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RESTAURANT REVIEW : The Daily Specials Sparkle at Whitney’s

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On my second visit to Whitney’s, I was standing outside of the restaurant waiting for a friend to arrive when a couple walked past. “Oh look,” said the man. “They’ve put in a fancy new restaurant here.”

Since I had already eaten at Whitney’s once, I chafed at this assessment; it struck me as inaccurate--and unfair. For, although Whitney’s is located on a rather fancy stretch of Montana Boulevard and does indeed look new and sparkling and altogether somewhat great, it is not fussy or extravagant. It’s really a kind of nouvelle Mom-and-Pop neighborhood cafe.

The front is thick green glass. Inside, everything is black and white. The tables are set with white linen and black plates and the eastern wall is white with black polka dots and hung with five black and white ceramic platters by Mineo Mizuno. There are black blinds, black wrought-iron chairs, plain white walls. There is good, pure white light. The service staff wears black and white.

Except for a spare flower arrangement, the colors in this restaurant come from the customers themselves. When the place is bustling, as it was on a recent Monday night, the effect is lively and striking--the clients in their various florals and plaids and solid colors bring the room to life.

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Mostly though, it’s unfair to call Whitney’s fancy because it’s not. You don’t, for instance, need reservations to set foot in the door--in fact, the restaurant doesn’t take reservations. And Whitney’s is not a place where you need to dress up--or down--to go. Some men were in jeans and T-shirts, others were in suits; women wore cotton sundresses, some wore silk. And there’s nothing fancy about Whitney’s moderate prices.

Chefs Whitney Werner and Cheryl Kunitake Werner serve salads, pastas, five seafood entrees, one $25 prix-fixe dinner and a handful of daily specials. Both the pastas and the salads come in half orders or full orders. A half order of salad and a seafood entree, or half a salad and a pasta would be just right for most mid-sized appetites.

The food itself is eclectic. It reflects both California multiculturalism and the chef’s own proclivities.

Sometimes--a little too often, in fact--the eclecticism seems to exist for its own sake and not for any good cause such as flavor or texture or appearance. The tuna carpaccio, for example, is two paper-thin slices of tasty peppered tuna crisscrossed with mustard and served with a daub of unappealing gray paste made of chopped olives and garlic.

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This same paste appeared under a crust of melted Parmesan cheese atop a beautifully cooked wedge of salmon. The toppings were both gratuitous and too tough to cut through without demolishing the delicate fish below, so my sister, who ordered the dish, promptly scraped the stuff off and enjoyed the salmon plain.

I’d ordered the prix-fixe dinner, which included the tuna, a good Caesar salad and lamb chops. Much like the salmon, the chops were of good quality and gorgeously cooked but came under a crust of bread crumbs that tasted of scorched dried herbs. Another bit of scraping took place.

Other dishes, however, were inspired. In fact, virtually all the daily specials we tried knocked us out. A special appetizer of sauteed scallops with a light ponzu sauce was simple and delicious, as was another special appetizer of house-made egg rolls.

A Cajun chicken came to the table undercooked and we had to send it back; the final product, however, was well worth the wait: The meat was crisp, spicy and succulent. Another good dish: the peppered tuna steak with ponzu sauce that came with good pan-fried noodles.

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The pastas ranged from a light, classically Italian checca (fresh tomato, olive oil, garlic and basil) to a spicy-hot Thai spaghetti with shrimp, chicken and egg--except for the Italian noodle, it was essentially pad Thai.

I also liked the Louisiana fettuccine with tequila shrimp and hot andouille sausage, although it was disappointingly short on the sweet, fresh shrimp--there were only four cocktail-sized shrimp in a full-sized order.

A rich house-made cheesecake and chocolate-caramel-hazelnut torte make good desserts for after-dinner lingering. And on each of our visits, whether or not we were passionate or indifferent to our particular meals, we found ourselves so relaxed and comfortable in Whitney’s whimsical black-and-white room that nobody was in any hurry to leave.

Whitney’s, 1518 Montana Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 458-4114. Open for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner Monday through Saturday. Beer and wine. MasterCard and Visa. Parking in rear Dinner for two, food only, $30-$55.

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