It's fascinating to pull apart the dynamic of a two-chef team, especially a particularly strong collaboration. Will their solo work be like Dre without N.W.A, newly powerful and focused? Or like McCartney without Lennon, all sugar and no bite?
Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor were just such a duo, at the Hart and the Hunter and before that at the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing pop-up. Both of those projects presented a contemporary, slightly Californian take on Southern food, and the Hart and the Hunter was (and may still be) the most successful attempt at modern Southern food in Los Angeles.
The key, when Tominaga and Dunsmoor were at the Hart and the Hunter, was balance. There was a lot of butter and richness on the plate but also a lot of acid. Playfulness but elegance. Comfort but surprise.
Now the two chefs have gone their separate ways. Dunsmoor spent some time at the Ladies' Gunboat Society at Flores, from which he has already decamped (another project, the Hatchet Hall, is forthcoming in the space Waterloo & City has just vacated).
Tominaga, meanwhile, has landed in Santa Monica at Cadet, an attractive new restaurant inspired by the French countryside, a wood-burning oven and, um, Korea. We'll get to that in a bit.
At Ladies' Gunboat Society, you could pinpoint much of what Dunsmoor brought to the equation at the Hart and the Hunter. It seemed he sat on the creative side of the chef seesaw they were so masterfully riding together; he was the one who brought the playfulness. When he was left to his own devices, I longed for a bit of restraint, a few fewer blueberries, a little more elegance.
And now at Cadet, we see the other part of the formula: Tominaga is all about elegance, and butter, and the comfort of simple luxuries. Turns out there are upsides and downsides to both approaches.
It's possible to have an utterly lovely meal at Cadet, sitting in the gorgeous, wood-lined room, anchored by a square bar, with mismatched French country-chic chairs and the wood stove burning in view off to one side. There are so many whimsical touches here that it's easy to be seduced: the menus printed on large note cards that you shuffle through to get to each section; the curlicued vintage silverware; the cocktails, which each come in three variations — classic, French and "Cadet" — an array that takes us from the American original, through a lighter, more elegant French version, to a modern take.
Most of the hors d'oeuvres menu is taken up with tartines, the French version of bruschetta, and you can get variations on the avocado-on-toast and uni-on-toast tropes that everyone seems to be peddling these days. The avocado comes with fennel and olives smoked over the wood fire, giving it a smoky, briney kick of intrigue. Other tartine toppings — smoked mussels with roasted peppers and capers, beef tartare — make for very satisfying nibbles along with those cocktails. They are meant for one person and hard to share, but at $6 for most, that's not much of an issue.
But the best thing on the starters menu is not a tartine, and it harkens back to the Hart and the Hunter days. Rabbit boulettes (a fancy French word for meatball) come with herb dumplings, which are butter-rich and flaky and reminiscent of the biscuits that seduced everyone on Tominaga and Dunsmoor's Southern menus. The faintly gamey meatballs come in a maple cream, which sounds cloying but isn't, and the whole thing is as soothing and wonderful as a bowl of meatballs and dumplings should be.
Entrees, mainly meats cooked over the wood-burning fire, are accompanied by what can only be described as banchan, the small bowls of condiments, pickles and salads usually served at Korean restaurants. Except here, the flavors are European, and bread is a major factor. Your waiter brings a large, round plate holding sourdough flatcakes, sort of like thick pancakes with a sourdough tang. Around these she arranges smaller dishes of aioli, salt, carrot salad, a whole smoked tomato, cucumber pickles and fresh lettuce.
The idea is, you get your grilled meats — perhaps a wood-grilled steak, or a milk-braised pork loin — then wrap them in the bread with the lettuce and whatever smears and sprinkles of other stuff you like.
It's a cute idea, and it almost works. The pancake thing is fantastic, evoking Ethiopian injera but not as spongy, and with a wonderful sour finish. But I found myself wishing the entrees themselves were more interesting, my pork more flavorful, my ribeye steak with Époisses cooked more lovingly.
The banchan are ultimately a gimmick — a fun and tasty gimmick — but I'd prefer the entrees stood out on their own merits.
One dish that did stand out was the ember-roasted black cod, which delivered all the silky delight that fish is capable of, though it was drowning in butter.
A vegetarian friend went for the mushroom pain perdu, which turned out to be a bigger, butterier version of a tartine: A large hunk of bread came topped with a tumble of wild mushrooms with Parmesan cheese. The cheese-and-butter factor was delicious on first bite but ultimately overwhelming.
I have quite a few wishes for Cadet: I wish there were less reliance on the banchan idea for the success of the entrees, that each dish could stand alone without accoutrements. I wish Tominaga would ease up on the butter just a bit, give as much thought to the acidic side of things as to the smoky and the rich. I wish there were a better wine list: For a restaurant claiming the French countryside as its muse, the short list here, which never veers from the the expected, is pretty uninspired. I wish the chocolate mousse were actually mousse instead of the dark, moist crumble it is — the bittersweet flavor is fine (and the shortbread cookies that come alongside are outstanding), but the texture is akin to old Play-Doh.
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But you know what? I also wish Cadet were closer to my house, because I would be drinking at that bar and eating those tartines and rabbit boulettes pretty often if it were.
For a first independent effort, Cadet may not be an unencumbered hit. But I predict a long and fruitful solo career in Tominaga's future.
See also: Our photo gallery of Cadet
CADET | Two stars | 2518 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica | (310) 828-3300 | cadetsm.com | Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. | Entrees, $24-$46 | Full bar | Valet parking