SPECTACULAR beaches, dramatic cliffs, amazing surf -- it's hard to feel sorry for Malibu. But if you love to eat out, life has dealt you the kind of hand that's landed you a spread on Broad Beach (or even a Thanksgiving week condo rental on the other side of the highway) and you've had enough of Nobu Malibu, you'll have to jump in the Ferrari and zoom out of the ZIP Code to find much of interest.
But wait -- Malibu finally got the kind of restaurant it really needs: a warm, personable spot with great service, a graceful dining room, a serious chef and good cooking.
In early August, chef Christopher Bocchino and his wife, Kristine, opened Terra in a pretty little house on the east side of Pacific Coast Highway (it used to be an Italian spot called Lino). Chris' résumé includes stints at Oceana in New York, Michael's in Santa Monica, Mixx in Sonoma County, and, most recently, Whisper Lounge in L.A. As he grows some of the produce in a garden on the hill behind Terra, the place is aptly named.
Kristine, who has a background in pastry and worked as general manager at Josie and at Dry Creek Kitchen in Sonoma County, runs the front of the house smoothly, setting just the right relaxed tone. (She's also the pastry chef.) Terra's wait staff knows the rules that are all too often ignored: how to be friendly without being obtrusive, how to place the dishes at the correct positions without asking who ordered the salmon, how to wait to clear the plates until all the diners have placed their silverware in the "finished" position on the plate. The waiters even know to come to the table as the runners deliver the plates, and explain each dish as it's set down.
It starts with an amuse, and it's been a different one on each of three visits. One night it's a little corn blini with smoked salmon and a dab of crème fraîche; another night it's a tiny, delicate tomato tart.
The small menu's not particularly enticing or ambitious. But if you know what to order, you can eat pretty well here. And a few of the dishes really sing.
Fresh from the gardenTHE chef uses nice greens for the baby spinach salad, which is dotted with pickled cipollini onions and crunchy toasted soy nuts and topped with warm goat cheese; that's fine but not exciting. A roasted summer vegetable salad with grilled haloumi (a Greek cheese) has more pizazz, with zucchini, flavorful little baby beets, corn cut off the cob in chunks and a late-harvest Riesling vinaigrette. But the hard, chewy pieces of haloumi are off-putting, and the knife-cut romaine brings to mind a salad bar. Ahi tuna three ways is just silly (and the fish Bocchino's using for it isn't the best quality); a duck confit appetizer with roasted vegetable hash and a sweet Cabernet-cassis reduction is overwrought.
But the suspicious-sounding warm Gorgonzola tart turns out to be terrific. A light, perfect puff pastry crust baked with a judicious layer of Gorgonzola comes with a pear poached in Zinfandel, a perfect little salad of carefully dressed greens and fried baby artichokes. The elements balance one another beautifully.
Every other restaurant these days offers a salumi platter, but the one at Terra stands out. The soppressata is cut a little thicker than you usually see, more like the way they'd cut a homemade one at a farmhouse in central Italy. The prosciutto's very good, and there are slices of good mortadella, bresaola, Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino; it's served with garlicky little toasts and Marcona almonds. It's easily enough goodies for two, ideal for sharing.
If the special sounds good, order it: The chef seems to groove on them. One night, for an appetizer, three plump, nicely seared scallops with grilled heirloom tomatoes tucked underneath come with white beans and a modest little pan sauce. Delicious. (And at the end of the summer, when the tomatoes aren't quite what they've been all fabulous season long and you've had your fill of them raw anyway, that's a clever way of keeping things interesting.) Another night, for a main course special, he layers pieces of crisp-skinned loup de mer (a.k.a. branzino) with sautéed dandelion greens and touches of bacon; well-seasoned white beans are underneath. That's a nicely conceived dish (though the fish is a tad overcooked, which seems to happen with some frequency here).
It's a new place, though. Bocchino is finding his footing and the cooking improves on each visit. Last month, a braised lamb shank served over Israeli couscous was undercooked and the meat a little muttony-tasting (and the huge bone is rather Flintstonian in presentations). On a later visit, the cooking time and flavor are right (though it still looks like something for Barney Rubble). Pasta for house-made agnolotti quattro formaggio was too thick, tough and undercooked, but the black pepper tagliatelle has been just right both times I tasted it, sauced with a lusty boar ragù.
On my most recent visit, it seems Bocchino has hit his stride; everything's good.
There are two cuts of steak: a New York strip and a flat-iron. Both come out perfectly cooked, though the 30-day dry-aged New York strip isn't as flavorful as one would hope. It comes with a rather liquid mac and cheese and some grilled asparagus, which seem out of place this season. The flat-iron is more fun for the price, accompanied by thick, hand-cut fries drizzled with what the menu says is Parmesan and garlic, but tastes like gremolata (chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest).
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the chicken, something I rarely order because it's often so dull. Here the sage-marinated pan-roasted airline cut (the breast with part of the wing attached) is terrifically flavorful, with a crisp skin and a nice little tarragon-tinged jus, served with tiny halved roasted Brussels sprouts and a thick, lemon-scented potato purée. This is a dinner you'd be happy to serve at home, not at all restaurant-fussy. How wonderful to find honest cooking like that.
Could the cooking be more ambitious? Sure. But maybe Bocchino has decided to keep it simple and master each preparation.
Social yet intimateTHE neighborhood has definitely taken notice. The bar is quite the meeting place, and there's an attractive patio that should be a draw when the weather's warm. Meanwhile, the dining room has a pleasant buzz. It's intimate, with a fire crackling in the fireplace. You might even find yourself in whispering distance of a celebrity. (One night, Courteney Cox Arquette was there, talking on her cellphone through most of her dinner, with her dining companion trying not to look bored.) Whispering distance? Ah, yes! The place is refreshingly quiet! There's music playing, but it's soft, so you can actually have a conversation.
As for wine, there's something wonderful about a short, well-chosen list, but alas, you don't find one here. This one's short but lacks interesting choices. A restaurant with cooking this good deserves a better selection, and better wineglasses too.
Every time the dessert menu's placed in front of me, I've frozen up -- it all sounds uninspired. And the carrot cake, topped with tons of sweet, gooey cream cheese frosting and coated with a thick layer of chopped pecans, is enough to make a person skip dessert forevermore.
But there are a couple of nice surprises. A late-summer strawberry trifle is splendid. Kristine managed to find big, ripe, luscious strawberries; they're macerated in aged balsamic vinegar and layered with almond cake and mascarpone.
And even better is a caramel "cheesecake" with fleur de sel and a luxuriously creamy texture -- there's no crust; it comes in a ramekin, topped with caramel sauce and just the right touch of sea salt.
Happily, Terra's not too expensive -- most of the main courses are in the $20-$28 range (steaks are more). So you don't need to pull up in the Enzo to feel right at home; you can leave it in the garage and take the Nissan. You don't even have to live in 90265 -- sometimes a drive up PCH can just make you feel like a million bucks. And at long last, you don't have to head back south for a decent dinner.
S. Irene Virbila is on vacation.
Rating: * 1/2
Location: 21337 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; (310) 456-1221.
Ambience: Graceful, warm, homey dining room, quiet enough for conversation.
Service: Gracious, welcoming and extremely professional.
Price: First courses, $10 to $16; main courses, $20 to $37; desserts, $9 to $10.
Best dishes: Warm Gorgonzola tart, antipasto plate, sage-marinated free-range chicken, grilled flat-iron steak, black pepper tagliatelle.
Wine list: Small and not very adventurous, mostly from California. Corkage fee, $12; if you buy a bottle and bring a bottle, the corkage fee is waived.
Best table: A table for four next to the fireplace.
Details: Open for dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, till 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The bar opens at 5 p.m. Free self-parking in lot adjacent to restaurant.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times