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Food

Summer is the best time to visit Santa Monica’s modernist Dialogue

Dialogue
Fresh nasturtiums dance over a dish at Dialogue in Santa Monica.
(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)

The end of August is my favorite time to eat at California’s fanciest restaurants. Never is it easier to score last-minute reservations than during this lull-in-dining-out moment as Angelenos wind up summer vacations, local tourism dips briefly and families begin reestablishing school-year routines.

From a critical standpoint, I favor high-flying dining during summer’s finale because the produce is almost hallucinogenic in its greatness. It’s telling which chefs take the most advantage of the markets’ riches, to see who lets a ripe peach or beefy tomato stand in its own glory while also putting their personal stamps on complex dishes.

Which brings me to a recent meal at Dialogue, Dave Beran’s 18-seat, tasting-menu restaurant on the second floor of a food court on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. It remains among the most surreal locations in America for a modernist dinner. Or maybe, given the immersive narrative that keeps the focus almost solely on the plate, the most appropriate. Beran opened his tiny theater of a space two years ago, after a decade of cooking for Grant Achatz in Chicago: first at Alinea, and then helping to dream up elaborate themes — “The Hunt,” “kaiseki,” “Paris: 1906” — as opening executive chef of Next.

Jonathan Gold and I both wrote admiring reviews of Dialogue in late 2017. It was heady stuff. The restaurant’s menu changes with winter, spring, summer and fall, but in the progression of 20 or so courses the meal also references the previous and forthcoming seasons. It was a fall menu that I first experienced; summery colors in the first few dishes drained away to muted tones and then concluded with a bleak, wintry landscape of chocolate, coconut and menthol.

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There were flashes of easy-going deliciousness; a one-bite sphere filled with French onion soup lightened the mood after dishes such as choy sum stuffed with Thai chile paste flavored with scorched strawberry puree.

You know whether you are in or out with this kind of dining experience. It’s inarguably a splurge: $235 per person, not including wine pairings (which, as wine pairings go, are exceptionally thoughtful and fun).

If you’re in, Dialogue’s current summer menu is wonderful — cerebral as always, but also the sunniness of the ingredients brings a grounding warmth to the cooking. For me, recalling my first experiences, I can taste the evolution in Beran’s perspective. He moved here in 2016. It’s the great cliché that the Golden State transforms you, mellows you, maybe makes you more aware of the land. As a fellow new transplant, there are truths in there.

Which is to say: When Beran first opened the restaurant, he was cooking the California of the mind. Now he’s also more persuasively expressing the California of the soil.

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Dave Beran talks with customers at his 18-seat Dialogue.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times )

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The kickoff course almost makes the case literally: It’s called “the first sprout” and resembles dirt. Composing this seedtime still life — the menu starts with motifs of spring, revels in summer and concludes with a fall preview — involves a puree of burnt bread, preserved cherry, braised celery root and Bing cherries pickled in sour beer. If that sounds wild and weird and like a science project, well, yes — but the flavors make so much sense on the palate, and it’s a plain joy to eat.

Jump ahead to one of my favorite courses, right in the meal’s midpoint: “Three years of peaches.” When Beran arrived from the Midwest, his first restaurant space for Dialogue, in downtown L.A., fell through; as he searched for a new space, he spent his time acclimating to the bounty of California, canning and preserving as he went along. Chef de partie McKenna Lelah Beran established close relationships with local farmers. Beran and his team build the current dish around pork belly: They glaze it with a sweet-and-sour sauce using peach pulp that was a byproduct of peach and rose vinegar. There’s peach jam, a fiery peach and ginger “ferment” made in a kimchi pot, peach sambal, a pork broth that includes charred peaches, and, finally, a fresh peach puree. It is the pinball machine of savory peach dishes: Its flavors bleep and bounce and flash in limitless, capricious directions.

There are simpler dishes: a gorgeous hunk of New York strip served with a lettuce and tomato salad (I didn’t think too hard about how many elements its dressing contained) cleared the mind.

Desserts waded into autumnal flavors; a carrot cake evoked holiday spices. During a sweltering week, it made me long for cooler fall temperatures. Not that this transplant is complaining about the weather in Southern California.

Dialogue’s summer 2019 menu runs through the first week of October.

ASK THE CRITICS

Had that burger at Ototo yet?

— @yappod, Instagram

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Funny that you should ask. I’m a fan of Charles Namba’s “Ode to Mos” chili burger — a lanky brute stacked with a thick slice of tomato, lettuce trailing like ivy and a domed sesame bun. I detail the burger in this week’s review of Ototo, which is a spectacular sake bar in Echo Park. If sake seems intimidating or you’re at all curious about learning more, or if you want to experience how “quality hot sake” is in fact not an oxymoron, head over and let co-owner Courtney Kaplan pour you some mind-opening tastes. This is one of those cool, small, individualistic places that make Los Angeles so dynamic.

Also, check out Jenn Harris’s all-angles-covered primer on sake, featuring Ototo’s Kaplan.

TOP STORIES

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A customer checks out the dessert display at the Cheesecake Factory in Marina del Rey.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

And finally, Andrea Nguyen names her favorite Vietnamese fish sauce available stateside.


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