Fruitful endeavor

RESTAURANT CRITIC

Against all odds, not one, but two excellent hotel restaurants have opened in the last few months. First, we had the Bazaar by Jose Andres, the dynamic tapas restaurant in the new SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills. And now we have Fig in the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica.

OK, there's no ocean view: all the better to focus on chef Ray Garcia's cooking. Never heard of him? You will, because this young chef is doing something very interesting at Fig, a restaurant that doesn't feel like a hotel restaurant. Fig is not only convincing guests to stay in: Garcia is also drawing a local crowd for his bright California cooking.

Instead of a formal restaurant, the management has gone with a casual place that's part wine bar, part California bistro. With its high whitewashed wood ceiling and cheery orange and brown striped banquettes, the look is inviting and surprisingly cozy. A tall communal table sits beneath a wall covered in mismatched sunburst mirrors. On the semicircular zinc bar, cheeses are laid out in front of a fromager, or cheese guy, who's ready to tell all about the chevre and the blues, the charcuterie too, some of which is made by the chef. And instead of starchy linens, the napkin is a waffle-weave dish towel.

Eating at the bar is perfect if you're on your own, or a twosome. It's also kind of romantic, I found when I stopped in for a late dinner one night with two friends.

Ravenous, we started with a charcuterie plate that included Fra' Mani salumi, savory pork rillettes and rustic house-made pate (all of it good, though the quantity seemed a little mingy for the price). I couldn't help noticing the couple next to us flirting over Champagne and rich, unabashedly sensual triple creme. Whenever things got too intense, the gentleman would ask the fromager a question, or compliment him, once again, on the temperature of the cheeses. Eventually, there was a kiss. But funny thing, they weren't the only ones that night. Somebody else was smooching on the other side of the zinc bar. On that basis alone, I'd have to say it's a raging success.

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Salad daze

I felt like a salad too, so I ordered the "blistered" Little Gem lettuce, a wonderful green that seems to combine the crispness of romaine with the flavor of a butter lettuce. I've only found it at the Santa Monica farmers market -- and then only occasionally. Served wilted and warm, with white anchovies draped over, it's delicious.

There's also a terrific version of curly endive salad with soft-poached egg and slivers of crispy pig's ear instead of bacon. (Another good choice is the warm fluffy quinoa salad dotted with baked butternut squash and toasted almonds.)

After that, steak frites, a menu category that includes three choices of meat: You take your pick. I chose the bavette -- the same cut you find in France when you order steak frites: It's a little chewy, but with good beefy flavor, and fairly inexpensive. Fig's bavette comes through with flying colors. Even better, though, are the skinny fries heaped next to the 8-ounce steak. They're crisp on the outside, fluffy inside and fried with baby sage leaves and a shower of parsley. (On another visit, I tried the entrecote, which is more marbled, and therefore quite tender.)

Green is the new gold. And so chefs and restaurateurs are busy trying to position themselves as being sustainable, organic, local or all three. At Fig, I do sense a real commitment to buying what's fresh and local. The bottom of the menu lists what has "just arrived," what is "in peak season" and what is "coming soon." It's a small thing, but it functions like a compass to orient diners to the season.

The restaurant even enlists a forager, whose name is , responsible for sourcing ingredients from local farms and the farmers market. Radical for a hotel restaurant.

Here, for example, lovely rose-and-white breakfast radishes garnish a starter of tongue braised to tenderness and served in a piquant tomatillo sauce. Or you can get primo Carlsbad oysters on the half shell, or a bowl of local mussels steamed in Chablis with a little tarragon.

A mini-baguette comes wrapped in a paper bag, with a crock of cool, perfectly salted arugula butter. Nine dollars buys a very nice tarte flambee (a thin-crusted Alsatian tart, something like a pizza) spread with fromage blanc (a light, fresh cheese) and lardons of bacon. It's all pretty good.

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Well-priced fare

For the most part, prices are moderate for an upscale hotel dining room. A small French canning jar of house-cured pickles -- cauliflower florets, blond and orange carrots, cipollini onions and quartered artichokes -- is just $4, a whole trout entree with braised baby savoy cabbage, $20. Even the desserts are reasonable, not $12 or more, but $5 if you order cookies, $8 or $9 for the other choices.

The real steal, though -- and it's fabulous -- is seared tuna nicoise for $22 (a half order is $17). Most fresh tuna versions don't do much for me, but this one is pitch perfect in terms of flavor and balance. The tuna, blood-rare, comes stacked on top like dominoes. Underneath are demure little heirloom fingerlings, haricots verts and purple-black olives.

Garcia has a fine sense of which flavors go together. He'll put sweet Maine diver scallops against the meaty fire of chorizo and gentle butter beans and leeks -- a terrific combination even though the scallops are sometimes a little overcooked. Duck magret comes with farro instead of potatoes, and a salad made with three different varieties of oranges, so you get the sweetness that plays so well against the duck.

Every main course comes with its own accompaniments, but you can also order some extras, such as snap peas with tarragon or baby broccoli with preserved lemon. One night, there were adorable pinkie-sized baby carrots from Weiser Family Farms with segments of Cara Cara orange on top.

For dessert, the menu comes full circle with an haute version of Fig Newton with a tender, buttery pastry and fine house-made ice creams. But if you're having just one dessert, go with the deep, delicious chocolate pot de creme, big enough for two, or for everyone at the table to have a single rich spoonful.

Simple. But if it really were so easy to do a restaurant serving fresh seasonal cuisine at moderate prices, we would be rolling in them.

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irene.virbila@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fig Restaurant ** 1/2

LOCATION

Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, 101 Wilshire Blvd. (at Ocean Avenue), Santa Monica; (310) 319-3111; www.fig santamonica.com

AMBIENCE

Casual hotel restaurant with farmers market roots featuring the cooking of chef Ray Garcia and a changing cast of vegetables, seafood and meats from the restaurant's official forager. There's a charcuterie and cheese bar with the resident cheese expert, cozy banquettes, a communal table and a terrace with French doors overlooking the pool.

SERVICE

Attentive, if just a bit fussy.

PRICE

Dinner snacks, $4 to 12; cheese plates, $5 to $25; salads, $10 to $17; starters, $8 to market price; main courses, $17 to $29; sides, $6 to $8; desserts, $5 to $9.

BEST DISHES

"Blistered" Little Gem romaine, curly endive with soft-poached egg and crispy pig's ear, seared tuna nicoise, Muscovy duck leg or breast with savoy cabbage, Kurobuta tenderloin, 8-ounce bavette steak frites, chanterelles with chestnuts, fig bars, chocolate pot de creme.

WINE LIST

Eclectic and well-chosen, good selection by the glass, plus four draft beers. Corkage fee, $20.

DETAILS

Open from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Wine and beer. Valet parking, three hours complimentary with validation. Note: Breakfast begins May 4 from 7 to 11 a.m. daily, lunch starting May 18 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

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.

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Look inside Fig

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