A good massage. An overdue trip to my colorist. A Springsteen ticket.
Those are some of the things I've determined are worth $125 an hour. It's not lost on me that they're all luxuries, and so is eating at a place like Dialogue, the new Santa Monica tasting menu–only restaurant from Chicago transplant and longtime Grant Achatz collaborator Dave Beran of Next and Alinea.
A lot of fuss is made about the cost of fine dining, including the $250 ticket (before wine) to attend space oddity–meets–experimental theater Vespertine. And rightfully so: The tasting menu is a decadent, and perhaps unnecessary, style of eating. You're at the whims of the chef, which can feel oppressive for the steep price tag.
When it comes to the 21 dishes I recently ate at Dialogue, though, the experience was worth the trust and the investment, which is not small. The meal alone is $200, paid for ahead of time through ticketed reservations on Resy. Tack on wine or mixed beverage pairings at $175 or $125 a pop, and you've got an approximately three-hour, $325 to $375 meal.
Tasting menus aren't typically my jam. The night usually ends one of two ways: I'm wild-eyed with lingering hunger and desperately seeking a slice of pizza on my way home, or completely sapped, my feet blown up like a tick from the excess of fat and salt. I approached the meal at Dialogue with trepidation.
The restaurant itself feels like a discovery, a plush jewel box accessible only with a code, tucked in next to a fish sandwich shop on the second floor of the Gallery Food Hall. Eight of the 18 seats are at the walnut counter of the open kitchen, where Beran and his cooks not only plate dishes but find time to chitchat with guests. Given the Rustic Canyon–esque minimalism — there's really not much to look at except the kitchen — it almost feels as if you're hanging at a friend's. That is, if your friend casually ferments rhubarb for a year and has won a James Beard Award.
The current menu, which is changing soon, is based on the season. When I heard this, I was initially unimpressed. (Seasonal cooking in California? Groundbreaking.) But Beran is winking at Los Angeles — we don't really have seasons, get it? — as he runs from spring to fall with unexpected through-lines. For example, peanuts show up in one course blended into a silky white peanut butter, and the spirit of the peanut (though not the peanut itself) appears a few dishes later, thanks to a tar-black sauce of burnt lettuce that perfectly mimics the legume's nuttiness.
Because the dinner is served kaiseki-style, with no printed menus, you're in Beran's hands — and in his head — for the entire night. And his head is a good place to be: equal parts earnest, lighthearted and obsessively thoughtful. All you have to do is glance at the guy's Instagram captions to know he's cerebral.
That intelligence doesn't mean his food is in any way tedious. Smoky charred scallions — "for Sean," as in Charleston chef Brock — are meant to be twirled like pasta, an ingrained way of eating that's instantly elevated by intertwining the scallion "noodles" with astringent caviar and smearing it through a pool of that pearly white peanut butter. The popcorn in a king crab dish, smashed through a China cap strainer, then pureed to create a snowy texture, is a nod to childhood summers spent watching movies with friends, a story Beran may recount for you at the counter. A course called "Everything Is Burnt" is just that, from the soft, blackened chunk of onion terrine to the jammy-sweet syrup Beran made by setting ablaze 100 pounds of onions, blending the liquid with sudachi, and aging it in oak barrels for a year. The plate's piece of hanger steak — chosen intentionally over a more expensive cut for its relative chewiness and its association with backyard barbecues — is the color of coal thanks to a burnt marinade.
In each of those dishes, there are flavor touchpoints that feel familiar: butter and crab or butter and popcorn, steak and onions. Beran's talent, though, lies in creating something new with those touchpoints. And I've personally never seen a chef who takes the childlike delight of burning things and applies it to fine dining. He's obviously razor-sharp with technique, and I found it impossible not to smile when I was handed a plate of purposely burnt food — albeit beautiful and perfect in its presentation — on a plate that itself was burnt by the potter.
Some of the sweeter courses, such as an early palate cleanser in the form of a small tumbler of roasted banana tea that's anointed with browned butter foam, can be jarring, and that's intentional. Beran has admitted that courses are meant alternately to challenge and to reward. While that approach may sound calculating, the more unexpected courses kept my eyes (and palate) from glazing over during several hours of sitting and eating.
I wouldn't want to eat every single course in a larger portion on its own, but the shock of a mid-meal dessert — rectangles of bitter chocolate filled with cherry, served alongside a dish composed of sheets of chewy dried rhubarb dusted with matcha powder and presented on a spiky golden orb — is oddly fitting. With their mostly tart notes, both desserts are a perfect transition to a savory course of choy sum, its stalks piped with an aggressive strawberry nam phrik.
The beverage pairings can be equally challenging: I don't know if it was necessary to pour blackberry vinegar into my sparkling wine to create a "rosé," but it was fun nonetheless. For a relatively classic course of black cod that straddles sensibilities both French (beurre blanc) and Japanese (the beurre blanc is spiked with yuzu kosho), you're presented with a choice of a red or a white: Jolie-Laide's Russian River Valley Trousseau Gris 2015 or the Finca Parera Penedès Fins Als Kullons 2016. The idea is that whichever one you pick is the right choice, with the white's astringency cutting through the course's butter and the red picking up the yuzu kosho notes. I was hoping that the mixed-beverage pairing, which is described on the website as offering tea, beer, cocktails and sake, would be more boundary-pushing in offering different types of drinks. Save for one plum sake, my mixed pairing was entirely wine, so it didn't feel all that different from my dining companion's reserve pairing. Perhaps more unusual drinks are in the works for future menus.
A couple of presentation flourishes are Achatzian in nature but less grandiose: A homemade rosemary, thyme and bay leaf candle adds extra aroma to liquid-bursting French onion soup balls served on a candelabra, and the final bite of the evening is a sweet, chewy, sugar-dusted carrot held by a black ceramic rabbit. I couldn't help but smile when I noticed my rabbit had a dusting on its nose, which might suggest he was having a better time than anyone.
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SHOW ME HOW
Touches such as that are part of the reason why I enjoyed Dialogue: While this is clearly a Serious Restaurant (Beran has been making syrups and vinegars for the place for over half a year now — you can view them on the shelves above the tables), Dialogue isn't above sending out a bunny who's done a sugar bump. And although you're obviously paying someone royally to treat you well, the staff is friendly without overstepping bounds. Servers will leave you alone if you're deep in conversation but are happy to answer questions when you want to engage.
I do wish we'd had more interaction with Beran during the meal: Because we were seated at the far end of the counter, we only chatted with him after we'd finished our carrots. I don't mean that as a fan girl who didn't get to make eye contact from her front-row seat. It's just that Beran has a lot to say, and I think that right now — and moving forward — this conversation of his is going to be a very interesting one for L.A. diners.
DIALOGUE | Four stars | 1315 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica | dialoguerestaurant.com | Tue.-Sat., ticketed seatings from 5:30 to 9:15 p.m. | $180-$210 per person for dinner; $175 reserve wine pairing, $125 mixed-beverage pairing | Prepaid reservations only
Following the September departure of restaurant critic Besha Rodell, L.A. Weekly will be publishing reviews in the coming weeks from a number of voices. Karen Palmer is the former editorial director of Tasting Table; you should read her recent piece "In the age of the influencer, do restaurant critics still matter?"