Only a month left to try Zarah Khan’s inspired cooking at Rustic Canyon. Start by ordering dal

Zarah Khan making a steaming pot of couscous in the kitchen of Rustic Canyon
Zarah Khan makes couscous in the kitchen of Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica.
(Katrina Frederick)
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At Rustic Canyon, executive chef Zarah Khan and her team are making the summeriest bowl of dal I’ve ever tasted.

At its core is the all-season, measure-by-hand recipe Khan learned from her Pakistani grandmother. Cook minced onion, garlic, ginger and carrot, stained with turmeric, until soft. Stir in zigzagging spices, among them cinnamon, cumin, coriander and Aleppo and cayenne peppers. Add red lentils, coconut milk and water and simmer. Khan’s dal is thick rather than soupy, but cloudlike in texture.

The dal of dreams

Then come the garnishes: house-made yogurt speckled with curry leaf, tiny spirals of pickled torpedo onions, mustard seeds toasted until they pop, a liberal drizzle of citrusy curry leaf oil and flecks of smoky urfa biber. Because this is Rustic Canyon, a restaurant with an almost telepathic connection to the Santa Monica farmers market that sets up less than a mile away on Wednesdays and Saturdays, there is also ripe, densely flavored fruit. For a while recently it was slivers of nectarines from Andy’s Orchard that amplified the ginger in the dal. Lately quarter moons of Green Zebra tomatoes from Munak Ranch transmit color and juicy crispness.

Zarah Kahn's dal at Rustic Canyon
Zarah Khan’s wonderful dal, which she garnishes at Rustic Canyon with curry leaf yogurt and seasonal fruits, is based on her grandmother’s recipe.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Since taking the position in late October, Khan has been steadily infusing the cooking at the nearly 17-year-old restaurant with flavors reflective of her heritage and early influences in her life, including her Syrian godparents; she pushed the California-bounty cooking codified by Jeremy Fox, who joined the Rustic Canyon group in 2013 and remains chef and partner, into new contexts.

And before I go on more about Khan’s food, which in the last couple of months has been so rewarding to consider and to eat that I was preparing to write a full re-review of the restaurant, I should tell you that I learned this week she is leaving Rustic Canyon as of Sept. 1. She’s been offered a job in Lisbon, Portugal, too tempting to refuse.

The good news? You still have a month to check out what she’s been up to.

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A gentle sort of constant evolution is baked into the DNA of Rustic Canyon, which Josh Loeb began in 2006. He and his partner, pastry chef Zoe Nathan, have grown a restaurant group with businesses that manage never to slide into corporate slickness: They include Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe; Cassia, helmed by Bryant Ng and his wife, Kim Luu-Ng; Fox’s personal, fantastic project Birdie G’s; and the Dutchess in Ojai, known for its daytime pastries and a Burmese-Californian menu that especially persuades at dinner.

Before Fox, Evan Funke was the chef at Rustic Canyon for nearly four years. When Fox stepped away from full-time kitchen responsibilities to concentrate on Birdie G’s, Andy Doubrava took over and wove in occasional global-minded subtleties: rockfish glossed with koji butter, lamb sausage with sour cherry sauce, curried honeynut squash.

Khan makes her mark

The best of Khan’s dishes have registered as more directly autobiographical. After the dal, my other current menu favorite is trout wrapped in grape leaves and cooked just until translucent and silken, set over herbed rice and dilled yogurt … and with a clever appearance of sweet-sour green plum for the seasonal nod. A merguez entree transmuted a few weeks ago into a compelling take on lamb kofte zinged with green garlic toum (and a different variety of plum). She makes tiny couscous laboriously by hand. Forkfuls of the stuff glint across the taste buds, and it’s gratifying to mix it into saucier items that might land on your plate.


Rustic Canyon doesn’t have a dedicated pastry chef at the moment, though you wouldn’t know it since Khan has a background in making desserts. Her chocolate eggplant cake is wild, a fudgy concoction with an electric bitter jolt and the right nutty grace note from tahini-scented whipped cream. I love her puddinglike poached semolina dumpling surrounded by peaches and labneh.

Salads tend to show off a surgical grafting of Khan’s and Fox’s aesthetics. I’m thinking of a very composed arrangement of tomatoes and nectarines overlaid with anchovies and punched up with shatta, the herbaceous hot sauce popular in Palestinian and Egyptian cuisines, and another cooling array of summertime ingredients anchored by melon balls and cucumber spears.

Season salads at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica
Summertime produce drives Rustic Canyon’s ever-changing salads, including creations made with cucumber and Weiser Family Farms melon and Andy’s Orchard nectarines paired with tomatoes and anchovies.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

There’s nothing like cusp-of-fall produce in Southern California, and I’m bummed we won’t see how Khan would have spiced the transitions from Brandywine tomatoes to delicata squash, from peaches to pears and persimmons. Hers was a welcome perspective to market-driven finer dining in Los Angeles. I’ll await her return to the city.

Much of the established vibe of Rustic Canyon remained during Khan’s tenure. The restaurant began life as a wine bar, and the sizable but not unwieldy list veers nicely between Old World classics and less expected territories: orangier expressions of Grüner Veltliner, swings into the Canary Islands and Georgia and Greece. Service is roundly polished. Sometimes waits between courses can lag; generally the food is so engaging I forget any grumbles quickly.

The plan after Khan’s departure is for Fox to return to a day-to-day leadership position and reestablish the style that shaped Rustic Canyons menu for most of last decade. Its evolution continues.


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Soft serve items from Wax Paper.
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(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)