at Whist is by no means a dream job. Hotel guests at the Viceroy seem to have zero interest in dining in: Why else would the dining room be practically empty on every one of my recent visits? How is it for someone like DiSalvo, used to the high drama and excitement of a busy, top-notch restaurant, to be working in a place that's so slow? At first glance, the dining room menu reads like any other fashionable California-Mediterranean menu -- arugula salad, beet salad, sweet corn ravioli, Alaskan halibut, Jidori chicken, braised short ribs. But you don't get to be chef at Jean Georges without being able to execute. And execute DiSalvo does.
On the plate, the dishes are so much better than they sound from the written descriptions. The plating is elegant, the flavors succinct and focused. I just wish there were more customers to experience what DiSalvo is doing in the kitchen. On the other hand, with the room nearly empty, it's actually quiet enough for conversation, something that's impossible when the restaurant is full.
I also find that the room's glossy Hollywood Regency décor has worn better than expected. Maybe it's the lighting, a mix of brass-trimmed pendant lamps and soothing candlelight, but the dining room, despite its emptiness, looks inviting.
A porcini mushroom soup features a velvety warm brown purée of mushrooms poured over a miniature landscape of chestnuts, speck, julienned apples and sage. Each bite offers a different palette of flavors, the tart apple against the forest flavors of the mushroom, the smoky speck against the autumnal chestnuts. Wonderful.
Little toasts topped with sashimi-grade bluefin tuna are arranged on the plate with fennel, olives and a brilliant saffron aioli to create a lovely composition. DiSalvo's sweet corn ravioli has an unusual delicacy, the slender packets tucked together with bites of pristine lobster, a little pancetta, fresh corn kernels, tomato and basil -- and topped with a discreet and subtle foam.
Even something as ho-hum as arugula salad arrives on a wooden board, the emerald leaves strewn around with pear poached in Port, nuggets of blue cheese and touches of salami and the freshest walnuts, all in a gentle honey thyme vinaigrette.
The dinner menu fits on one page, with just a handful of main courses. Jidori chicken breast comes sheathed in a golden Parmesan crust, crispy on the surface and dense and moist underneath. You have a bite of chicken, a bite of poached egg, a bite of chanterelles in a smoky pancetta vinaigrette. Black truffles are supposed to be in there somewhere too, but I couldn't really taste them, and it didn't really matter because the chanterelles were so delicious. Even Alaskan halibut, that most boring of fishes, comes off well, presented with Sicilian pistachios (the best in the world) and a risotto laced with sweet herbs.
DiSalvo's cooking demonstrates a great deal of finesse, including lamb medallions dusted with cardamom and served with tangy baby artichokes, very green olives and Marcona almonds for a Moroccan-Hispanic inflection. He brightens up braised beef short ribs with horseradish and the grassy taste of celery leaves, wakes up arctic char with a swirl of harissa oil and serves it with couscous and a few Manila clams.
The wine list includes an expansive selection of Champagne and sparkling wines for the bling crowd. Skip the Chardonnays for the more interesting white wine blends and unique varietals category, where you'll find Ostertag Sylvaner from Alsace, Aprémont from the Savoie and Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio from Italy. But only three whites are under $50, while in the reds, there are more than half a dozen. I could find lots of bottles I'd want to drink on this list if I wanted to spend much more than $50.
Keep in mind that on Monday and Tuesday nights, every wine from an edited, 80-bottle version of the wine list (sorry, no Champagnes or high-end Burgundies) is sold at $25 per bottle. That includes wines that are normally priced at up to $100. So drink up: This is a terrific deal. Desserts from pastry chef Brooke Mosley play well against the rest of the menu. Order the cheesecake and you get three oval scoops of barely sweetened ricotta cheese, the better to taste the quality of the cheese itself, set off by a swirl of huckleberry sauce, some toasted pine nuts and a hint of lemon and basil.
Tart diced apples, a little crumbled Point Reyes Blue and a few candied pecans are heaped into a buttery crust to make a rustic warm apple tart. The best part is the cider-infused caramel sauce. There's also a dreamy phyllo dough dessert of yogurt and figs accented with fragrant orange blossom honey and pistachios.
Service could be better. Waiters have a bad habit of interrupting to ask how everything "is tasting." It's not as if it's a real question demanding an honest or even a thoughtful answer. Just look on the plate. Are people eating? Then, yes, the food is tasting.
And at the new Whist, DiSalvo's cooking is so good, no one should have to ask.