Photo by Anne Fishbein
The coyote is a young, handsome dog, his nose long and finely pointed, his ears so enormous, his gait so weightless, there’s something fine, even deerlike, about him. While many of his fellows are mangy, scruffy, besieged by fleas and in midsummer molt — life in the wild is not easy — this specimen here, creekside in Topanga Canyon, is downright sleek. Not 30 feet off, he laps water, eats a bit of something on the bank, then gazes up at us diners at the Inn of the Seventh Ray with a deep calmness and a curiosity as frank as ours. An omnivore eyeing omnivores. Then, with one last skeptical glance, he glides off, silent as smoke.
We know the feeling.
On this hot summer evening, deep into the Santa Monica Mountains, we’re waiting for the fourth member of our party to receive his entrée. The waitress had brought him the wrong one with our other three, then informed us that, if he still wanted what he’d ordered, there would be a seven- or eight-minute wait. (After a visit to the kitchen, she revised this to four minutes.) But that was 20 minutes ago, we’ve shared our entrées with the deprived one, swept our plates with bread, and still, the rack of lamb has not appeared. (Nor has our waitress.) Finally, we ask a busperson to check into it, and after another pause, the plate arrives, the meat overcooked, obviously forgotten. Although the mistake is clearly the restaurant’s, no attempt is made to smooth things over — no tidbit to eat or drink in the meantime or, more important, no apology. When the bill arrives, the lamb is listed, all $32 of it, just as if it were properly cooked and served and had not, essentially, wrecked our overall experience. If this had been our first, seminal Inn of the Seventh Ray experience, the odds are good that we would never return — nor would we advise anyone we know to make the Inn their destination. Not for this food, at these prices, and such an utter want of graciousness.
But we had eaten here only days before, and had better service. Much better service — helpful, present, patient. And this is the Inn of the Seventh Ray, after all, which has been around a long time — 20-odd years — serving various takes on health-food cuisine, partially vegetarian, mostly organic. Bad nights happen to everyone.
We had made these recent visits upon hearing that the Inn had both an ambitious, new, classically trained chef, Michael Landsberg, and a “live foods” chef, Angja Aditi, whose separate menu insert was devoted to organic raw food. Their combined cork-covered menus promised perhaps more than any mere mortal can deliver: “. . . the purest of Nature’s foods, energized as a gift from the sun with a dash of esoteric food knowledge . . .”
Over the decades, the Inn of the Seventh Ray has retained a deep canyon, ’60s quirkiness while also becoming a prime date destination and wedding mill. The main dining area is a many-tiered brick patio under oaks and large umbrellalike iron-and-plexiglass structures. Water splashes in a central fountain; heat comes from gas heaters and fireplaces, light from twinkling votives and strings of small white lights. A small indoor dining room is hot and stuffy — everybody’s outdoors. Canyonites, Valley couples — the mix is relaxed, eclectic, a far cry from the sophisticated Westside dining crowd.
The food from both menus is not without its pleasures. Roasted golden beets served with long thin ribbons of cucumber and pungent celery leaves in a lively horseradish “crème” showcases all the Inn’s stated principles: It’s fresh, lively, beautiful. An apple-and-artichoke salad, while overly acidic, is an amusing raw crunch fest with carrots and radish. Overly ambitious and underrealized. As with so much so-called health-food cooking, there seems to be some kind of compensatory embellishment at play, an impulse to overcomplicate. The ingredients are clearly high-quality, expensive. But instead of letting them shine in their own, as it were, transcendent excellence, these are too often all mucked up. Mild tuna carpaccio is positively festooned (and overwhelmed) with uncharacteristically assertive niçoise olives. Rosemary skewers of beautifully grilled chunks of portobello mushrooms are sunk in a dark murk of too-sweet apricot purée — despite eschewing white sugar, much here is too sweet. The filet comes topped with a very acidic red cabbage — an attempt, perhaps, to accentuate the winy sourness of aged meat — but too much. Also, the steak sits in a dark swirl of ingredients impossible to see in the faint light of candles — chard, porcinis, some sweetened sauce.
Sautéed Scottish salmon, lovely and wantonly rare, comes swimming in what looks and tastes like beet borscht — a mild, interesting and certainly colorful pairing. Crisped, flavorful, overcooked halibut comes in a thick green basil-scented stew with a few clams, the season’s first sweet white corn and some large, strong-flavored end-of-the-season favas.
As for that long-awaited lamb — the chef was riffing on a Moroccan theme, setting the rack on sautéed vegetables mined with preserved lemon and olives; but the lemon, uncooked, hit too hard, and those powerful niçoise olives (again!) lent a dominant bitterness. The fine meat does not need such superfluous flourish; careful, vigilant cooking would have let the meat’s virtues sing for themselves.
The raw food “prepared uniquely by marinating, soaking, spouting or dehydration” is an acquired taste to most. An appetizer — a tiny thatch of tiny haricots verts, some chopped tomato, and cucumber “capellini” (the mandoline gets a real workout at this restaurant) ever so faintly scented with truffle oil and thinly glazed with crème fraîche — will not affect anybody’s diet or appetite, for that matter, as it can’t contain 40 calories, total. Sweetness also dominates raw dishes — the salad of cunning, fresh microgreens has a honey vinaigrette, and the entrée of dehydrated zucchini straps encasing a dried-tomato-and-pine-nut filling has unidentified sweetness in its core.
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Nor will refined sugar be mourned in desserts like the baked banana with ginger ice cream or the almond cake with lavender ice cream. Panna cotta is really more a gelatinized, lemon-scented, sweetened cream scooped from a bowl; it’s served with — thankfully — not-too-sweetened, perfectly ripe berries.
Our body elementals, all told, haven’t quite been provoked into joyful capering.
Like brother coyote, we take one last skeptical look at the twinkling lights and wedding flowers, and slip off, unconvinced, into the summer night.
Inn of the Seventh Ray, 128 Old Topanga Canyon Road, Topanga; (310) 455-1311. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m., Sun. brunch 9:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Dinner seven nights 5:30–10 p.m. Entrées $22–$32. Beer and wine. Takeout. Valet parking on weekends. AE, D, DC, MC, V.