The current aesthetic of Los Angeles restaurant design suggests that certain of its architects might spend more than a little time in front of their Xboxes, playing Halo 2 and the Elder Scrolls IV:Oblivion until their eyes start to bleed. Their restaurants’ interiors resonate with dark wood and leather, stone and iron, surfaces oozing water and flame, like the fifth level of any respectable first-person shooter game. You never know quite whether to order a cocktail or to search the ground for a pulsating golden key.
Wilshire, a serious, farmers-market-driven restaurant cleverly disguised as the kind of place where one might consort with supermodels, practically seethes with fire in its sprawling patio dining room: roaring bonfires, a blue-glowing fire pit and seeping waterfalls of flame. It’s like the Backdraft set crossed with the patio at Koi, which was also designed by Thomas Schoos, a former artist–turned-flamethrower to the stars. In the bar, the flat-screen television sets flash images of lava flows but never the Lakers game, and great cathedral banks of flickering votive candles thrust from the wall, impaled on the tips of long metal rods. Outside, where the various conflagrations can make the air hot enough to barbecue a pigeon in midflight, idle daydreams tend to wander toward the possibility of the groves of bamboo, the towering pines, the billowing sails stretched between the trees, bursting into spontaneous flame. OCD victims should probably dine elsewhere.
Still, Wilshire is odd, even without the fire, a restaurant that seems unable to decide whether it is a farm-driven chef’s place or a roaring bar and grill; a celebration of the seasons, a paparazzi stalking ground or a celebration of the exotic wine and food that can be purchased with an American Express card. (Make sure the card has a high limit — main courses here tend to be in the mid-to-high thirties.)
I’m pretty sure Wilshire is the only place outside Las Vegas I’ve seen a guy obviously slip the maitre d’ a folded bill to bump him up on the reservations list. How retro.
Christopher Blobaum, who has run more high-end hotel kitchens than anybody this side of Escoffier, seems to be running his dream restaurant, but on the plates here, you see an awful lot of salads. Matt Straus, who has been behind the wine lists at Grace and Sona, among other places, runs the fairly exemplary wine list, which reads like a wine geek’s fantasy. Wilshire may have been the only restaurant in America to run a Piemontese bonarda on its wine-by-the-glass list, and there is a very decent selection of biodynamic wines, obscure vintages, cult wines and small-producer gems. (I am fond of a ’97 Sablet that Straus had on his list for a while, which was everything a mature Côtes du Rhône should be.) If you are into cold-climate Australian rieslings, this is the list for you.
Every instinct I have makes me want to root for Wilshire. Chef Blobaum obviously spends some of his happiest hours at the Santa Monica farmers market, and there will always be jewel-like baby Nantes carrots the week that baby Nantes carrots hit the best farm stands; sweet Satsuma tangerines in the duck-confit salad at the time Satsumas are at their peak; tiny purple artichokes when tiny purple artichokes are the thing. He sources the vegetables from Weiser, McGrath, Coleman and other rock stars of the market. His lamb is from Summerfield; his pork is organic Kurobuta; his bacon is Nueske’s; his beef is grass-fed, dry-aged, wood-grilled. There may be another restaurant in Santa Monica whose walk-in refrigerator one might rather raid, but at the moment, its name escapes me.
When I first visited Wilshire last year, it seemed very much like a restaurant that was destined to relax into its groove. The Kurobuta pork chop may have seen a little too much fire, but its presentation with winter vegetables and a mild fruit-inflected jus was intelligent. The deep-fried poached egg with bacon and red wine was amusing and novel, crunchy and gooey and good. That duck-confit salad with Satsuma tangerines and pistachios may have been slightly off — the sweetness of the fruit was too light, really, too simple, to stand up to the richness of the duck — but I enjoyed eating it.
On my last couple of visits, though, the kitchen has been off the mark — halibut cooked to a block of pure, dull protein and served with a mushy spring-vegetable ragout; a salad of limp beets with toasted hazelnuts and chervil; bloodless steak (ordered medium rare); and a very weird dessert that appeared to be chocolate cake baked inside puff pastry.
It’s about details. If you are serving lobster on toast, don’t overwhelm the sweet flesh with vanilla. Make sure that the fava beans you serve with the seared sea scallops really are young enough to serve unpeeled, no matter how tiny they may appear; snatch your filet of wild sturgeon from the pan while it is still juicy and soft; check that the table butter has not staled in the refrigerator.
I still expect Wilshire to serve me some great meals in the years ahead — with this chef and this quality of produce, how could they not? But at some point, the staff are going to have to pay as much attention to the cuisine as they apparently do to the smoking hotness of the clientele. Buying superb produce, the stuff that defines Southern California as a great agricultural region, is important, but in the end somebody has to cook it well too.?
Wilshire, 2454 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 586-1707, www.wilshirerestaurant.com. Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner Mon.-Sat., 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $75-$120.