Josiah Citrin is the first dude of haute cuisine in Santa Monica, a burly ex-surfer who earned two Michelin stars for the cooking at his surprisingly refined Mélisse, a dark, plush dining room where moguls graze on $210 tasting menus. Mélisse has its virtues, but it isn’t exactly where you’d go for a night with the bros. But Caché, his new, lounge-y restaurant on the south end of Main Street, is practically made for wine-fueled nights on the town, filled with both private nooks and ultravisible tables, open until 2 on weekends, with an air of the tropics and a bar that seems to recede into infinity.
Citrin isn’t suddenly serving pub grub, you understand: The menu hews pretty close to the France-by-way-of-the-farmers-market groove for which he became famous at Mélisse, and although the wood-burning oven churns out surprisingly good, thin-crusted flatbreads topped with things like caramelized shallots with Brie, or fried sage with sopressata, it also gives a smoky edge to calamari, adds presence to roasted mushrooms, and (one presumes) finishes a spectacular artichoke gratin.
But as at Mélisse, Citrin’s style is direct, focused and simple in effect (though not in preparation), characterized by unexpected sparks of citrus and fresh herbs, at its most typical in things like first-of-season Alaskan halibut in a bacon-y onion broth; slices of raw bluefin, smoky and slightly charred at the edges, with ovals of tart, marinated eggplant that hover between Sicilian caponata and Persian torshi; and roasted Jidori chicken on a salty, garlicky bed of braised greens.
The funny, oddly bucolic indoor-outdoor restaurant space will probably always be remembered as the site of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilder-friendly Austrian restaurant Schatzi, and the passage to the underground parking lot is still dominated by a mural of the shirtless governor emptying a machine gun in the direction of the cast of Casablanca.
Citrin: 3110 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 399-4800, www.cacherestaurant.com. Dinner, Sun., Tues.-Wed., 6 to 10 p.m., Thurs.-Sat., 6 to 11 p.m. Bar open until 2 a.m. Amex, D, MC, V accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. First courses, $12-$17; main courses $20-$38.