Halibut with chowder broth and favas, corn and rancho gordo beans
I just can’t envision it. How, I wonder, perusing the new menu at Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen in Santa Monica, will white chocolate work on fresh peas? My mind wanders to strange places: Peas with white chocolate sauce, like gravy? Peas studding a white chocolate bar? White chocolate-coated peas?
But in the hands of Chef Jeremy Fox, who’s known for doing incredible things with fruits and vegetables, the dish is not like anything I could have ever imagined. In fact, it isn’t like anything I’ve ever tasted. The presentation is lovely in its simplicity: a bowl of fresh, plump green peas, whole and halved, then sprinkled with “crumbs” of white chocolate and a taste of chocolate mint leaves. My server pours a semisweet cold pea broth over the dish, creating a pool of flavor—cool and refreshing, with mint and chocolate unleashing the earthiness of the naturally sweet peas—and all part of Fox’s ever-changing seasonal menu.
Fox joined the eatery in early 2013, after relocating to Los Angeles from Northern California, where he helped the now-shuttered Ubuntu in Napa earn a Michelin star for its haute vegetarian cuisine. He landed some consulting gigs and attached himself to a few projects that never got off the ground, but was available when Rustic Canyon owners Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan went looking for a new executive chef to replace Jeremy Strubel. After months of discussions and an extensive menu overhaul, Fox’s rare talent for working with all things vegetable seems uniquely suited to Rustic Canyon’s personality.
Fox’s addition has spawned maverick menu changes, but little else, other than a spirited new cocktail program, has been altered at this wine bar and seasonal kitchen opened by Loeb—to much fanfare—in 2006. Nathan joined a year later, beginning the couple’s journey as both life and business partners, with three restaurants, an artisanal ice cream shop, a child and a soon-to-be-released cookbook (Huckleberry Breakfast Cookbook, Nathan’s first, based on her pastries and breads sold at Huckleberry).
On just about any night, the crowd is still two- or three-deep at the bar, with everyone sipping something: some a crisp Oregon pinot gris or deep Whitcraft syrah from the thoughtfully curated wine list, others a cocktail. The last time I was at Rustic, which was somewhere close to its opening, there were no artisanal spirits, only beer and wine. The situation having since been remedied (the resto’s full liquor license came through about the same time Fox came on board), I can see myself popping in for a quick drink and a snack at the bar any old time—in fact, the new sidewalk tables make it the perfect stop on a summer night.
But I actually prefer sitting in the bar area. It’s quieter than the main dining room, unless you score a seat at one of the funky booths along the wall. Wherever you sit, prepare for a chatty room and a table full of dishes, especially if you’re sharing (the food tends to come out fast and in bulk). During my visit, a few plates sit empty at the table when three more arrive from the kitchen. I can’t say if it’s timing (because it’s a busy night) or if that’s just how they serve. Either way, it doesn’t allow for much room to sit and savor between courses.
Though Fox redesigned the menu over the course of his first few months at the kitchen’s helm, the idea to create hyperseasonal fare remained the same. At a friend’s recommendation, I try the pozole, but it’s not the richly flavored hominy soup found at traditional Mexican restaurants. This version has plump and hearty hominy, pink mussels and tender, shell-less clams swimming in a green broth spiked with just enough heat from chiles to make it interesting, and a topping of shredded tortillas adding texture. What a dish! It’s Fox hitting all the right notes: restrained balance that’s still fun and palate pleasing, but not overwrought.
And he’s just as deft with meats as with vegetarian or pescatarian fare. For every bite-size potato croquette with romesco and aioli, or fluffy green onion gougères filled with creamy morel and porcini sauce, there are robust meat dishes, too. Imagine toast topped with bone marrow and Gruyère cheese, which soaks up a delicious ramp and chicken consommé, making the whole thing taste like French onion soup. And the pillowy gnocchi with short rib and strawberry “sofrito” oddly works. Mostly small plates make up the compact menu, but larger plates—like a wonderful piece of halibut with chowder broth, peas, favas and corn, and roasted chicken with summer squash—are easily passed around the table. Despite Nathan’s pedigree with sweets, the dessert options are limited, but Pastry Chef Laurel Almerinda does a nice job with a classic strawberry-rhubarb pie and a scoop of Sweet Rose ice cream.
Rustic Canyon is one of those places that never seem to go out of style. Fox’s new playground gives foodies the chance to explore familiar ingredients twisted in delicious new ways. It’s one more reason to get excited for amazing seasonal bounties, if only to experience the magic he creates.
1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 310.393.7050, rusticcanyonwinebar.com
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11:30pm
Menu: Appetizers, $7-$18; entrees, $27-$35; desserts, $4-$12
Where to Sit
The booths along the wall, a high-top at the bar or, on nice nights, a table on the sidewalk patio
What to Wear
It’s the beach, so just about anything goes, but keep it stylish.
What to Drink
Expect seasonal sippers like the Maple Berry Smash or the Handstand, a take on the Negroni made with Cap Rock Gin, Byrrh Quinquina and Salers Gentiane liqueur.
Fox quietly took Rustic’s lauded burger off the menu, but ask your server. There may be a few orders for those in the know.