A row of striking antlers set off by vibrant lighting dominates the bar upon entering Taberna Arros y Vi, Michael Cardenas’ latest tapas-centered venture in Santa Monica. The restaurant’s mishmash of art and decor include a boar’s head, flickering candles, large chairs and couches, and an assortment of art, providing for a hip, eclectic ambiance that walks the line between intimate and energetic.
We are greeted warmly and settle down to enjoy one of the restaurant’s numerous house-crafted cocktails, the Seasonal Salted Watermelon. A wash of sweet and savory pleasantly tingles our tastebuds and we decide that the tasty cocktail may have been worth the trip to Santa Monica alone. But what meal is complete with just one solo drink? A selection of refreshing sangrias awaits, and who are we to deny ourselves, particularly when a delightful Honey Grapefruit sangria is just begging to be consumed.
But let’s get down to business. Deciding what to order from the extensive menu might seem overwhelming at first, but that’s why the Iberian Gods invented small plates, right? You’ll find a variety of tapas and paellas on chef Verite Mazzola’s menu, including traditional standbys like Gambas al ajillo (Shrimp sautéed with garlic) or Aceitunas Alintadas (Cured Olives) and more creative interpretations, like Pulpo en Lata (Octopus in a Can).
We start off with an order of the Pickled Vegetables, a mix of vegetables with just the right mix of crunch and tanginess, and a welcome briny accompaniment to our dishes still to come. Out comes a Scallop Ceviche, which is plated with sweet pickled fennel, blossoms, herbs and melt-in-your-mouth fried capers. We also order the Mejillones al Vino Blanco, green-lipped mussels that sit in a complex, queso-and-white-wine broth perfect for soaking crusty bread in. Dip in and you might also find bits of chorizo for a nice surprise. Crispy Pig Ears also arrive, paired with a flavorful harissa aioli. We dig in and we’re pleasantly surprised with a tasty, refreshing experience in a tapas realm that can be all too predictable.
READ MORE ON TABERNA ARROS Y VI IN OUR NEWEST ISSUE HERE
Santa Monica, CA 90401
text MICHAEL FRANCESCONI
photo RACHEL MANY
After a slow start that saw the brink of closure, Alma, the first brick-and-mortar from 28-year-old Ari Taymor, has surged to the front of LA’s chef-driven must-try list. A mountain of recent press and praise from foodies alike has the restaurant poised to be one of the most sought after seats in 2014. LAC sat with the young chef to review the year gone by and look at what’s ahead.
A year ago you said: “We’re looking to do everything the right way. From the way we build To the ingredients we use. To the way that we treat our staff. We’re looking to do something different.” Any update?
You know, I’m really happy with the way those things are going. With the success of the restaurant, we’ve been able to move closer to those ideals—in terms of compensating staff, growing our own food, working with individual farmers, cooking unique, delicious food.
You’ve been open for a year. You’ve been in LA for two. Thoughts on Los Angeles?
Truthfully, I love it. The markets are the best in the country. The produce here is untouchable. I’ve said that it’s hard to do conceptual food here, but we’re here because we have the best product and it allows us to the cook the best tasting food.
Will you elaborate on conceptual food?
We’re not necessarily cooking from a regional background. Conceptual cooking is trying to bring the essence of some dish you had in Italy or France or Spain into the kitchen. Personally, I have these memories and emotions that I want to articulate through food, and Alma is my venue to do that.
What made you start cooking?
I went to Atera in New York where Matt [Lightner] was serving a beet ember I think they cooked for thirty-six hours. And you look at it and think ‘this is a beet’ but everything that went into it, the way it was eventually dressed and plated, made it taste more than of itself, like the platonic ideal of what a beet should be. When I experienced cooking that made food taste more like itself than it would normally, I realized I had to do it for a living.
Speaking of hyper-realized food, you have to explain your lament of the Cronut.
[Laughs] Look somebody spent all this time and care to make this thing that hasn’t been made before. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s original. If people can use that to articulate something else, and make something that’s equally beautiful and original and delicious, then that’s great, but you can’t just take things from people like that. There’s no copyright on it, but that’s intellectual property. There’s borrowing and there’s chefs sharing things with each other, but I don’t hear anyone thanking Dominique Ansel for making this thing we’ve all been inspired by. They’ve just hacked together a crude copy. It doesn’t seem fair when you consider he probably spent a couple of years perfecting it. What I’d love to see in LA is less of that and more people looking inside and deciding how they can express LA and what we do here and what we love.
Is there anything indicative of LA cuisine yet?
I think it’s still so open. The pervasiveness of second and third generation guys that are straddling both worlds—between immigrant parents and a modern California culture—and are finding authenticity in their cooking without looking for it are going to be big shapers of defining LA cuisine. I guess it’s going to be very personality driven.
Is Alma personality driven?
I don’t think Alma is necessarily about me, Ari. I think it’s more about the memories and emotions that I try to convey to people, the care I show to the staff, the sourcing, the preparations. I think those are things I could eventually instill in a chef de cuisine and no longer be here and Alma could exist and succeed.
Are you working on anything else?
I would love to get the support to turn this into a prix-fixe restaurant. As we grow to utilize the garden more, the easiest way for us to use 100 percent of the vegetables is to have a more focused menu. But that requires trust—guests coming in and feeling comfortable, giving up total control. And I think in LA that’s a little more difficult than it is other places. And that trust takes time. This restaurant is 20 percent of where it could be. We can get so much better. So much more refined.
Goals for the next year?
Be full every night. Continue to grow the staff and give them a bigger voice. Continue growing our social and community outreach. I want more time to do research, to discover how to better articulate through cooking. You know, really, to just keep making better food.
Right off the beach on a prime corner lot, the Bank of Venice looks like it could be a historical landmark. Instead, owners Tom Elliott and Spoon Singh are hoping to create a cornerstone in the community. This is the same team behind the Venice Ale House, and they’ve brought over their local, organic menu. Singh carefully curates his menus, making sure his meats are sustainable, GMO-, hormone- and antibiotic-free. It’s what he feels the community he wants to build should reflect. That also inspired the feel of Bank of Venice. The name is a nod to the building’s original use, as a bank, and the interior has an air of nostalgic revival, despite being in the middle of colorful, beachy Venice. Singh describes Bank of Venice being an, “old world refuge on the beach.” While “old world” and “sustainable organic” might seem like disparate concepts, their fresh, California cuisine is easy and unpretentious and accommodating of both concepts.
Though Bank of Venice has an impressive list of beers and California wines, we wanted to know what they had up their craft-cocktail sleeves. We started with a couple of their Soju cocktails: Bank Cosmo and The Mint. Their cosmo came with a hint of blueberry, and was very sweet. Almost like drinking a berry tea, the Bank Cosmo is great for those who prefer something fruity and easy to drink. The Mint is a chocolate mint mojito garnished with raw cacao and mint leaf. Refreshing and citrusy without being overwhelmingly tart, the Mint is balanced well by the cacao. If you don’t like chocolate (who are you?), never fear. It simply rounds out the flavor and gives it a rich finish without being overwhelming.
Our meal started with the Burrata Salad and the Tuna Poke Nori Wrap. Made from local market finds, the Burrata Salad included asparagus, caramelized onions and raspberries served on a pillow of creamy burrata drizzled in balsamic and olive oil. A tasty combination of flavors and a fresh take on a salad without overloading on leafy greens. The Tuna Poke was also an example of masterful texture and flavor combinations: crisp cucumber, buttery tuna and avocado with toasted nori.
Also served up was the Cold Wild Alaskan Salmon Sandwich which is poached and chilled, then served with avocado and lemon dill aioli on sourdough. Salmon is definitely the fish for everyone (sorry, tuna) and you can’t call yourself a Californian without loving avocado. Up next was Bank of Venice’s Meatloaf, which is based on a recipe by their general manager, Megan. Served on a bed of mashed potatoes and hearty vegetables, this modern take on an American classic is a little sweet with a spicy kick.
California cuisine would be remiss to exclude a Mexican influence. Bank of Venice packed their starter menu with Latin-inspired dishes, and the one we sampled was Camarones Del Banco (wild Mexican white shrimp, sauteed in garlic, coconut and cerveza). Slightly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, this dish had a light, savory sweetness of coconut throughout that made us want to cook all our food in coconut oil. The final dish we sampled was another adoptee from abroad– Bangers and Mash. Pork sausage with garlic mashed potatoes, and caramelized onion sauce with spinach. Rich, comfort food. Just what we want from our local eateries.
We finished off our meal with one final cocktail, The Heat. This ginger-infused drink was spicy and had just the kick needed as we neared the end of our dining experience. Satisfied with our multi-faceted tasting, we’re confident that Bank of Venice, with its menu of American classics reinterpreted for the eclectic palate, is a much needed addition to the Venice community.
Bank of Venice
80 Windward Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90291
Friday & Saturday: 12pm-2am