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LA Trip Report (mostly Santa Monica and Venice)

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If anyone is interested, this was my original post soliciting suggestions for this trip:

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/930278

Thanks to all the CHers out there who assisted with our selections. We had some really great meals. Most meals were in SM and Venice because we chose not to rent a car. Yes, people of LA, it can be done! ☺

Friday night (Valentine’s Day) – we had decided to keep it casual because we didn’t know how long it would take to get to SM from LAX and didn’t really want a “special VD menu” experience. We chose Copa d’Ora, which is mainly a bar.

Copa d’Ora – We had eaten a salad on the plane to hold us over to drinks and light food at the bar. We arrived while the Happy Hour crowd was still lingering so we had to wait a bit for a table, but it wasn’t bad. I ordered a Vesper and although the drink was large, the ratios seemed “off” (disclaimer: I am a huge cocktail snob). My partner really enjoyed her French Royale, which was a mix of a French 75 and Kir Royale, I think. We each had a second drink and a couple of the panini sandwiches, which were just OK.

I was surprised at first at the cocktail prices (not as pricey as I would have thought), given that it looked like a craft cocktail kind of place but then I understood when we returned Saturday night and actually got seats at the bar. They use pretty low quality stuff and, even more disappointingly, free-pour their cocktails. This explains why my Vesper seemed off. They actually have a good-looking menu and the recipes might be great, but the execution is lacking. If they free-pour their “Because You Can” cocktails, it should be considered a near-criminal act.

Saturday (SM Farmer’s Market & Border Grill truck, 800 degrees, n/naka

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Hit up the farmer’s market and the Border Grill truck that was there. Had a vegetarian breakfast burrito which was just OK; expected better.

Wandered around SM for most of the day to get our bearings and came across 800 degrees, where we split a Margherita pizza and some broccolini. Loved the broccolini. The pizza was reasonably good as well. The center of the pie was very soggy on the bottom, but closer to the outer edges the crust held up fine.

n/naka – This was great, obviously. They were doing a special VD experience, even though it was Saturday and we were presented with a complementary glass of sparkling wine when we arrived. I don’t know if they do all dinners this way, but we also had no menu to look at (until the end of the meal) – they said the chef wanted to leave everything as a surprise. Of course they had called previously to inquire about any food allergies or dislikes. Really we loved everything and the meal and service was worth the money, in my opinion. At the end of the meal the chef came out and briefly spoke with us, which was a nice touch. I forgot to ask what n/naka means. Anyone?

Sunday (GTA, Tar & Roses)

Biked to Venice and wandered around there. We were starving by the time we got to Abbot Kinney Ave, so we could not wait for a table at Gjelina. We settled for GTA and split a nice salad and their Brisket Banh Mi sandwich, which was great!

Tar & Roses – We really loved this place! Ordered a couple of smaller plates and the whole fried red snapper, which is really tasty and presented to your table in memorable fashion. We were too full for dessert, but took away a couple of orders of their bacon popcorn, which was a great snack later that night at the hotel room. This would probably be a regular spot for us if we lived down here.

After dinner we ventured to Rustic Canyon, which didn’t make the cut for a dinner spot, but I had noticed they seemed to have a good cocktail list, so we went in and sat at the bar for a couple of cocktails. I was happy to see them measure (which results in better cocktails) and the results were tasty. My only minor quibble (and, again, I am a cocktail snob) was that my martini was made by pouring the vermouth over ice and letting it sit there for a minute, then draining it out into the sink. A true martini contains gin AND about ½ oz vermouth, not just a whiff. I understand many people like it with little to no vermouth, but it should be made the standard (meaning original) way unless directed otherwise. Rant over. ☺

Monday (Venice Ale House, Tasting Kitchen)

On another day of wandering around we found ourselves at Venice Ale House and sat outside for a grass fed burger and some chips with salsa and guac. All very good and a bit surprising given its location near the beach, where most of the places seem to serve more fast-food type fare.

Tasting Kitchen – In part selected for their cocktails, this place did not disappoint. Between us we tried 3 cocktails and a glass of wine and all were well-balanced. The food was also good and we especially liked the pastas, one of which was comped because they forgot to place the order originally (really, people, it is OK to write down a table’s order rather than try to memorize it). We also had two different salads, which were also very good, and shared a dessert of apple fritter with crème fraiche gelato; also very tasty.

Tuesday (Huckleberry Café, Melisse)

Our last full day in SM, and anticipating a bonanza for dinner, we wandered over to the Huckleberry Café for a light lunch. All of the food and baked goods looked great and it was difficult to choose. I ended up with an open-faced Croque Monsieur, which came with a simple side salad. Flavors were all good, but there could have been a bit more meat on the sandwich. As they made it, it was still mostly bread, even thought it was open-faced. It seemed like it was one single thin slice of ham. My partner’s brisket plate was very tasty.

Melisse – This was our anniversary dinner and we had a wonderful time. Not that anyone goes to Melisse for cocktails, but we ended up ordering one to start the evening and both came with a lovely piece of perfectly clear ice, which really looks great in cocktails. The service was great, of course, and it was fun people-watching and trying to imagine how much money one must have to be a regular there (there seemed to be plenty of them)! Oh, well, I might weigh 500 lbs if I ate there with regularity. We went with the 10 course tasting menu and everything was prepared and presented well, as would be expected at a restaurant of that caliber. It was a great way to spend our 20th anniversary.

That’s it, Chowhounders. Thanks for the recommendations. We were really very happy with all of the places we went (my little cocktail rants aside).

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  1. Glad you enjoyed your visit and chose so (mostly) well.

    I believe that "n/naka" is just a reference to the chef's name: Niki Nakayama

    1. Thanks for sharing your culinary adventure. A very enjoyable read.

      1. Where did you stay? Happy with your hotel choice? Eat or drink anything there?

        1 Reply
        1. re: nosh

          We stayed in SM at the Le Meridien Delfina. We chose it because we had hotel points and could basically stay for free. We were happy with the location and we did not eat anything there, just got coffee in the morning.

        2. I'm a little late to the party, so to speak, but really enjoyed reading your trip report. I live in Santa Monica, so am always interested in hearing what people are recommending these days and also how people like the recs. You made me want to go back to Tar & Roses--haven't been there in a year or so.

          You asked what does N/Naka mean and since nobody responded-- it has to do with Chef Niki's name--Niki Nakayama. And yes, she does always come out and greet the guests at the end of the meal. I'm guessing that might be a Japanese tradition in the kind of family-run inn that she trained in in Japan (though she is American born). You can read her bio online BTW if you google. Anyway, I've been there twice, and it's a very special place--the wait staff are remarkably nice and welcoming, and the restaurant makes a note of what you had the time before so that they can cook you something different on your next visit (or so I was told by a regular customer--it's a little pricey for me to be a regular there LOL).

          1 Reply
          1. re: ThatPat

            Actually, the first comment in the thread from New Trial answered the n/naka name question.