In Italy as in China, styles of cooking can shift substantially in the space of just a few minutes on the highway. Lunch in the Marchese town of Visso will be completely different from lunch in Norcia, just to the south; breakfast in Shanghai will have little to do with what you’ll find in the morning in nearby Yangchow. When an expert scans the menu of a Roman trattoria, she can probably pinpoint its location within a mile or two. So it may not be too early to start talking about something like a Culver City cuisine.
A Culver City restaurant — and by this I mean the new breed of Culver City restaurant that has connections at the Farmers Market, the serious-casual vibe of a Prada sweater, and a birth announcement on Daily Candy — has a California-Mediterranean aesthetic even when the menu in question happens to be Asian. Lettuces have their growers’ names attached to them. Tomatoes are heirloom. Protein is seared in “crusts.” Mozzarella is made from the milk of buffalo, except when it appears in the form of gooey burrata. Wasabi pops up in unexpected places. Jidori chicken appears so frequently on menus that you could be forgiven for wondering if Old Farmer Jidori had his farm on a corner of the Sony lot.
Like many of the best new restaurants in Paris and Milan, Culver City restaurants would rather be seen as groovy wine bars that happen to have serious kitchens than as formal dining establishments. Beer lists are as long and as carefully curated as wine cards. Prices are much higher than you think they might be. The stereos pump rock & roll instead of W-lobby ambient-house soundtracks. The chefs have usually escaped from well-regarded but mainstream restaurants, and their Culver City dining rooms are temples of personal expression.
Wilson foodbarcafe, the high-design restaurant from Michael Wilson, who used to man the range at 5 Dudley in Venice, is a Culver City place right down to the eel on the BLT, the wasabi in the mashed potatoes, the La Española chorizo flavoring the mussels, and the organic Sémillon on the wine list. Wilson’s appetizers, listed under a “foodbar” section of the menu, tend to be small-plate modern-tapas things designed to be nibbled at the bar with a glass of sauvignon blanc: skewers of grilled lamb served with the Greek yogurt sauce tzatziki, say, or delicious grilled squid packed with a kind of salpicon of chopped shrimp and herbs, or sliced grilled lamb’s tongue.
Meal-size salads include a terrific pairing of shaved, charred and raw asparagus draped over a mound of lightly truffled beets, a deceptively simple presentation that plays on the sweetness of both vegetables, and a caesar-inspired house salad that features cured white anchovies, torn romaine lettuce and a lacy Parmesan-cheese crisp nearly as large as a Passover matzo. There is a smoky, slow-cooked pork shoulder that does double duty as pulled pork at lunch and as an entrée-size roast at night; tea-smoked whitefish is a dinner appetizer and the basis of a mayonnaisey whitefish-salad sandwich at noon. Chef Wilson clearly has modernist tendencies.
Antonio Muré and Stefano de Lorenzo of the Westside Italian restaurants Piccolo and La Botte are partners in the enterprise, and the handmade pastas at Wilson, especially the sharply flavored spaghetti alla Lina with toasted almonds, tomato and arugula, also a specialty at Piccolo, tend to be some of the best food in the house. You can’t really taste the fig in the potato-and-fig tortelli, but the slurry of buttery Parmesan shards it is buried under makes the dish incredibly good. A dish of cheesy, overthick tagliatelle dusted with Abruzzi summer truffles is pretty clumsy — and, at $35, way overpriced — but the truffle is shaved over the dish at the table, and if you crave the distinct, vaguely erotic funk of truffles, sometimes nothing else will do.
The restaurant is set into the bottom level of the new Museum of Design Art & Architecture building on Culver City’s main drag, a puzzling collection of colored prisms housing an exhibition space that snuggles right up to the dining room, and above the open kitchen is a huge blown-up photograph of a score of white-jacketed chefs doing group calisthenics on a New York hotel rooftop and a sign with the famous legend “The chef is always right.” White fabric fixtures jutting down from the ceiling look like nothing so much as a graduated series of toques. A poster of Wilson’s father, the late Beach Boys founder Dennis Wilson, stands as a mute shrine near the restrooms. The back patio resembles a cross between a Dwell magazine layout and a prison exercise yard. As befits a modernist restaurant, the celebrities on view tend to be architects — this is one place where a sighting of Steven Ehrlich or Eric Owen Moss may be as big a deal as spotting Tony Curtis at Spago. In the new Culver City, you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Wilson foodbarcafe, 8631 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 287-2093, www.wilsonfoodandwine.com. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.–Thurs. 5:30–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30–11 p.m. Full bar. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $56–$90. Recommended dishes: spaghetti a la Lina, grilled lamb’s tongue with arugula, grilled and raw asparagus salad, baked salmon with fennel butter.