Making Her Own Impression in the Sand

When Liza Utter, self-described proprietress of the Beach House in Santa Monica, recognizes a face, she introduces herself and explains that she's finally opened the restaurant of her dreams. For two years, she ran La Cachette in Century City with French chef Jean Franois Meteigner. "The business plan for that restaurant was my college thesis," says the 33-year-old, who sold her interest in the bistro in 1996. "Jean Francois is an amazing chef, but it was very much his restaurant and his style. I wanted something that was more me, someplace more casual and fun, where my friends would all feel comfortable."

She couldn't ask for a better location: the long-empty Les Anges space at the corner of West Channel Road and Pacific Coast Highway. The Beach House joins a mini restaurant row that includes Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi (which everybody still calls by its original name, Giorgio's) and the new-ish Canyon Bistro. The rustic building's peaked roof is the logo for Utter's business card. With its unrevealing facade and nondescript white door, it does feel like a beach hideaway or private club. Inside, you feel as if you're at a party where you don't know anyone and the hostess goes from table to table to make sure no one feels left out. On weekends especially, the restaurant is thronged with a young, affluent crowd, the neighborhood twenty- and thirtysomethings, dressed to show off their tan and taut figures.

The decor is spare: Evocative black-and-white photos of Utter and her friends frolicking in the sand line a hallway; casual bamboo matchstick blinds on the windows, horizontal slits that frame the early evening light, adorn the dining room. Pillar candles flicker in tall glass cylinders that are set in the wall between the entryway and the dining room. Lanterns in corners give the room even more of a romantic glow. A cropped sunflower floats in a round glass bowl on each table. Cushions tossed on the banquettes give a cozy feeling. Even cozier is the bar, nearly as big as the dining room and furnished with sofas slipcovered in white.

For her new venture, Utter has persuaded Josie LeBalch, who recently left Saddle Peak Lodge, to sign on as executive chef, at least for a while. LeBalch, going from mountain and game cookery to cooking at the beach, has devised an accessible all-American menu filled with the dishes that young diners love.

So you've got your ahi tuna salad. Your smoked salmon plate. A decent clam chowder. And light, pretty salads, like the one of endive, blue cheese and walnuts. One night, there's a delicious special appetizer of luscious figs topped with goat cheese and warmed in the oven. Gazpacho is thick enough to eat with a fork and has a nice peppery kick. Even the vaguely hippie veggie pocket has its fans, I'm sure. Of the appetizers, I'm partial to the bowl of steamers, which is either steamed clams or mussels in a savory broth laced with finely shaved fennel.

Specials are often some of the best things on the menu. Tiny bay scallops might appear in a chilled salad with ripe, perfect slices of papaya, ruffled purple basil and a splash of aceto balsamico. Ravioli of fresh albacore and chanterelle mushrooms is marred only by gluey pasta. One evening, the best entree is a beautifully cooked piece of wild white Alaskan salmon. Another night, Chilean sea bass is paired with Savoy cabbage and an unusual cross between asparagus and broccoli.

The best main course is the clam bake, a collection of clams, oysters, chunks of fish, a skinny lobster and corn on the cob cooked in parchment along with a few strands of seaweed for its perfume. It comes with a big wedge of LeBalch's addictive, coarsely textured corn bread. The clam bake, like all of the main courses, is substantial. I like the trout in a lemongrass nage with yellow wax beans and green beans that taste as if they came directly from the farmers market. Meaty lamb chops come with potato gratin, slender asparagus and quartered butternut squash. I don't know about the barbecue sauce on the ribs, though; it's very sweet,with hardly a lick of heat, and tastes remarkably like doctored catsup. A veal roast with baby vegetables is rather dull.

Another area that could use some improvement is the wine list, which has few interesting bottles, especially reds, for less than $40 or $50. Utter has a great opportunity to introduce her crowd to wine. But to do that, she's got to offer more appealing moderately priced wines and less obvious choices for those who know something about wine.

Aside from these glitches, Utter really does know how to make her guests comfortable. The staff's disarming friendliness obviously comes from the top. If the dining room reverberates with too many people having a good time (seriously, they need to do something about the acoustics), the hostess will try to find you another table--in the bar or outside in the small, fenced-in patio decorated with tubs of lavender and flowering vines. When the breeze kicks up, the hostess offers to lend women diners a sweater. I'm not sure where else anyone would notice--or care--that a guest isn't dressed warmly enough.

Waiters recite the dessert menu with relish, leaning heavily on the sundae, which is sometimes called the dream sundae. "It's three scoops of vanilla bean ice cream with chocolate chip cookies to crumble over, and caramel sauce and chocolate sauce and strawberries," our waiter explains breathlessly. But it's not my dream dessert. The buttery caramel sauce could be thicker, and the bittersweet chocolate sauce doesn't ball up as much as I like once it hits the cold ice cream. The strawberries could be riper, too. Better, I think, is the brownie glazed in darkest chocolate and served with a scoop of that excellent vanilla ice cream. Or the fresh peach and walnut crisp that comes warm straight from the oven. Don't pass up pastry chef Jonna Jensen's strawberry shortcake either. Buttery and short, it's slathered in softly whipped cream, piled with strawberries and blueberries, and has the taste of summer.

The Beach House doesn't try to be all things to all people. It's pretty much what Utter envisioned: a comfortable, casual spot for dinner and drinks. The food is likable. The wait staff tries hard to please. And with its young, sociable crowd, it makes for a perfect oceanside hangout.

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The Beach House

Cuisine: American. Ambience: Casual, pretty dining room with candlelight and attractive bar with tables and sofas. Best dishes: Steamers, clam bake, trout in lemongrass nage, brownie, peach crisp, strawberry shortcake. Wine Pick: Matanzas Creek Chardonnay, Sonoma. Facts: 100 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica; (310) 454-8299. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Appetizers, $7 to $10; main courses, $14 to $21. Corkage $10. Valet parking.

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