Noodling around: Vermicelli with curry sauce

Noodling around: Vermicelli with curry sauce

In more easygoing times, we adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the omnipresent fish sauce in Thai restaurants. Now that we are more rigorous in our avoidance of animal products—and consequently do ask—we’ve had the experience of Thai dishes stripped not only of fish sauce (and oyster sauce, too) but also of flavor. Thai Vegan on Main Street in Santa Monica brilliantly solves the flavor problem but is not an entirely nice place to eat (table cleanups are DIY, and the parking-lot bathroom is best reserved for emergencies). Satdha (2218 Lincoln Blvd.) offers an appealing alternative, a bright, clean space, with an all-vegan menu full of color, crispiness, creaminess, and punch—and it happens to be a walkable, though uphill, hike from Main Street. We loved both the yellow and green curries: the former with fried tofu, carrots, potatoes, and onions; the latter with chickpeas, baby bamboo shoots, eggplant, bell pepper, and green beans. We were also impressed by the “catfish” eggplant, battered with rice and wheat flour, fried, and soaked in a red curry paste—clearly a customer favorite. But we found ourselves scarfing with particular relish the vermicelli with curry sauce, a toss-your-own platter of rice noodles, beans sprouts, chopped green beans, and pickled mustard greens. After three visits, we can now recommend Satdha without reservation. Will we be going back again soon? You hardly need to ask.


Locanda del Lago

Locanda del Lago's pizza margherita fresca

Crusty companion: Pizza margherita fresca

Cabbage patch: pizzocheri alla Valtellinese

Cabbage patch: Pizzocheri alla Valtellinese

Say cheese plate: (From left) Taleggio, Pecorino Toscano, and Montasio

Say cheese plate: (From left) Taleggio, Pecorino Toscano, and Montasio

Yet another good, authentic Italian restaurant to add to our burgeoning list, Locanda del Lago (231 Arizona Ave.) is an island of relative tranquillity amid the hubbub of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which these days is swelling with Italian tourists looking for—you guessed it—Italian food. (Would it kill them to try something new?) Differently from Pecorino and Da Pasquale (see reviews June 11 and June 16), Locanda offers dishes from Italy’s north, specifically Lombardy, whose fare tends to be meatier and cheesier than its southern counterparts. On this visit, we knew we wanted to try the pizza, which we had repeatedly spotted and longed for as we passed by the outdoor tables on our way to other destinations. Like other memorable pizzas we have had lately, Locanda’s boasts a thin, crisp crust, but unlike the others, it has a solid layer of mozzarella and chopped Roma tomatoes instead of a red sauce, like an ultra-refined prototype of a New York-style pie. The result tastes as great as it looks. Our other main dish was pizzocheri alla Valtellinese, featuring hearty buckwheat pappardelle tossed in a surprisingly delicate buttery sauce of garlic, Savoy cabbage, Yukon potatoes, Bitto cheese (a specialty of the region), and sage leaves. For dessert we started with a divinely dense and creamy semifreddo bursting with pistachio flavor and encircled by a ring of sweet, fruity compote. Eager for more, we assembled a plate pairing savory cheeses with complementary sweets. These included mild Montasio with bing cherry marmalade; ripe, soft Taleggio with mostarda di Cremona, a candied, subtly mustardy fruit preparation; Pecorino Toscano with a salty, pungent dipping sauce of cannellini beans and shallots in extra-virgin olive oil; and, as a bonus, a wine-poached pear in truffle-infused honey (not to mention a tasty heap of toasted walnuts and basket of bread to mop it all up). Though Locanda del Lago does not match the homey, family-run feel of our sentimental favorites, the food and service were first-rate. Even the Italian tourists seemed to agree.

Kreation Kafe

Smear job: The cold tapas sampler

Smear job: The cold tapas sampler

Although we had passed Kreation Kafe many times, we had never felt drawn to this organic, veg-friendly restaurant in Santa Monica (1023 B Montana Avenue, near 10th St.). The menu seemed pricey for what looked like a hole-in-the-wall, the size of a take-out joint with just a couple of small tables on the busy sidewalk, and we feared that we would be rewarded for our trouble with nothing but ostentatiously healthy punishment food. Fortunately, with the encouragement of a friend, we overcame our misgivings and discovered, first, that this sliver of an eatery stretches back into an utterly charming indoor-outdoor seating area and, second, that the food is artfully prepared and bursting with flavor. The centerpiece of the meal, which we shared with our hostess, was a pair of tapas samplers, one hot and one cold, each wonderful in its own way. The cold plate included a mild, creamy hummus; a tangy yogurt-cucumber dip punctuated by fresh mint, dill, and parsley; a simply prepared eggplant dip; a refreshing salad of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes with red onion and parsley; roasted corn and black bean salsa; and vibrant tabbouleh, with a bit of juiciness to complement the texture of the grain. Even better, the hot plate included golden, tender rosemary potatoes; intensely flavorful grilled tomatoes; sweet grilled corn on the cob; nutty wild rice with corn; and peppery, garlicky sautéed spinach with chili flakes. Only our dessert, a pair of macaroons, came close to matching our earlier, mistaken sense of the place, which is to say these vegan coconut cookies were not as moist or chewy as we would have liked. It was a disappointing ending to an otherwise much-better-than-expected dinner. All the same, Kreation Kafe turned out to be more pleasure than punishment and (priceyness aside) more than worth a try.

R+D Kitchen

Rice patty: A barely-there veggie burger

Rice patty: A barely-there veggie burger

Frites street: R+D's cup of fries

Frites street: R+D’s cup of fries

If you are beautiful, rich, and famous or at least want a side of glamour with your seared ahi tuna salad, you might consider R+D Kitchen, a chic eatery on Santa Monica’s boutique-y Montana Avenue (1323 Montana Ave., near Euclid). Though from the sidewalk the atmosphere appears to be one of overflowing bustle (no reservations are taken), those who manage to snag a table may well feel a sense of comfort and serenity. The winsome waitstaff, crisply attired in white uniforms, are as friendly as they are attractive, like the idealistic young doctors of a TV drama. Some actual celebrities may be glimpsed here as well, since the restaurant, just across the street from the Aero Cinematheque, provides convenient grub for the nonprofit’s special guests. Vegetarians will not find many choices, however. Putting aside the spinach and cheese omelet and a few ordinary side dishes, one is left with the unprepossessing house-made veggie burger. Formed from brown rice, mushrooms, carrots, and almonds, the patty is slightly sweet, not dry but not crisp either, with sporadic crunchiness from the nuts. Like the patty itself, the condiments lean toward the mild: melted jack cheese, avocado, mayo, and tomato slices, with a heap of fresh arugula and a bit of red onion, all on a buttery, soft roll that felt heavier than it needed to be. (The fries, prepared in the style of pommes frites, are tasty enough.) Though vegetarians may justifiably visit R+D Kitchen for the scene, they’re unlikely to return for the food. But, as the ever-present crowds attest, that’s probably beside the point.

Interim Cafe

Super Food veggie burger

Anti-hero: The Super Food veggie burger

Medicinal: White bean soup with lots of other stuff

Kitchen sink optional: White bean soup with lots of other stuff

Having passed Interim Cafe countless times when it was closed or about to close (the hours are Monday to Friday till 8 p.m.), we often speculated about what we might find at this apparently health-oriented, veg-friendly Santa Monica spot (530 Wilshire Blvd., at 6th St.). Aside from the temporal limitations, there was something inaccessible here, starting with our uncertainty about the name itself, which we pinned down only with the help of Eco-Vegan Gal (see blogroll for link). The menu too is daunting, a thicket of soups, salads, sandwiches, quesadillas, “hot bowls,” and veggie burgers, with more permutations and descriptions than you can shake a vegan drumstick at; nor does the website offer a mission statement, a history, or anything else, beyond the menu, that might help a customer get a handle on the place. Finally inside tonight, we stood at the counter in a daze until, with help from the proprietor, we settled on white bean soup, the Super Food veggie burger, and the Woodsy Mushroom quesadilla. The soup was not quite what we expected, which is to say we had a hard time locating the white beans. What we found instead was a hearty vegetable broth loaded with everything but the kitchen sink: peas, potato, celery, carrot, spinach, tomato, black beans, quinoa, barley, and several kinds of rice. Though the effect was indeed clean and healthy, an overabundance of fresh dill made the taste almost medicinal; the toasted “health bread” on the side was pleasant enough but still had an off-putting air of virtuous austerity. The Super Food veggie burger, like all its Interim siblings, boasts a house-made patty, which escapes the usual mushiness but still ends up tasting like dry Thanksgiving stuffing, though it is helped along by caramelized onion, avocado, sharp raw cheddar, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island dressing, as well as a crisp but chewy whole wheat bun and a salad of mixed greens, shredded carrot, walnut, and orange. What we really liked, however, was the quesadilla, which, though undoubtedly healthy, made us think less about internal hygiene than the sensual ensemble of tastes and textures: juicy, savory sautéed mushrooms; crisp whole wheat tortillas; hot chilis; sweet fresh corn; cool, silky avocado; and just a little gooey (albeit low-fat) mozzarella. Cut into quarters, the quesadilla was beautifully arrayed around a mixed-green salad with sweet slices of strawberry. We also greatly enjoyed our frozen dessert, Chocolate Salvation, a sugar-free vegan soft-serve that was smooth, creamy, and chocolaty enough to stand on its own merits. If, in fact, the menu were oriented more toward items like the quesadilla, indeed, if the menu were only simpler, we would be more enthusiastic about this unquestionably conscientious eatery. As things stand, however, we can give Interim Cafe only a provisional endorsement.

The Yard

The corn is green: Cobs with green garlic butter

Corn is green: Cobs with green garlic butter

Two great tastes: Burrata and peach

Two great tastes: Burrata and peach

Warm hummus with grilled bread

Garlicky: Warm hummus with grilled bread

Arancini with Romesco sauce

Nutty: Arancini with Romesco sauce

Chocolate cake with peanut butter ganache, charred marshmallow and pretzel ice cream

Incongruous harmony: Chocolate cake with peanut butter ganache, charred marshmallow and pretzel ice cream

Identifying itself as a gastropub, the Yard (119 Broadway, near 2nd St. in Santa Monica) has nothing for vegetarians among its entrées, but with an assortment of small plates and appetizers, non-meat-eaters can assemble their own mini tasting menu of Top Chef contestant C.J. Jacobson’s carefully and creatively prepared dishes. We ordered the gently grilled corn on the cob, tender, sweet, juicy, and rolled in a buttery garlic sauce, with Irish coolea cheese and a dash of paprika; a combination of sweet (albeit slightly mushy) peach slices and creamy, pleasantly salty burrata; smooth, garlicky warm hummus, with roasted red pepper, sweet cherry tomatoes, parsley, and slices of crusty bread; and, the heaviest of our small plates, arancini, a reinvention of the Sicilian dish as crispy, golden balls with a creamy, cheesy risotto core and a Romesco sauce that had a slight, nutty crunch under the bright tomato flavor. Part of Yard’s shtick is to put together apparently incongruous but actually harmonious elements, and we saw this strategy most clearly with our dessert, chocolate cake with peanut butter ganache, charred marshmallow, and pretzel ice cream. The marshmallows, it turned out, were not charred at all but slightly toasted to bring out caramel notes echoed in the ice cream and peanut butter, while the subtle deployment of pulverized pretzel added a touch of salty texture like fleur du sel sprinkled on a fine caramel ice cream. The cake itself was moist, with a deep chocolate flavor and not too much sugar; the peanut butter ganache luscious; and the ensemble simply delectable. Like every dish we ordered, it was a winning combo, even if sluggish service sometimes made our dinner seem like the longest yard.

Update: As reported in Grub Street, the Yard closed in January 2013, a year after chef Jacobson left.

M Street Kitchen

Top brassica: Brussels sprout salad (half portion)

Top brassica: Brussels sprout salad (half portion)

fixings for vegetarian tacos, with tortillas in foreground

Pain in the tacos: Tortillas, with fixings

Sweet and fudgy: The Magic Brownie

Fudgy and sweet: The Magic Brownie

Who has the best veggie burger? Back in June, the Los Angeles Times food section featured a reader’s letter describing the one at Upper West as “the best…on the planet.” Though we liked the burger a lot, we were hardly prepared to crown it with the world title (see June 16 review). The Shangri La Veggie-Nut Burger at M Street Kitchen (2000 Main Street, at Bicknell, in Santa Monica), however, seems at least to be a plausible contestant. Made from mushrooms, white beans, and onions, according to our waitress (we also tasted carrots and celery), the patty pulls off the textural coup of a crisp, brown outside paired with a moist, flavorful, non-mushy inside. Served on a toasted, buttery bun reminiscent of Upper West’s brioche, along with shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato, red onion, sweet pickle slices, and a sweet dressing, it made for an utterly scrumptious sandwich. (The accompanying coleslaw, a lightly dressed, slightly bland rendition, at least held on to a nice cabbagey crunch.) We were impressed, as well, by the brussels sprout salad, which elegantly combined the autumnal brassica, steamed, tamed of its bitterness, and broken down into individual leaves, with judicious slivers of mild, buttery Manchego cheese; almonds, for a nutty crunch; chewy dried cranberries and blueberries, for little, sweet bursts of fruit flavor; and a light, subtle honey-mustard vinaigrette. The vegetarian tacos were less remarkable: Though we liked the simplicity and wholesomeness of the white rice and black beans (albeit with a gratuitous spoonful of sour cream on top), as well as the bright, fresh guacamole and pico de gallo and the tangy, dark hot sauce, we were underwhelmed by the grilled veggies—red pepper, hot peppers, squash, and asparagus, which were apparently unseasoned as well as partially charred (for a burned flavor that we never really like). Moreover, the five small corn tortillas were not nearly enough to encompass the contents of the plate, which quickly devolved into a mess. For dessert, we chose the Magic Brownie, a generously sized chocolate square topped with chocolate sauce, with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. Though neither the brownie nor the cream was overpoweringly sweet, we would have preferred at least a hint of bitterness as a counterpoint to the sugar. We ended up cutting the rich, fudgy chewiness of the brownie with glasses of milk, which our waitress was kind enough to provide at our request (just as she had thoughtfully divided our brussels sprout salad into two plates). Though we would be inclined to avoid the tacos in the future, we would gladly return to M Street Kitchen for that memorable salad and the excellent veggie burger, both of which exhibit the extra portion of care that makes this stylish but friendly eatery extend its M to an mmmm.