Friday, August 5, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Upper West

Attention, Westside! We finally returned to your stomping grounds. Where exactly were we headed this time? A hosted dinner at Upper West in Santa Monica, by Pico and the 10. The large, open venue draws its name as it's reminiscent of lofts in Manhattan, and because it is literally the last option on Pico before crossing Centinela, what some consider to be the border of the Westside.

One of the restaurant's co-owners, Elad Benisti, ran nightclubs and lounges in Miami before moving to LA and opening Upper West last spring. His sociable nature is easily apparent, as on any given night, he can be seen running about welcoming new patrons, catching up with regulars, and interacting with his staff.

The modern aesthetic—and even the food to a degree—reminded me of one of my old favorites, 3rd Street's now-defunct Food Court LA. The main dining room and bar are separated from a beautiful patio area by floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Although the projected classic film concept is nothing new in LA, this is the icing on Upper West's already well-crafted cake.

This chic space plays host to monthly pairing events. In the past, special tastings have been created around wines, tequila, and even Jameson. Upper West also keeps things interesting by changing its eye-catching art displays every three months.

George Bernard Shaw's famous quote "there is no sincerer love than the love of food" is painted across the patio's lintel, and serves as a reminder that although the restaurant's interior is gorgeous, the focus here is on the grub. The idea is modern American comfort food, and with options like corn on the cob, burgers, and ribs on the menu, the owners want you to make yourself at home and just dive in using your hands.

Upper West has concocted a fantastic list of unique cocktails. We went for a watermelon mojito, which turned out super sweet, and a calm, cool, and collected cucumber martini made with mint leaves, gin, and sweet and sour, which was more up my alley.

We hold high standards for burrata salad, having enjoyed Cube's virtually unbeatable offering. Upper West's take is praiseworthy as well, and quite robust with its use of apple-blackberry panzanella, tomatoes, chamomile salt, and dill-mustard vinaigrette. Finishing off every last bite of a cheesy cloud of burrata is always such an indulgent, yet delicious, challenge.

The standout dish of the evening came early and unexpectedly. The whole roasted sweet corn brushed with avocado butter and cotija cheese was hands-down the best corn on the cob I've eaten in my life. This flavorful summery treat makes it fully worth having chunks of corn wedged in between your teeth afterward—just remember to bring floss.

Upper West's veggie burger has received a great deal of praise, having recently been described as possessing the power to "make a convert out of the most ardent meat lover" by the LA Times. In all honesty, I haven't sampled enough veggie burgers to be a qualified judge, but my vegetarian dining companion Aurora did greatly enjoy it, noting the burger's subtle Asian hints, particularly with its use of pineapple relish.

I've never seen meat from char-grilled baby back ribs fall so easily off the bone. Served atop a bed of Asian slaw and crowned with radish peach salsa, this dish proved to be a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

Although I rarely indulge in bread pudding, it is in fact one of my favorite desserts. Sweet, soft, and rich, Upper West's brioche offering swam in a whiskey caramel and creme Anglaise sauce, and was topped with strawberries. This decadent treat was most definitely a comforting end to our very satisfying meal.

We visited on a Monday evening and were surprised by how bustling the restaurant was for a weeknight. But with its impressive menu and lively atmosphere, it's no surprise that Upper West has certainly been a welcome addition to Santa Monica's sometimes lackluster dining scene.

3121 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90045; 310.586.1111;; MAP.

Photos by Aurora Tang.

COMING SOON on Foodie Fridays: We'll be checking out the recently-opened Black Cat Bakery on Fairfax and revisiting a classic, Pacific Dining Car.