"Desperately seeking a romantic restaurant" was the subject line on a recent e-mail. Good one. It's not so easy, especially when the seeker adds, "some place dark, quiet, by the beach." Abode, a new restaurant tucked behind Tengu on Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica within shouting distance of Palisades Park, would seem to fit the criteria.
Check out those curvy chocolate-upholstered booths in the main dining room, half screened by filmy curtains -- what could be more romantic? Or there are tables in the courtyard garden where a pair of antique Indian doors set in the wall conjures up the exotic. A French chef, Dominique Crenn, proposes sustainable cuisine based on produce from the Santa Monica farmers market. Virtuous and romantic at the same time. How perfect.
Wait. Hit the pause button right before that fantasy gets away from you. Romantic should also mean food that doesn't demand too much attention. Delicious, but easy to eat. You don't want to be fussing with implements instead of paying court to your date, or following instructions as to how to eat the dish.
You could start with oysters; Abode has lovely ones, which you can have with a squeeze of lemon or a few drops of balsamic sherry. But order practically anything else and those beautiful ingredients have been teased into overly complicated preparations that require identification and explanation. Pity the server who has to remember all the details and must interrupt your conversation to point out each element of a dish.
Less than perfect
On a hot late-summer night, prosciutto and melon sound appealing; you're picturing a wedge of luscious dry-farmed local melon with some fabulous salty-sweet artisanal prosciutto. That, I'm afraid, would be too cut and dried. What arrives is a minty soup in which two melon balls bob and are accompanied by a cube of jellied Port wine. The prosciutto, a wonderful one from La Quercia in Iowa, comes after, on the side. Oh, it also comes with a peppercorn ice cream that's as sweet as anything from Baskin-Robbins. Though the soup is refreshing, I'm left with a melon craving and wonder how the Port cube and the ice cream got in the picture, because neither makes sense with the other flavors.
Crenn, whose experience is mostly in the high-end hotel world, isn't trying to make as much of a statement with chilled sweet corn soup with fennel, and it works much better. The flavor of the corn and fennel is seductive, and a garnish of mussels and Pernod emulsion, which echoes the fennel, works beautifully. In another dish, mussels are steamed and heaped with fat stubs of braised leeks in a subtle saffron sauce. This I like very much, especially those delicious leeks trailing the sauce. Both appetizers are understated, not straining for effect.
A baby-beet salad piled in the hollow of a fine white porcelain bowl glistens like rubies. It's topped with a scoop of whipped Laura Chenel goat cheese, which is lovely against the deep vegetal taste of the beets. The salad is also strewn with some sugared pecans and wild cress. A few cubes of beet gelée sit on the side.
Wagyu beef tartare sounds very with-it. The Kobe-style beef is on all the best tables these days. Here it's diced by hand to make a fine, tender tartare. It's lightly seasoned, and you can also break the raw quail egg and mix it into the beef. But eek! There's no time to murmur sweet nothings into your paramour's ear -- a scoop of something placed on the rim of the plate is melting fast. What did the waiter call this? "Mustard frost, that's it. But it's sweet, as if someone had added a little mustard powder to ice cream.
To complete the trendy picture, there's some foam on the plate, like horseradish-flavored spittle on the side. Crenn has taken the idea from cutting-edge chefs but missed the point. The influence of Spanish chef Ferran Adrià is everywhere, but he can pull off follies like this. His Parmesan ice cream, for example, tastes exactly like frozen Parmesan, not like vanilla ice cream with added cheese. And that's its magic.
After several meals at Abode, I can't help but feel the kitchen has taken a wrong turn somewhere. The cooks are spending too much time on arts and crafts projects -- painting the sauces, primping the ingredients, whipping up those foams -- and not enough on considering how the food tastes to a hapless diner. Crenn is not alone in this. Many chefs want to be fashionable; some become fashion victims.
The atmosphere misfires too. For a place by the beach, Abode seems terribly fussy and formal. The name and the design don't mesh; there's nothing homey about the place. Instead, the design is urban chic, with a sleek bar, coy tables half screened by curtains and a back dining room crowded with tall-backed tangerine leather chairs. Chocolate metal chandeliers dangle overhead looking like giant insects.
And though the patio itself is inviting, with stands of bamboo swaying slightly in the breeze and sculptural plants in tall ocher pots, the pedestal tables look like something from a coffee shop.
On a recent visit, our party dawdles over its entrees, not wanting to finish the beef tenderloin "paella style": a mushy tenderloin with good flavor flanked by squid stuffed with saffron rice with langoustines and mussels. If the chef's going to conjure up the vision of paella, that rice had better be something exceptional. This is just tired. Plus there's foam, merguez foam, referring to the spicy North African sausage. How that fits with anything else on the plate, I don't know.
My scallops with spicy tomato chutney would have been fine except the sauce has so much balsamic, it kills the taste of the scallops. And the yogurt on the plate is dosed with vanilla. The foam? Vadouvan, a term only the most avid foodie would know, an aromatic Indian spice mix.
Chocolate monkey tea
Duck breast gets one of the longer descriptive monologues with a litany of ingredients that includes "chocolate monkey tea." Of course, everybody has to stop and ask what that is. Tea that's rolled up with chocolate and put in the sauce, comes the explanation. Forget dinner conversation. I'm trying to picture tea rolled in chocolate and put into sauce. The duck could be more flavorful and less cooked. Surrounded by peaches, berries and baby summer squash in a slightly sweet sauce, it looks forlorn.
You're better off ordering the plainer Kurobuta pork loin with caramelized apples and nappa cabbage cooked with bacon lardons, an updated French grandmother's dish.
The chef's specialty is lamb two ways, and that's exactly what to order. You get the baby chops, along with the succulent braised cheek with fava beans and garbanzos. Bones are sexy, so be sure to share a couple of those chops.
And order a beautiful bottle of red from the small list, like the Ojai Syrah, served in handsome stemware. For those romantic special occasions, the list offers a good selection of Champagnes and sparkling wines including a half bottle of Krug Grand Cuvée for $150 and a 1996 Salon Blanc de Blancs for $397. But there are also a number of whites under $50, including Alois Lageder's Pinot Bianco from the Alto Adige.
Come dessert time, the study in chocolate is the one to get, a tray of various chocolate desserts, which includes an eggshell filled with molten chocolate cake. Now this is fun to eat, and just the thing to share with your date.
Just tune out the poor waiter's exhaustive item-by-item description. It will only get in the way of the pleasure, which is less about analyzing everything on the plate and more about enjoying the company of your significant other.
Rating: Half a star
Location: 1541 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-3463; www.aboderestaurant.com.
Ambience: Contemporary restaurant and lounge with tangerine leather chairs and chocolate metal chandeliers. A courtyard garden offers outdoor seating. A polished, urban setting by the beach.
Service: Amiable and earnest. Servers have a mix of experience, and reciting everything that goes into each dish is a real challenge.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $10 to $22; main courses, $22 to $39; desserts, $10 to $14.
Best dishes: Chilled white corn and fennel chowder, bouchot mussels with leeks, Kurobuta pork loin with caramelized apples, Niman Ranch lamb two ways, study in chocolate.
Wine list: Respectable selection of French and domestic wines. Corkage fee, $30.
Best table: A curtained semicircular booths or a corner in the garden.
Details: Open for dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday; for brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Late night lounge menu served until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturday. Full bar. 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.