Review: Onda, the most anticipated new restaurant in Los Angeles, is still finding its sea legs
Onda sits at the edge of the new Santa Monica Proper Hotel in a modest 1920s-era building on Wilshire Boulevard that’s probably not what you think of when you imagine the hottest new restaurant in town. The flashiest thing in the all-white dining room is the funky hat or bell-bottom designer jeans on the youthful host who leads you into the surprisingly sterile, angular space with gleaming concrete floors, frosted glass windows and a wide open kitchen whose nucleus is a silvery trompo piled with a dense, ruddy mass of annatto-stained turkey.
There’s a spiky, jittery energy in the room: Lithe servers in pegged black trousers and short-sleeve designer T-shirts circle the tables eagerly, ready with water refills, and the kitchen slams through orders with heroic velocity.
For the record:
8:51 AM, Mar. 11, 2020A previous version of this story gave the incorrect name for Cala.
If everyone seems anxious to get things right, there’s a reason for that. No Los Angeles restaurant in recent memory has shouldered as much publicity as Onda, a venture involving two extremely high-profile chefs: Jessica Koslow of Sqirl, and Gabriela Cámara, best known for Mexico City’s landmark Contramar and Cala in San Francisco.
Koslow and Cámara are culinary figureheads in their respective home cities of Los Angeles and Mexico City. Koslow’s genius for translating West Coast seasonality onto the plate, for making jam and toast and rice bowls as if nobody knew how before, has influenced a generation of chefs and restaurateurs. Cámara is an eloquent interpreter of Mexico’s rich coastal cooking traditions; the breezy finesse of her trout tostadas at Cala and the Instagram-famous whole grilled snapper at Contramar have turned her restaurants into destinations for urbane power lunches. They are known for deceptively simple cooking that’s widely imitated but rarely matched.
When their joint project was announced, many of us speculated about what Onda might turn out to be: Sqirl Goes to Mexico? Contramar with Southern California ingredients? Or more thrillingly: a culinary dialogue between two conspicuously talented chefs whose restaurants have become emblems of their respective cities. No pressure.
In the months leading up to Onda’s debut, the collaboration was dissected; the menu development was reported in vivid detail in magazines and food blogs. When news broke last summer that Cámara was moving back to Mexico City to work for the president — she accepted a prestigious appointment to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Council of Cultural Diplomacy — it was clear the restaurant partnership would require recalibration. (Cámara’s relationship to Onda is now officially described as a consultancy.)
The menu, which has not changed dramatically since the restaurant opened in October, is a wildly ambitious and uneven effort that leans into seafood, vegetables and fermentation. Dinner is good if you know what to order, but it’s possible to have two very different experiences.
The strongest dishes are carefully controlled plates that marry Cámara’s precision with Koslow’s aptitude for engineering dishes that hold an element of surprise. Fish hiding in kelp, a play on fritto misto, is a crisp bouquet of masa-battered kelp, anchovies and Meyer lemon, a technically challenging dish that registers purely as crisp, salty pleasure.
Chile-battered sprouting broccoli with pickled strawberries in a sticky cocoon of house-pulled cheese is revelatory in the way that it balances savoriness and brightness. Fried sea bream is fragrant and moist with charred jalapeño salsa, hand-pressed corn tortillas and a scattering of fresh sorrel, Koslow’s signature herb. Jackfruit sopes are thin, sturdy cradles for chef de cuisine Balo Orozco’s 52-ingredient mole, which glowers faintly with the warming pulse of spices and smoked chiles.
Sweet potato with salsa macha echoes one of Cámara’s signature dishes, but here the umami level is turned all the way up thanks to a Koslowsian hit of house-made koji. Fermentation is central to the Onda kitchen, and ingredients like lacto-fermented jalapeños and sauerkraut add layers of complexity and funk to various dishes.
I think the divide between what works and what doesn’t at dinner is a symptom of the restaurant’s fuzzy premise, which was originally described by the chefs as “a conversation between Mexico City and Los Angeles.” Some dishes capture the sensibilities of both Cámara and Koslow; others, like a spice-rubbed roast chicken — dry and wan, served over a limp bed of pomegranate-molasses brown rice that is curiously neither tart nor sweet — don’t reflect the spirit of either.
There are good dishes stumbling toward greatness: A pickled pigskin tostada with endives and avocado scorches the palate with acid; grilled nopales were recently drubbed to death with too much salty cotija; and smoked pork jowl is flavorful but also flabby and unctuous.
The dish that everyone talks about is the inside-out turkey quesadilla, a folded-over tortilla laminated on the outside with fried cheese and filled with marinated turkey, hoja santa and oyster mushrooms, which are woefully upstaged by the boggy envelope of sodden, oil-veneered cheese. It’s a dish overly concerned with technique, and hard to reckon with its $27 price tag.
It’s a cliché by now to think of restaurants as living organisms, but it’s a useful metaphor for Onda, a restaurant whose very name — Spanish for “ocean wave” — suggests movement and change. The dinner menu will evolve with time, Koslow told me recently via email.
One thing I hope remains blissfully untouched is the drink menu; sommelier Erin Rolek and spirit director Mackenzie Hoffman’s exhaustive, delightful compendium of wine, agave spirits and eau de vie brandies grows more encyclopedic every month. And pastry chef Jess Stephens’ ethereal sorbets are pure, unfettered levity: recent flavors included coconut-lime cream and aromatic hoja santa.
In early February, Onda opened for all-day breakfast and lunch service, a move that swerved the kitchen squarely into Koslow’s wheelhouse. Sqirl, her tiny East Hollywood storefront, turned breakfast and lunch into the best meals of the day; Onda’s daytime menu is so consistently good that you could pick from it blindfolded and end up happy.
The turkey al pastor that was lost in a muddle of cheese at dinner is tangy and aromatic in a rice bowl mosaicked with a poached egg, house-made kraut, cotija, salsa and a flutter of herbs. The crackly, aromatic crispy rice salad beloved at Sqirl is tricked out with chorizo and hot sauce, both made in-house.
I would stand in line any day for first dibs at Onda’s daytime pastry case, a trove of prim, sublime masa teacakes; linzer cookies filled with velvety cajeta; custard-filled conchas; and an exquisite dried plum cake.
The kitchen’s masa oeuvre is strong, especially the tlacoyo, a thin but sturdy canoe-shaped corn cake smeared with black beans and heaped with scrambled eggs and herbs. The terrific masa ricotta pancake is a perfect golden circle that channels the best yellow summer corn. With a soft lump of ricotta, a heavy smear of tart blood orange jam, there is no greater indulgence. It’s a dish that aspires only to pleasure. I wish every dish at Onda was this profoundly clear in its intentions.
Location: 700 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (inside the Santa Monica Proper Hotel), (310) 620-9917, onda.la
Details: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet and street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: dinner: small plates $8-$21, larger plates $14-$44; Breakfast and lunch: savory dishes $14-$21, sweet dishes $7-$14
Recommended dishes: fish hiding in kelp, house-pulled cheese + Kong’s sprouting broccoli, koji-marinated sweet potato, whole sea bream, Onda rice bowl (breakfast)
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