This is the breakout restaurant for Octavio Becerra, who put in years with Patina Restaurant Group and was the original chef at Pinot Bistro in Studio City. But his cooking at Palate is nothing like the saucy Joachim Splichal style.
At this casual California-Mediterranean bistro and wine bar, it's fresh and direct, polished but not showy, food that anyone can understand, food that celebrates California's great bounty of local ingredients. The lamb's from Sonoma, the lettuces are from Coleman Farms in Carpinteria -- and the butter is made in-house.
Plus, Palate includes a wine shop and wine bar at the back where you can stop in for a quick -- or a lengthy -- bite at one of the communal tables there and pick up a few bottles to go as well. And Palate does all this while changing the irresistible menu frequently and pricing everything under $20.
Becerra came out of the club scene in the late '80s and flaunts one of the better chef tattoos I've ever seen: a life-size Japanese knife inked onto his forearm. But his Mohawk is now a silvery vestige of its former flamboyant self.
Inside the dazzling white former Bekins warehouse built in 1928, the ground-floor space has a straightforward bistro look. There's a curved bar at the front of a long narrow room divided into thirds by transparent fabric panels printed with a pale photo image of grapes. Handblown glass grapes spill over the sides of a pair of giant urns, a tongue-in cheek reference to the wine, which is such a big part of Palate's charm. Becerra's chef-partner is Gary Menes, who worked with him for nine years at the Patina Restaurant Group. With Becerra, Menes is doing his best cooking yet and Becerra himself doesn't miss a beat. A real pro, he moves easily between the kitchen and the dining room, but mostly stays squarely in front of the small open kitchen, inspecting and finishing off every dish before it goes out to a table.
From a corner banquette one night I watch the way Becerra sniffs a potato-size truffle before shaving it over the night's special, risotto with summer truffles. Just the way he finesses the truffle, letting the slices fall in a lovely loose drift over the rice, persuades me to add the risotto to our order. And the coddled egg with summer truffles too.
The risotto is beautifully cooked, each grain of rice separate and perfectly al dente, bathed in a light broth, enriched with Parmesan and then lavished with the marbled beige truffles. With their subtly earthy smell and slightly crunchy texture they're terrific too with that coddled egg served in a small glass canning jar. The egg is very loose, with a shock of gold yolk, best eaten with a spoon to catch yolk, white and truffles in one delicious bite.
Sweet corn and smoked ricotta ravioli from the one-page list of that day's dishes are just as much entirely of the season. These aren't your fat, overstuffed models, but slender, flat, half-moon packets, layered at the bottom of a shallow bowl. Bite into one and you taste pure sweet corn with a milky note of ricotta.
Dreamy wine list
BECERRA'S partner Steve Goldun is as relaxed and understated a sommelier as I've ever encountered and has put together a wine geek's dream of little-known, obscure, undervalued or reasonably priced bottles that anybody would be ecstatic to have in their cellar. Ask him to suggest a wine and he'll come up with something that drinks much more expensively than it's priced.
In addition, you can pop into the wine shop behind the restaurant (in between is the area with communal tables, a library of food and wine books and a lounge), buy a bottle retail and drink it in the restaurant for an $18 corkage fee. Now that's wine-friendly. If you want to drink that bottle in the wine bar, which offers cheese and charcuterie and a few other easygoing dishes, the corkage fee is only $5.
Patina's Splichal has been just as influential as Wolfgang Puck in letting a new generation of chefs loose on the world, and though chefs who have come up in either "school" tend to stick closely to what they've learned there, Becerra, at 44, is old enough to know his own mind. And I suspect he's writing a menu of exactly the kinds of things he likes to eat. He's not into heavy sauces, but he is into deep, pure flavors.
Chilled melon soup poured around pristine chunks of Dungeness crab is topped with a light froth of crème fraîche. A drop of light chile oil brings out the sweetness of the melon.
Coleman Farms lettuce salad arrives as a frilly stack of lettuces interlaced with avocado and bacon, or in a variation, with those impossibly fragrant doughnut peaches and salty-sweet lomo (cured pork tenderloin).
An order of 'porkfolio'
I ALMOST always order "porkfolio," a generous plate of cured meats that encompasses San Daniele prosciutto and one from La Quercia in Iowa, various salami, plus a few slices of lardo -- pure white pork fat perfumed with rosemary -- and is served with thin toasts (the better not to fill you up) and a trio of mustards.
You'll need "something pickled" too, maybe light, crisp lemon cucumber pickles, miniature pears with green speckled skin and an aromatic vinegar bite or the pickled plums or nectarines, any of which are wonderful with the salumi.
Don't miss the "Mason jars" category either, rillettes and confits served in small clear glass canning jars. The basic is potted Berkshire pork, a lush mixture of shredded long-cooked heirloom pork. But there's also a lovely potted chicken. And last week's menu included potted lapin, a savory mix of rabbit and pork flavored with wild herbs. Spread 'em on those same thin toasts. Drink with a Rhône or a Barbera and enjoy.