As we squeak past the last days of summer, it’s never too late to make one more trip to the beach. Dinner at the Sunset on Zuma Beach could be just the right antidote to stave off the inevitable sadness as fall comes on with its shorter days and longer nights. Not to mention longer pants and sweaters.
Bring a sharp-eyed navigator if you’re planning to arrive at the 6-year-old restaurant after dark. With headlights in your eyes, it’s hard to spot the turnoff from Pacific Coast Highway onto Westward Beach Road. Then you bounce down a dark country lane to the bungalow restaurant lighted up against the cliffs at the end.
Musicians are unloading their gear, including a bucket for tips, from a truck. Out front, a clutch of smokers hang out like errant teenagers, smoking, shielding lighters against the wind with their hands, in some kind of L.A. noir.
Inside, the Sunset looks slightly different than the last time I was here. It’s had a makeover this year. Designer Janette Mallory has stripped away the Moroccan-themed decor and given it a smart modern bistro look, the better to show off the view. She’s installed curvy black leather banquettes and added a second bar at the end of the room. (The original one just inside the front door is hopping, the cocktail shakers shaking.)
Owners Rodolfo Costella and Franco Simplicio, who have a lock on Malibu dining with both Moonshadows and Alegria Malibu in their portfolio, have brought in a new chef to revamp the menu. He’s Texas-born Jake Rojas, who comes with an impressive resume, including stints as sous chef to Joel Robuchon at the Mansion at the MGM Grand and as chef de partie for Alain Ducasse at Mix in the Hotel at Mandalay Bay, both in Vegas.
But don’t start speed-dialing all your foodie acquaintances, at least not quite yet. That experience doesn’t yet seem to completely translate to the Sunset’s menu. And I’m left wondering why. At this point the Sunset is a perfectly fine casual restaurant at the beach, but not much more.
Downstairs, which is most of the restaurant, it’s lively and fun with a mostly local crowd. Upstairs is a petite dining room called the White Room reached via elevator. With windows open to the breeze, white leather slipper armchairs and striped banquettes, it’s a lovely spot for a quiet dinner (that is, until the band kicks in downstairs). Two moods, one restaurant. Up here the menu is basically an edited version of the one downstairs with a few more ambitious dishes added to the mix, such as foie gras, filet of beef in a sherry demi- glace or pan-roasted salmon in Worcestershire beurre blanc.
Rojas’ experience with those two stellar chefs shows up in the way he perfectly sears a scallop of foie gras. It’s presented upstairs as an appetizer on curry-scented French toast, with maple syrup, a smear of peach jam and almond dust.
But for sheer fun, downstairs is the place. Specials chalked on the blackboard next to the back bar on a recent night listed the oysters, the Sunset seafood platter, a filet for a whopping $52 and halibut for $32, neither of which seems like much of a bargain.
However, $9 buys two pork barbecue “sliders” that are big enough to barely qualify as sliders -- and quite good too, pulled pork in a tangy sauce and a soft brioche bun. (Take a note: At happy hour, Tuesday to Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., they’re just $5 for two.) A generous portion of crispy fried squid with a gutsy smoked paprika aioli is $8 and perfect for sharing with drinks.
Loch Duart smoked salmon flatbread sounds elegant but turns out to be slivered salmon on a homemade cracker bread garnished with red onion, dill and a cream cheese bechamel sauce -- pretty dull compared with the flatbread competition elsewhere on the Westside.
Heirloom tomato bisque made with tomatoes from Tutti Frutti Farms is comforting and delicious. So is a nicely dressed Bibb lettuce salad with radishes, red onion and blue cheese dressing. (I’d lose the balsamic reduction, though.) Both are good enough to be grateful for, so close to the beach. The menu lays on plenty of other salads too, including one of arugula with corn, avocado and the crunch of jicama in a cilantro vinaigrette.
At $68, “the Sunset” seafood platter is just average, a platter of half a dozen oysters, four very big mussels, some shrimp and meaty king crab legs. The best thing on it is a citrusy lobster salad. A dozen oysters might be a better choice.
Sweet corn ravioli shows up on a lot of menus, and this is a perfectly respectable version accented with hon-shimeiji mushrooms, sweet peppers and creamy feta cheese. But what’s going on with the spaghetti Bolognese? The big oval bowl of spaghetti swimming in tomato sauce and ground meat may be one of the worst versions I’ve ever encountered. Don’t order it.
The two best main courses are the most straightforward: the burger and fish ‘n’ chips. The hefty, loosely packed burger comes on a soft challah bun with roasted garlic aioli and caramelized onion. Fish ‘n’ chips is made from whitefish and comes with lemon caper aioli and a heap of fries.
The misses include Jidori barbecued chicken, which is simply half a chicken slathered after the fact in a sweet barbecue sauce. The bird is outshined by the fresh grilled corn, braised greens and buttery mashed potatoes that come with it. Chicken BLT is equally misguided. Served in a burger bun instead of on toast, it’s messy, and not very good.
However, you can drink pretty well -- by the glass or, even better, by the quartino (250 ml.), though only four wines are offered in that format. The list is wide-ranging, with a number of choices by the bottle for less than $50.
For dessert, share the big banana split with all the fixings or the ice cream sandwiches -- two to an order, with chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies.
In general, though, the food isn’t as polished as you’d expect from someone who has worked in Ducasse’s and Robuchon’s kitchens. It’s hard to know what the problem is: Maybe the chef simply doesn’t have enough help. Or maybe he’s playing it more executive than hands-on.
Malibu has such a shortfall of good restaurants, though, that even this somewhat flawed effort is to be appreciated, especially adding in the Sunset’s hardworking bar, unbeatable views, appealingly laid-back local scene and live music to the equation.
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The Sunset Restaurant *
6800 Westward Beach Road, Malibu; (310) 589-1007; www.thesunsetrestaurant.com
Starters $8 to $10; flatbreads $10 to $12; salads $10 to $16; sandwiches $13 to $15; main courses $12 to $20 ($23 to $32 upstairs); sides $5; dessert $8. Brunch items $10 to $18. Corkage fee $15.
Open Tuesday to Friday 5 to 10 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking $3.50.
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.