February 28, 2017
“I want to knock your socks off!” Michael McCarty declared when he opened his restaurant in 1979.
I have a special place in my heart for Michael’s in Santa Monica: before it made its debut I persuaded my editors at New West Magazine that it was going to revolutionize restaurants. It was, I insisted, brash, exciting and utterly new. I then spent a few days a month for almost a year hanging out with Michael and his chefs as they built the place.
It WAS revolutionary: the chefs were all American (unheard of in those days), young (they were all under 25, equally unheard of at the time), and college educated. On top of that they were using American ingredients and showcasing American wines.
There were other innovations: Michael was one of the first restaurateurs to computerize his kitchen. He filled the dining room with great modern art (still there), and dressed his waiters in Ralph Lauren. He created a garden so lovely that eating among the plants was reason enough to entice many people through the door. But the food was the main draw. Michael had an eye for talent: the first chefs – Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, and Mark Peel- all went on to distinguished careers.
I’ve been back many times over the years, but my last visit left me with a sinking feeling. Nearing forty, the place felt like a tired old star limping along on its last legs.
So I was thrilled to walk in a few nights ago and find the place packed to the rafters and filled with energy. I was even happier to look at the menu and find that I was eager to taste every single dish. This is the old age we all yearn for: the rooms have been spruced up, but the basic bones are so good they don’t need a face lift. As for the garden – it has only grown more graceful over time.
The energy comes from the new chef, Miles Thompson (he worked at Animal, opened Allumette and then went north to work at Shed). His menu is pure fun.
Consider that barbecued quail up above, the flavors amped up with tangerine, miso and plum vinegar. Plain delicious.
Octopus with lime curd, chrysanthemum and a shrimp vinaigrette: a few irresistible little morsels.
The most wonderful squid, the flavor underlined by a devilish smudge of burnt eggplant puree and the gentleness of maitake mushrooms.
Chawanmushi – but a bracingly clean version – flooded with the voluptuous flavor of crab and sea urchin and sparked by a flash of ginger.
Hiding somewhere under all that greenery are light little ricotta gnudi
The entrees are more straightforward – although they do their best to startle with strangeness. This tiny, juicy little chicken – beautifully cooked – arrives embellished with both head and feet.
A righteous steak: big, bold, meaty. Something for everyone.
This branzino was delicious – but that black carrot puree? Over the top. Addictive. Enough, all by itself, to bring you back.
The excitement over the food has also infused the staff: they’re young, pumped, eager to make you happy. It’s really good to see Michael’s come roaring back.
Categorised in: restaurants