Newly installed executive chef Brian Bornemann has taken over the reins of the iconic Michael’s of Santa Monica kitchen, with an exciting new menu that revives the same California spirit that made the 40-year-old restaurant ground zero for the farm-to-table movement in Los Angeles and embraces the original ethos of Michael McCarty’s historic garden patio. McCarty opened the doors at the tender age of 25 and has helped draw and foster the talent of chefs including Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Brooke Williamson, Sang Yoon, Mark Peel and others.
“For me, a lot of the inspiration comes from just sitting outside in the garden,” Bornemann, who himself grew up in Santa Monica tells L.A. Weekly. “ It has such a coastal Mediterranean feel to it. My spirit lives somewhere in between Barcelona and Liguria and that whole coast. The new menu is kind of Spanish inspired with a lot of Japanese going on. The formula we’re going for is what is L.A. now? There’s a Mediterranean background to reference what Michael’s was in the first place. And now we have that reference to Baja. The connection of cultures is more significant now than it ever was then.
The combination of cultures surfaces throughout the produce and seafood-heavy menu, starting with a wild yellowtail served in a Baja-style aguachile with mouse melon and cilantro using world class Japanese inada. Bornemann’s Hokkaido scallops are served in a refreshing pineapple tomato jus with shiro shoyu and poppy seeds and are an homage to McCarty’s original concept of taking great ingredients and putting them together in unusual ways back in the days when cilantro was an exotic ingredient.
For the native Angeleno who spent years studying pasta making in Italy and recently came to Michael’s from Casey Lane’s Viale dei Romani, L.A. is very much the same terroir as Baja and the Valle de Guadalup. His menu reflects that with coastal Ligurian overtones using some of the best fish on the planet sourced from the Toyosu Wholesale Market in Tokyo, located in the Toyosu area of the Kōtō ward.
“The tomato water and the scallops are just great market products,” says Bornemann. “ Simple seasoning with a white soy sauce, poppy seeds and chives gives a complexity that you can really feel. If you use a crappy tomato or a crappy scallop you’re just not going to get the same thing. Let the ingredients do their thing as simply as possible.” A smoky travieso cocktail of mezcal, amontillado, aperol and grapefruit bitters is the perfect pairing.
His pasta prowess comes through like roaring mountain lion on the menu with items like tagliolini boiled in fennel juice, bottarga, yuzu, olive oil and lemon which gets emulsified into the texture of a dairy free carbonara for a very creamy, coastal-style spaghetti. It’s topped off with fresh house cured ikura and some Dungeness crab. The cappelletti is stuffed with payusnaya, a caviar by-product from the sustainable Italian Calvisiuis caviar farm.
“Because they control the caviar from egg to distribution, they select the caviar out of the fish and have ruptured eggs left over in the process,” says the executive chef who admits to an eternal obsession with fish eggs. “They tried to figure out what to do with all this leftover product. So they imported these Russian women, a very few who knew how to make payusnaya and turned that into a paste, so it doesn’t go bad.”
While the company was able to sell it in Russia, nobody else could figure out what to do with the vegemite-like substance. Bornemann tried it and became smitten and decided to stuff it into pasta, one of only two chefs in the country using payusnaya. He then shaves lingotto (bottarga made out of caviar) tableside over the dish like black truffles.
The whole fried flounder is a mind-blowing favorite. Served with capers, lemon and parsley, it’s light years away from the obligatory branzino currently on every menu and so mild it lives in a protein category all its own. Effortlessly filleted table side by your server, the dish is another example of something completely unique to the beautiful garden patio, as well as Bornemann’s personal touch, which is completely unique in space and time at the iconic restaurant.
The affordability of having composed Ligurian dishes especially in Santa Monica in this day and age is important to the chef and his menu, which is composed in sections with at least five vegan and vegetarian dishes with no compromise in execution and are proud to be vegetables preserving the original farm to table background. Using only what’s best in season, Bornemann wants guests to be able to casually share a scallop dish, grilled bluefish or a pasta equally as starters. And if you want an entire entree, that’s available too. Diners should be able to move back and forth and see all the dishes as equals. Top it all off with a berry-filled pavlova, reminiscent of the delicate shells delivered by the Helms Bakery coaches on that same street during the ’60s.
What used to be one of the most expensive restaurants in L.A. has now become one of the most reasonable, especially considering the menu items. Michael’s was always fine dining, but the Westside is a different place now than it was in 1979. Finding their path and being able to embrace the original ethos of Michael’s and be on the Westside post 2008 posed some complications. There are so many restaurants now it’s easy to get lost in the mix.
“Affordability is something that’s very important to me,” he says.” Michael’s has always had a menu that highlights the garden, what I like to call rustic luxury of progressive Californian. It’s not dainty, it’s not precious, it’s fun. At the same time there are also luxury items.”
Now in the Santa Monica of 2019, Bornemann took a long hard look at a part of the 3,500-square-foot restaurant which became overlooked over the past years: the cavernous lounge.
“When I got here the bar menu was no reason to come in. So in addition to focusing on dinner, I wanted to highlight a new bar space and give people 15 options under $15 with fish, pasta, vegetable preparations and a $9 burger. There are plenty of places right now charging $30 for a carbonara or cacio e pepe. Ours is $12. Let’s just treat it like what it is,” says the Angeleno who refuses to fall victim to trendy buzzwords and pretentious playlists.
“Hey Santa Monica, we’re the neighborhood,” Bornemann says of the California vibe of blended cultures in McCarty’s historic restaurant, where owner and son Chas still go from table to table greeting each guest. “You can come in sandals and a sweatshirt and have a $12 pasta. You’re not going to church; this is supposed to be fun, whether it’s a whole fried flounder or a $12 pasta.”
“To me and the whole idea we are trying to refurbish here at Michael’s is the love of ingredients and a good product and the unique character of time and place and a dish that can only exist here. You can’t get a good cacio e pepe for $12 anywhere else.”