The Review: Huckleberry in Santa Monica

Restaurant Critic

Waiting for my order at Huckleberry in Santa Monica, I watch the line move, slowly, forward. Ballet flats, flip-flops, bicycle cleats, and Nikes, Manolos, and sturdy walking shoes and even a tiptoeing cane inch their way to the cash register. Sometimes at lunch the line is out the door, snaking past the tall wooden planters filled with herbs and greens and tomatoes, all the way into the parking lot in back.

From the avid look on people’s faces as they stream in, intent on that sugar fix, you’d think they’ve never seen a bakery before. And in fact, maybe they haven’t, at least not one quite like this offshoot of Rustic Canyon Wine Bar & Seasonal Kitchen, which, despite an occasional rough spot, is already one of the most talked-about new places in Southern California.

As pastry chef at Rustic Canyon, Zoe Nathan charmed customers with her lovely desserts and, most especially, her Saturday morning breakfast pastries and freshly made doughnuts. She also charmed the restaurant’s owner, Josh Loeb, and the two were recently married.

A Santa Monica native who worked at the highly regarded bakery Tartine in San Francisco, Nathan is a talented baker who goes for the luscious over the austere, uses butter and cream with abandon and makes some of the best biscuits ever. Those would be the incredibly flaky maple bacon biscuits that have become a morning fix for many a customer.

Oh, she can turn out proper croissants too. I’m talking real ones, made with butter, and not oversized. Her dense, buttery coffeecake -- a vein of brown sugar streusel running through the middle -- is tall and proud and worth every calorie.

She makes terrific muffins too. But I crave her crostata filled with blackberries that have melted halfway to jam, snug in a roughly shaped crust that melts in the mouth. At $8.50, it’s a pricey breakfast treat, but when it comes to sugar, most people aren’t thinking budget. And Huckleberry is not shy about pricing. It’s what my New York friends would call “costy.”

Fresh goodies

For those Saturday morning breakfasts, Nathan used to get up in the wee hours and bake all through the morning. And at Huckleberry, she again seems to be there every minute of every day, popping out of the kitchen to stuff a glass jar with cookies or slide a freshly baked layer cake onto a stand. Dark-eyed and dark-haired, she’s Leslie Caron in an apron, a quick, happy presence now with her own bakery to play in.

And who doesn’t crave those biscuits that shatter into crumbs at the first bite? Or her light, vanilla-scented cake doughnuts rolled in sugar? She also excels at savory pastries, such as croissants with prosciutto. But I’m especially fond of her flatbreads lavishly slicked with olive oil and spread with nettles and other greens.

There’s also a small menu of excellent cooked breakfast items. Poached eggs served on emerald snap peas with tiny orange cherry tomatoes and topped with a smear of green pesto and bread crumbs is pretty as a picture, a wonderful choice if you’re watching your carbs.

The Rustic Canyon house-smoked salmon platter beats that of almost any deli. The salmon is house-cured and the bagels are Huckleberry’s own. There’s a terrific fried egg sandwich on house-baked toast with wild arugula, Niman Ranch bacon and a soft, sunny-side-up egg.

Tea comes in cheerful orange pots. Decent cappuccino and espresso are made with Caffé Luxxe beans.

Huckleberry opens at 8. Then or shortly thereafter is when you have the best chance of getting a table right away. And that’s on weekdays! Saturday and Sunday brunch you take your chances, along with the governor and his family, and assorted actors, directors, models and the rest of Santa Monica society.

As good as breakfast is, though, you’re basically paying Campanile prices without the beautiful room or the finely tuned service. You stand in line, order, pay, get a number and the hot food is delivered to your table when it’s ready. If it’s not delivered to someone else’s table, something that seems to happen not infrequently. And the cafe itself is just a storefront, very plain and basic, except for the evocative hand-tinted photos on the walls.

Growing pains

Huckleberry is best for its morning pastries, though even that seems a little up in the air now. I think because the restaurant has been so slammed since the doors opened, the kitchen team is having trouble keeping up. Not everything is as good as I remember from the Saturday-morning-only days, but that’s sure to improve over time.

The cafe part of the menu needs more serious work. The salads in the glass cases don’t always look that appealing. And sandwiches are mostly in the sloppy joe vein -- turkey meatball (tastier than the usual) in tomato sauce on ciabatta makes for a messy sandwich. Pulled barbecued chicken tastes like plain chicken doused with a really sweet barbecue sauce.

One evening I ordered an early Sunday dinner to take out, and it was all pretty decent. The rotisserie chicken was nicely cooked and still warm. We bought breads and various salads (cumin-roasted baby carrots was a favorite), along with various cookies and desserts. Everything tasted homemade. In the end, though, we spent more than $200 to feed six people -- and that’s for takeout.

The best idea is probably sticking to the sweet stuff. Nathan’s got some great desserts, including cakes. I love her vanilla layer cake with chocolate frosting. The eclairs are luscious too. And chocolate pudding.

You never know what you’ll find in the pastry case. One day it was a glass bowl of trifle layered with brilliant berries and cream.

Though Huckleberry may be experiencing some growing pains, it’s a great addition to the Santa Monica food scene. With time, I’m sure it will come around. And we’ll see what the line looks like then.

HuckleberryRATING: * 1/2 LOCATION 1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-2311; Storefront bakery and cafe from Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb of Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica featuring Nathan’s irresistible baked goods, plus breakfast items, salads, sandwiches and takeout rotisserie birds.SERVICE Friendly and earnest but sometimes slow because of the crowds.PRICE Breakfast items, $9.50 to $14.50; breakfast pastries, $2.75 to $8.50; lunch salads, $10.50 to $12.75; sandwiches, $9.50 to $13.50; whole rotisserie birds, $23 to $42.BEST DISHES Poached eggs over fresh market vegetables, fried egg sandwich, cured salmon platter, maple bacon biscuits, fruit crostata, coffeecake, layer cake, doughnuts, trifle, salted caramel, rotisserie chicken, homemade English muffins, country boule and multigrain loaf, flatbread of the day.DRINKS LIST Artisanal sodas, teas and coffee. No wine or beer.BEST TABLE One in the front corner.DETAILS Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Parking in large lot in back. (Open on Tuesdays starting June 2.)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.