We finally managed to stop in on the burgeoning eatery empire that Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan have established in Santa Monica with an evening visit to Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. The pair owns Huckleberry Cafe just across the street, and Sweet Rose Creamery, which focuses exclusively on your sweet tooth. Under the direction of Rustic Canyon chef Evan Funke - whom you might find perusing the produce at Santa Monica's Farmers Market a few blocks away - the kitchen's focus is on presenting high quality ingredients to diners in simple preparations that let all the elements of the dishes shine.
The decor at Rustic Canyon is sleeker and more intimate than the name would suggest. Warm wood, deep burgundy walls, and intimate booths make the restaurant a great place for date night (not first date, though, as it's a little loud), or a fun dinner with friends.
A small plate of marinated green olives tided us over as we perused the large menu. As we were dining with one of our favorite food-loving couples, in order to maximize the number of dishes we got to try without busting our guts or our wallets, we decided to each grab a couple of small plates each.
First up? The highly recommended roasted beets & farro, with feta, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, red onion, fennel and yogurt. The light dish was great, if not particularly innovative - the sweetness of the beets was well-balanced by the sharpness of the feta and licorishy fennel.
The crispy baby artichokes were fantastically simple, and a great preparation for artichoke lovers - you get the great crunch, but the frying doesn't overwhelm the taste of the thistle.
A clean and simple dish, the figs and prosciutto paired salty and sweet in an appealing way. Funke's commitment to fine, seasonal ingredients is apparent and the elegant presentation here is something that needn't be meddled with.
One of the biggest hits of the night was the spicy kurobuta pork meatballs amatriciana (a traditional Italian sauce based on dried pork cheek, pecorino, and tomato), with pancetta, roasted tomatoes and chilies. On their own, the pork balls were incredibly flavorful and tender; when combined with the meaty, tangy sauce, the dish was a crowd-pleaser.
The fried cauliflower, served with garlic, lemon, parsley, capers and bread crumbs, was surprisingly tasty. I mean, you could fry virtually anything and top it with those ingredients and it would be pretty great, but the mildness of the cauliflower makes it a particularly effective delivery system.
The sole seafood dish of the evening was delightful as well. The Columbia River Sockeye Salmon with smoked bacon, green garlic, morel mushrooms, and romesco was perfectly cooked. The smoked bacon and the mushrooms lent a nice counterpart to the assertive flavor of the fish - sockeye tends to be slightly fishier than other varieties, which is why I rarely order it, but the other elements of the dish complimented its boldness nicely.
One of the dishes I was most looking forward to was the crispy white polenta with a sunnyside farm egg, wild mushrooms and parmigiano-reggiano. The creamy, decadent dish was wonderful, with nice textural contrasts from the crisped corn cake and the lush egg yolk. The wild mushrooms grounded the dish with a delicate earthiness.
My absolute favorite item of the night was the sweet corn agnolotti with caramelized corn, a beautiful seasonal dish. The house-made pasta did its job and got out of the way of the real star, the mouthwateringly sweet corn filling. The caramelized bits of corn added excellent dimension.
Upon request, our server recommended four of the desserts, which worked out perfectly in terms of number (if not for our diets). Unfortunately, the desserts as a whole didn't quite live up to our savory dishes. The chocolate macaroon pie with coconut and whipped cream (below, left) was a fairly forgettable sweet, although I do recall it being chewier than I had anticipated. The turtle Sundae, with caramel ice cream, chocolate sauce, honey peanuts and whipped cream (below, right) definitely hit the spot in terms of sweetness and richness, but I'm not sure it wasn't something we could have recreated at home with little effort.
The sweet corn cake with vanilla ice cream and blueberry compote (below, left) was my top pick for the dessert stage of the meal - lighter than the other three sweets, it hit a good balance between savory and sweet. The last dessert to get polished off was the olive oil torte with cocoa nibs and olive oil chocolate sauce (below, right). In theory, this dessert was right up my alley. In execution, it left something to be desired, as it was on the dry side and almost off-puttingly dense.
Despite our mild disappointment over the desserts, at the end of the meal, we could all see why the Rustic Canyon team has done so well where they are. Rustic Canyon and its sister restaurants do a very good job of capturing the relaxed vibe of Santa Monica and that area's focus on superb ingredients prepared simply. I'm sure we'll be returning soon, if only to sample the restaurant's famed burger.