Since its opening about 2 1/2 years ago, Wilshire has seemed a restaurant in need of a therapist. The vision and reality didn't really track. Christopher Blobaum, the chef, had ambitions for a sophisticated contemporary American restaurant that was also as committed to serving sustainably produced foods as anything in L.A. at the time. But the bar scene soon hijacked the restaurant, and the fun-loving crowd got in the way of more serious diners, who were left feeling like second-rate citizens. And those who did brave the noisy, frenetic scene often came away with mixed reviews of the dining experience, despite the kitchen's best intentions.
Over time, friction developed between the chef and owner, cardiologist Steve Levine, and the two parted ways at the beginning of February. Levine didn't look far for a replacement, promoting chef de cuisine Andrew Kirschner to executive chef. In most cases, that wouldn't be a good sign, but here it's turned out to be a smart move. Kirschner was partner and chef de cuisine at Table 8 in the early days when the cooking was so seamless it was impossible to tell whether chef-owner Govind Armstrong was in the kitchen or not.
Now, at Wilshire, it's Kirschner's chance to shine. And shine he does. He's pulled back the menu, stripping away anything fussy and going for straightforward California cuisine with a broader appeal.
Though his menu may not be a step into the future, it's completely successful as contemporary California cooking. His instinct for what people in L.A. want to eat right now is dead-on. And it's not ditsy foams or soup sipped from a test tube.
Although the patio, a glamorous two-tiered space by Thomas Schoos complete with its own bar ablaze with candles, is as inviting as ever, the scene has quieted down considerably, especially on weeknights. The posh little dining room where I once struggled to hear a word all through dinner is no longer so noisy. It's easier to get a good table on even a day or two's notice. Even one in the coveted garden. Of restaurants in the L.A. area, only Michael's in Santa Monica and Les Deux in Hollywood can boast such a magical outdoor space. I'm not talking some dinky patio, but a space that's larger than the restaurant itself.
Come warm weather, this is going to be the place to be. And just in time. With tensions easing, Wilshire is less dysfunctional. Kirschner's assured, effortless-seeming cooking is a breath of fresh air. He's blessed with not only a good palate, but also a good eye. And he can execute, which makes him a triple threat.
A special of beef tartare one night is made with Japanese Kobe beef, which gives it a certain lightness of texture -- the beef's heavy marbling making the tartare something like beef rillettes. Served with rafts of grilled sourdough, it makes a wonderful appetizer to share.
Tiny chestnut gnocchi are delicious, too, especially when you get a bite of the dusky gnocchi with a nugget of roasted chestnut or hedgehog mushroom. Pristine fresh lettuces are tossed with earthy sweet little beets, toasted hazelnuts and feta for a bright-tasting briny salad that works anywhere, anytime.
Attention to detail makes Kirschner's white bean soup stand out. Some of the beans are smashed, others whole, and with chunks of carrot, craggy toasted croutons and swatches of black kale, it becomes a study in textures and flavors.
Every dish has a surprising twist. The Bolognese sauce on his rigatoni, for example, gets a lift from paprika-streaked chorizo, goat cheese and arugula, morphing the pasta dish into a salad-pasta hybrid with a Spanish accent. Tangerine and chile light up the steamed mussels (though on one occasion the mussels themselves were a little funky). He does a composed salad with the best of them, flirting with shredded duck confit in a salad of frisee with green beans, tangerine segments and candied walnuts.
Main courses are terrific one and all. I love that Kirschner has roast leg of lamb on the menu. You hardly see it anymore. And this one is beautifully cooked to a deep rose and served with Indian-inflected accompaniments -- a velvety pickled tomato and a cool, soothing yogurt raita. Wild mushroom duck pot pie comes under a lid of golden puff pastry -- a brilliant idea. It's replete with chunks of dark-fleshed duck, root vegetables and fresh peas in a rich duck stock and remarkably light for a pot pie. Every menu in town has a grilled Kurobuta pork chop, but Wilshire's wins me over with its accompaniment of a savory apple and sausage ragu and irresistible white corn grits. The pork is also first-rate.
Kirschner does a credible job with seafood, too. Especially salmon, which can be dead boring. Here, it's pan-roasted, but so carefully he conjures every bit of flavor from the fish. The brainy trick is serving it with a textbook-perfect Meyer lemon risotto, one of the best I've ever been served in an L.A. restaurant. Miso-marinated black cod comes rich and unctuous, too, with a wonderful balance of sweet and salty. And Thai snapper makes quite an entrance, fried whole and served upright on the plate with a swirl of sesame soba and a soy dipping sauce.
If you want a quick bite, the bar menu offers a swell lineup of dishes, including Chimay ale-marinated skirt steak, hamachi ponzu and wood-grilled burgers. Lunch is lovely outside, too.
Hot and cold
Service is alternately almost too attentive, or distracted. With two dining rooms and all that garden, it's a big sprawling space to keep an eye on. Wine service, though, is exemplary. Sommelier Matthew Straus is a thoughtful presence in the dining room, completely comfortable and passionate about wine. The stellar wine list is filled with bottle after bottle anyone would love to drink, and he's right there to offer intelligent advice whatever your level. We asked him one night to pick a wine under $100, and he came up with two unusual and unusually delicious choices: a Sauvignon Blanc from Slovenia and a 1989 Chevalerie Bourgueil from the Loire Valley. I'd come just for the wine list.
The dessert menu includes a dynamite chocolate pudding cake. Lighter and fluffier than a brownie, it marries dark chocolate with a dreamy texture and is served with a silky, almost black bittersweet chocolate sauce and pistachio ice cream. Classic warm buttermilk doughnuts are perfect for sharing and served with scoops of coffee and vanilla ice cream. Don't miss the brown butter banana cream cake either, an individual banana cake oozing dulce de leche to eat between bites of coconut ice cream.
Despite all odds, Wilshire has reinvented itself with a new spirit and a new energy. The bar scene no longer rules, and with a new chef at the helm and a new menu, enthusiastic diners may soon outnumber the party people.
Location: 2454 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 586-1707; www.wilshirerestaurant.com.
Ambience: Contemporary American restaurant with a chic two-tier garden patio anchored by an outdoor bar at one end. The menu from chef Andrew Kirschner focuses on organic produce from local farms. The bar menu is served late, and on weekends the place is thronged.
Service: Varies from very laid-back to hovering.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $11 to $20; main courses, $24 to $27; steaks, $26 to $40; sides, $5 to $8; cheese plate, $18; desserts, $8. Lunch appetizers, $7 to $15; entree salads, $15 to $26; sandwiches, $13 to $18; other lunch items, $19 to $25.
Best dishes: Steamed mussels with tangerine and chili, hamachi ponzu, steak tartare, chestnut gnocchi, pan-roasted salmon, wild mushroom duck pot pie, roasted leg of lamb, grilled Kurobuta pork chop with white corn grits, chocolate pudding cake, banana cream cake, buttermilk doughnuts.
Wine list: Stellar selection of interesting bottles and wines by the glass. Corkage fee, $25.
Best table: One of the booths in the dining room that looks onto the garden.
Special features: Two private dining rooms, one in its own building adjoining the patio.
Details: Open for lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; the bar is open from 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking is $6 at dinner, $4.50 at lunch.
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.