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Sunset Grill: A Neighborly Restaurant in Santa Monica

Certain new restaurants careen into a neighborhood as if they were crashing a party, so at odds is their aesthetic and their price range with the milieu. Other places surface and, right away, feel like an old friend. The Sunset Grill, just 4 months old on the corner of Ocean Park Boulevard and 17th Street, is a little bit of both.

It’s set in a still-sleepy part of Santa Monica that looks almost the same as it might have in 1953. But swivel around and check out what’s written on the the Sunset Grill’s blackboard menu (grilled duck sausage, spicy Jamaican chicken breast) and you know it’s the end of the century.

I was placing my to-go order when a woman with a Liverpudlian accent walked in. “D’ya have some of that rice me mum luvs so much?”

“The basmati with raisins? I’m sorry,” owner Jean Lorda said. “We change dishes every day.”

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The Liverpudlian asked for a taste of the tortellini salad and the ratatouille. “Nice place ya got,” she said. “But where are the school kids gonna go? This used to be their burger-and-fries joint.”

Well, the kids across the street will still find hamburgers (juicy, solid) and fries (pale, frozen, forgettable). They’ll also find low prices, a mom-and-pop feeling (Jean’s wife, Frances, is usually around) and a couple of traces of France.

A businessman appeared. “I’d like that great sandwich I had last week.”

Lorda looked up from the Caesar salad he was tossing--a fine Caesar it is, with a jolt of garlic and really crunchy croutons--and squinted his eyes. “Didn’t you have the Royal Vegetarian?” (A splendid choice, I had it the next time I came in: a tier of unusually sweet roasted peppers, streams of velvety marinated Japanese eggplant, sun-dried tomato and toasted pine nuts; it’s served with a perky balsamic vinegared green salad for $4.95.)

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Jean Lorda, who hails from Biarritz, makes a homey linguine basquaise , full of sweet and slow-cooked tomatoes, onions and green pepper. The only thing I didn’t like about this dish--and about Sunset Grill--is that the sauce leaked through its dumb plastic foam container onto the carpet of my car. (My post-Earth Day pitch: Tell all the take-out shop owners you encounter to switch to aluminum tins with cardboard tops; they can be used at home over and over again.)

Hand-cut, homey vegetable soup is always on the stove here. And salads have perky, clear-tasting vegetables--though they tend to be on the under-seasoned side, and a few need to go the last yard. Potato salad tasted merely of mayonnaise and undercooked spud. Noodles with tarragon and caraway-seeded sausage needs a more vigorous finish.

The sausage plates, all $4.25, are served with lots of wonderful smoky, cooked red cabbage slivered confetti thin and dolled up with a sweet vinegar brew. There are lean veal sausages, fennel-dense duck (from Jody Maroni) and even a maple sausage served with potatoes. (Breakfast-to-go starts at 7:30 a.m.)

Grilled skinless chicken breast, marinated in olive oil, is juicy and attended by hot ratatouille. The Jamaican chicken has a hint of coriander, cumin, cinnamon and mango Champagne vinegar marinade; it’s served with sweet grilled pineapple and mellow, raisin-studded curried rice.

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A research psychologist just told me that nutmeg has been found to be a calming substance. Maybe that’s why this namby-pamby-looking pasta primavera (little bits of zucchini, really sweet carrots, a toss of peas in a warm bath of nutmeg cream sauce) tastes so comforting.

The neighborhood has found out about Lorda’s lovely homemade $2 creme caramel. The first batch is often gone by lunch and the second isn’t ready until supper time. The only thing to do is to become a regular. Then, perhaps, Jean Lorda will sock one away for you. Like I said, it’s a neighborly place.

Sunset Grill, 1701 Ocean Park Blvd . , Santa Monica. (213) 450-7546. Open Monday through Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Checks and cash only. Parking available.


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