Splendid isolation, you could call this. Splendid, certainly: The Palm Court is all high ceilings and great sheets of marble and glass. It sports a reflecting pool and, needless to say, a decent stand of palm trees.
But isolation, for sure. It’s in the enclosed courtyard of a huge office building, part of a regular forest of office buildings at the corner of Santa Monica and Sepulveda boulevards. When the restaurant opened in late spring, it was only for breakfast and lunch, two hours when it has the neighborhood office workers pretty much to itself.
Recently it opened for dinner as well--a big step, because at dinner the Palm Court has to lure people from far away. Actually, it’s not particularly remote, only a block or two east of the San Diego Freeway (depending on whether you count tiny Pontius Street), but a deserted business district always feels like the far side of the moon after dark. Fortunately, the underground parking in the Palm Court’s own building alleviates the spookiness, and fortunately, the food is worth a drive.
What sort of food is it? The kind that makes it hard to ignore the fact that the Palm Court is owned by Parties Plus, the major-league catering service. This feels like top-flight caterer’s food: versatile, eclectic and serenely up to date. Chef Rich Kitos may very well be making personal culinary statements here, but inevitably you suspect Parties Plus’ sensitive finger on the pulse of L.A. taste.
To put it another way: Though it has hints of French, Japanese, Central American and even plain old American cooking, this is basically a menu drenched with Italian influence.
Apart from breakfast, that is. Breakfast caters to the usual American a.m. ambivalence--healthful grains or luxurious eggs?--though in novel ways. You can get a sort of conceptual hash: a crab cake with browned cubed potatoes and startlingly fresh poached eggs, not mixed together but arranged side by side on the plate.
For the rest of the day, this is a restaurant enthusiastically part of an age when there must be olive oil and a basket of fresh breads at the table (here the basket includes a delicious white bread with swirls of olive paste in it). There must be pasta and radicchio and bufalla mozzarella on the menu.
But our town is not looking for Italian cuisine as such; we want all those excellent foods, but we want them on our own terms: that is, not necessarily in strict antipasto-pasta-entree order, and with non-Italian options and extras. Particularly at dessert, when we prefer things French or American.
So at lunch there’s a polenta of the day, at dinner there’s a risotto of the day. (You can get polenta at dinner as well, with a rich sauce of spinach and Italian bacon, but it’s fried polenta, like mere fried cornmeal mush; at lunch the polenta has a light texture of unmatched tenderness.)
But since we want our options and extras, at lunch, the Palm Court serves ravioli with a stuffing that includes ricotta and sun-dried tomato--and also goat cheese, that cheese of the age. At breakfast and dinner you can get a pupusa , the Salvadoran cornmeal pancake stuffed with--an Italian touch--ricotta.
Oddly, given the wide influence antipasto has had on our tables, none of the dinner appetizers seems Italian. The mussel chowder is a cousin of clam chowder, and the soup of the day might be potato soup with bits of smoked turkey and crunchy, barely cooked chunks of carrot and green beans. Salmon gyoza looks like ravioli, large and flat with scalloped edges, but you taste soy rather than butter in the sauce. The most appealing appetizer is the seared tuna served on slices of cantaloupe sprinkled with black mustard seed, all in a delicate Japanese ponzu vinaigrette.
The menu lists “antipasti,” but what it calls by that name is a plate of three sandwich-like tidbits: anchovy between slices of eggplant and roasted red pepper, garlicky ricotta between slices of zucchini, and mozzarella between slices of green tomato. It’s Italian ingredients subjected to the Franco-Japanese treatment rather than anything the world knows as antipasto.
At the same time, the entrees occasionally have the feeling of antipasti: plates with various savory ingredients arranged together for ad lib nibbling, combinations that neither clash nor form close harmonies. They’re looser and more casual arrangements than the marriage of flavors French chefs traditionally aim at. I’m thinking of “salmon paillard,” for which the thin-sliced salmon is not grilled over a flame like chicken paillard, but under it, searing it to the plate. It’s topped (despite the menu’s nattering about various herbs) with baby asparagus, long spears of chives and a salad of diced cucumber and yogurt.
The most attractive entree is lamb chops with rosemary, garlic, mint and basil, with a sauce of port wine and balsamic vinegar. This sounds like one of those dishes with about three ingredients too many, but the result is subtle and intriguing, as if some new ingredient had been discovered--perhaps some unheard-of cousin of the kumquat. I’m not quite sure, however, what the fried mashed potato patty (which the menu calls “rosti potatoes”) is doing to earn its seat on this plate. Pleasant though it is.
There’s a straightforward and not un-Italianate stew of shellfish piled high in a bowl and garnished with herb-flavored fritters, and a rugged peasanty dish of roasted chicken with Calamata olives and garlic. The medallions of turkey piccata are like a light, clean-tasting veal piccata (though the slices of turkey, in a delicate egg batter, are rather thick), garnished with slightly jarring sections of bitter-sweet caramelized lemon. It’s a little like a piccata with chutney. Sometimes on special there’s a swordfish piccata that’s more like the traditional item.
And then the menu lists a couple of wild California-style leaps of faith. The double duck breast comes in a sweetish sauce that seems to have ground onion in it; perfectly nice, but the cornmeal crepes that accompany it are filled with fig, suggesting ever so slightly that a Fig Newton or two has fallen into the gravy. The grilled prime rib is supposed to come with garlic and horseradish sauce and sundried cherries, but the reality I had was happily more down to earth: The beef came in a meaty sauce and was topped with some roasted garlic cloves.
The Palm Court continues to serve one of the best chocolate ice creams around. Its apple pie is always huge, but the recipe has taken its time finding itself. I’ve had it with a dense filling, evidently including bread crumbs between the apple slices, and I’ve had it with solid masses of apple, and once I had it with a distinct overdose of clove and nutmeg. The crust has always been fresh and good, though, and the latest model is hard to fault.
There’s always a brown butter tart, with a buttery, slightly chewy crust and a seasonal fruit filling, and a chocolate mousse cake with a cherry filling that comes in triangular slices. Neither of these stands head and shoulders above this city’s dessert crowd, but in their humble way the Palm Court’s cookies do. You get a selection that might include some chocolate cookies--one with a dash of mint flavor, the other with white chocolate bits in it--and some peanut butter cookies, possibly frosted with chocolate, and a perfect oatmeal cookie.
Cookies? OK, cookies. Even when the Palm Court is being self-consciously experimental, there’s always something genial and down to earth about its food. The main problem I see with the place is getting used to the idea of the corner of Sepulveda and Santa Monica as restaurant territory.
11111 Santa Monica Boulevard, Westwood, (213) 479-1400.
Breakfast 7:30-10 a.m. Monday-Friday; lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 6-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Full bar. Validated parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $35-$75.
Suggested dishes: mussel chowder, $5; antipasti, $8.50; seared tuna, $9; grilled polenta with spinach pesto, $8.75; paillard of cured salmon, $17.75; lamb chops, $19.50; apple pie, $4.50; cookies, $4.50.