AT Rustic Canyon, September's menu brings golf ball-sized arancinearancine fried to a deep gold. The trio of rice balls sits in a coral red heirloom tomato sauce; each contains a heart of molten fresh mozzarella. Evan Funke, the new chef at this nearly 2-year-old Santa Monica restaurant, has got it exactly right.
His panzanella and burrata salad is a delicious variation on the Tuscan classic, an oval bowl heaped with tomatoes, scoops of creamy burrata (made with mozzarella and cream) and large, soft chunks of bread that have soaked up the flavors of the peppery olive oil and vinegar. He's put a lovely fresh white fig, pear and endive salad on for this month too. The seasonal menus are a big part of the pleasure of checking in at Rustic Canyon at least once a month.
Walk in and you'll find a clutch of wine-sippers at the small (very small) bar, sampling from the list of wines by the glass chalked on a board. It's refreshing to find an actual girl-next-door hostess rather than an actor playing the role without much conviction.
This is regular Santa Monica, not the elite scene of Montana Avenue or the stay-at-home-mom fashion follies. Rustic Canyon has become a magnet for the neighborhood of pretty bungalows and ranch-style houses both north and south of Wilshire Boulevard.
With its low-key, updated coffee shop look, the restaurant and wine bar fits right in. The crowd could be professors, graduate students, community organizers, artists, architects or Mr. Moms. Who knows? Probably the occasional actor and novelist too.
The noise level is just as punishing as it was in the early days. (Why won't owner Josh Loeb consider something, anything, to damp it down?) It's the one complaint I hear about this place, over and over. The acoustics are better in the trio of cramped booths against the wall, though.
Opening chef Samir Mohajer is gone, and Funke, who grew up in Pacific Palisades, worked in the Puck organization and spent some time in Bologna learning to make pasta, is in charge now. He's joined by the phenomenally talented pastry chef Zoe Nathan.
On any given night, Nathan might be in the dining room serving her latest dessert creation to a regular. Funke, a bulky figure with a rough, warm manner, may come out, briefly, to check on how things are going or to make a suggestion to a friend. Loeb is usually somewhere in the bar, at the maitre d' station or running interference with the kitchen. The trio help to give Rustic Canyon a settled, familial feeling.
CARLSBAD mussels steamed in white wine with garlic and wild herbs, and served with grilled "dipping bread" (for those who didn't know what to do with their bread), is a fixture on the menu and a worthy one. In August, juicy fried soft-shell crab starred with a vibrant sweet corn succotash. The kitchen turns out some pretty salads too, like the one of crinkly butter lettuces in an avocado dressing.
When Funke turns his hand to pasta, the results can be excellent. I loved his mandilli, "silk handkerchiefs" from Liguria, sauced with a fragrant pesto and Parmigiano. Farfalle (butterflies) tossed with cherry tomatoes, wild arugula and prosciutto is also delicious. But roasted tortelli -- handkerchief-sized sheets of fresh pasta -- are stuffed with a cauliflower cream so fine it's like puréed baby food. The butternut squash stuffing in Funke's moon-shaped pasta is also too soft, but its flavor rocks with brown butter and sage.
Funke tends to go heavy on the cheese and butter in his risotto, and he occasionally misses the mark with other dishes too. A beautiful plate of diver scallop crudo with a fennel and celery salad is marred by a trace of white truffle oil that gives the raw shellfish a medicinal, almost sweet edge. A gorgeous piece of pan-roasted black cod is not well served by arriving, half-buried, in a greasy white bean purée studded with clams and chanterelle mushrooms.
Pan-roasted jidori chicken is a regular on the menu -- moist, hard to do in a restaurant kitchen, accompanied by baby artichokes and fingerling potatoes. It's home cooking when you don't feel like roasting a bird yourself. Rack of Colorado lamb with sautéed escarole, toasted pine nuts and golden raisins is beautifully done. And the menu always includes tempting sides, such as blistered Romano beans with marjoram or haricots verts with almond dressing.
You can always stop in for a glass of wine and the restaurant's fine burger, made from Niman Ranch beef and cooked in a hot cast iron skillet. It's one of the best in town, juicy and full-flavored, escorted by onion rings, Vermont cheddar, homemade pickles and wild arugula. Flat iron steak, simply cooked with olive oil and sea salt and served with fries, is another excellent regular.
For a restaurant billed as a wine bar, though, finding a revelatory wine on the chalkboard listing isn't that easy. Choices are middle of the road, and if you're going to have more than one glass, it's more economical to order a bottle: Wines by the glass can run $9 to $20. The wine list itself offers a broader spectrum. Also, beer sommelier Christina Perozzi put together a fine list of craft brews from around the world.
Each month brings a new lineup of sparkling drinks based on Prosecco. Indochine, infused with a house-made lemon grass-ginger syrup, is delicious, but served too warm in a chunky highball glass. Tangerine Rocks is poured over ice in the same thick-sided glass. The flavor and scent of tangerines and orange bitters comes through beautifully, but the drink cloys after a few sips because it's too sugary.
NATHAN'S desserts never cross that line, however. With experience at San Francisco bakery Tartine and BLD in L.A., Nathan is a genie with dough, and her offerings are reminiscent of Campanile's in the great old days when Nancy Silverton was developing her repertoire of American desserts. She's enthusiastic and restless, constantly experimenting.
I love her rustic little crumbly crostata with the dough wrapped over the filling of pluots (a cross between a plum and an apricot) and grapes and last months' black and blue pie filled with black and blue berries topped with her own vanilla ice cream. Chocolate pudding pie made with dark Valrhona and decorated with a ruffle of whipped crème fraîche is a dream too.
I'm not quite sure about the apple buckwheat cake -- if I couldn't have flour, I'm sure I'd love it, but for those of us who can eat everything, it's just not as compelling as her other sweets.
Whatever you do, don't miss out on Nathan's hot doughnuts, fluffy doughnut holes rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with a dip of hot, stone-ground chocolate. If you can't do dinner, consider stopping by later for doughnuts and a glass of Prosecco.
She also serves a version of the doughnuts on Saturday mornings, the only day Rustic Canyon is open for breakfast. And what a treat it is, this parade of baked goods, everything from maple bacon biscuits and her charming crostata and tarts to egg dishes and savory frittatas.
With its familial feel, enthusiastic chef and baker and hands-on owner, Rustic Canyon is a model neighborhood restaurant with its heart in all the right places. And come spring, Rustic Canyon will open its own bakery down the block.
Rustic Canyon Rating: ** Location: 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 393-7050; www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com. Ambience: Neighborhood restaurant and small wine bar with the look of an updated coffee shop and the appeal of a hands-on owner, enthusiastic new chef and terrific pastry chef. The food is strictly California comfort served up with style. Service: Efficient and warm. Price: Small plates and appetizers, $9 to $18; pasta dishes, $14 to $15; main courses, $16 to $32; desserts, $9. Best dishes: (Menu changes every month) burrata panzanella; arancine (rice balls) in heirloom tomato sauce; Carlsbad mussels with white wine and wild herbs; pan-roasted jidori chicken; "cast iron" burger, grilled flat iron steak; pluot and grape crostata; chocolate pudding pie; hot cinnamon sugar doughnuts. Wine list: Wines by the glass are middle of the road, wine list more interesting, but few real bargains. Corkage fee, $25. Best table: The middle booth. Details: Open 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; also open for breakfast on Saturday only from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wine and beer. Valet parking, $5.50. 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.