at the top of the Huntley Hotel
1111 2nd Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Choose life. Choose lobster. Choose curry-infused cocoa butter. Choose rosemary garlic polenta cake. Choose gyoza, ramen, salmon roe, salmon, sashimi, sushi, "pseu-shi." Choose pizza. Choose pasta with lobster, pasta with pesto, pasta with peas. Choose ravioli. Choose coffee. Choose tea. Choose tea eggs. Choose G Pure Energy, Tab Energy, vitamin energy. Choose Bacon Ranch Fries. Choose cupcakes, cheesecakes, cakes, pies, tarts, cookies ... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got a heroin blog?"
A month ago, I let everyone in on a super top-secret project on which I had been working. "TasteSpotting," my play on the book/movie/phenomenon Trainspotting, had been the term I was using to refer to my obsessive, compulsive, addictive food porn fiending behavior. TasteSpotting went from the title of my blogroll to becoming a site that quite simply, feeds your aesthetic addiction to food porn.
We (ms. notcot and I) are absolutely pickled tink that people are playing along with us, and to celebrate one whole month of spotting taste around the world wide interweb, we did a TasteSpotting dinner at The Penthouse, the new restaurant atop the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica. We would have cooked for a dinner party at home, but come on. Cook? Right.
I remember when it was Toppers. Hell, I even remember when it was beta version 1.0, Toppers at The Radisson. The food was miserable, but forgiveable for the happy hour that overlooked the sunset on the Pacific from 17 stories high. It was stunning every time.
Let me say this right off the bat so that you don't have to wade through my ramblings about the vibe, the "scene" and the beautiful people at The Penthouse. The food at The Penthouse, though completely different from the overpriced nuevo mexicano cuisine of Toppers, is still overpriced and still miserable.
But it is different! It is! I don't think I saw a single tortilla chip!
The top floor of The Huntley Hotel is now The Penthouse, and what an extreme makeover it is. You still take the tiny rickety elevator to the top floor, but instead of hopping in and pressing "P," there's a Matrix'd decked out in a black suit waiting there with a clipboard. If you have a reservation, he scans the list, checks you off, then sends you and your party up. If you're one of the hoi polloi without a dinner reservation, then you just have to wait until someone leaves. It's a little bit ridiculous.
The first thing that screamed out at me when we stepped out of the elevator immediately into the north-facing lounge area was the whitewashing. The entire restaurant and lounge has been done over in white walls, white tables, and white leather seating. Even the tables in the lounge area that have been "cabana-ized" are draped in sheer white fabric that is, of course, never closed because if you're special enough to sit there, everyone should see you. The center of the space is a 360 degree bar around which there is strangely limited seating for how broad the diameter is. When you do "the rotation" around the bar on either side, you end up in the dining room that is divided into two spaces. The smaller side seems lighter and brighter - more "pure?" Though the furnishings are the same, the other side seems darker and "naughtier." Perhaps there is some significance that the two dining spaces are divided by a small lounge area protected by enormously oversized wing chairs in front of a long, low, fireplace. It looks
sinister...in a sexy way. I guess.
We sat on the brighter side, right up against a south-facing window. Night had fallen by the time we sat down so we didn't get to enjoy a sunset, nor even see any part of the ocean, but it was nice to know that they were there. Sometimes that's all you need - just to know that that something - or someone - is always, unfailingly there, even if you can't touch or see it.
Penthouse's menu is awkward, and I'm not talking about the food. It is physically awkward because it's printed in an unusual orientation and presented on an oversized board. There is just no graceful way of taking the menu from the server without the danger of guillotining someone in your party. I couldn't figure out if it was safer to keep the menu on the table with wine glasses and open flames, or to hold it up in front of my face, completely insulating myself from any conversation that probably wouldn't be happening across the table since everyone else had the same gigantic menus.
Ms. notcot ordered a bottle of Merlot, only to find out that the restaurant didn't have it. Given that the restaurant hasn't been open for very long, it wasn't likely that they had already gone through an entire case of the stuff, and surely they wouldn't be so lame as to offer something they knew they wouldn't have by the time they opened? Either way, our server was nice enough to bring us a suitable replacement, though she made sure to note that while the replacement bottle is more expensive, we'd only be charged for the one we had originally ordered. I thought that was mildly obnoxious, but I might have been exhibiting dumb girljealousy. All of the servers at The Penthouse are very pretty. Hey, don't think I'm the only stupid girl who does that. I'm just the only one who admits it out blog.
We started with a simple cheese plate for the table to buy us some time with the menu, wine, and conversation. We should have stopped at the cheese. The bread wasn't bad either, but for God's sake, it's bread.
If I were in a good mood, I might call the menu “eclectic,” but the reality is, the offering is far less like a charming boutique of purposely mismatched items that still work together in a complete “look” and more like a garage sale of cheap plush carnival pizes, chipped coffee mugs from Niagara Falls and the last eight companies you worked for, and gnome lawn ornaments.
Some of the dishes are an odd interpretation of Asian (con)fusion. I understand that paper-thin slices of raw meat might stick to the plate, but the carpaccio had almost biochemically fused to the plate, making it near impossible to find and lift an edge. Garnishes of puffed, fried chips that are Japanese snacks were not only confusing, but the choice of white made the dish look cheap, equivalent to a converse presentation of a plate of tuna sashimi garnished with Doritos. I liked the fried julienned chives, but with neither a coordinating tie to the Japanese cheeseless cheetos nor to the raw beef, they seemed like a "pretty!" afterthought.
A multi-presentation of tuna tartar featured a piece of popcorn and a fried wonton crisp that, given the previous garnishes, I couldn’t help but consider an oversized Frito. As much as I am opposed to Asian fusion, I acknowledge that fusion cuisine overall can be done well when flavors and textures complement each other. Juxtaposing different cuisines that results in food that tastes as though they were "fused" merely for the sake of doing it is a shame. Popcorn on raw tuna? Really?!?! I’m not even sure regular corn would work with raw tuna.
Our server must have been instructed in The Penthouse's pre-opening training to never discourage customers from ordering anything with negativity about the food. When we had asked, "How is the chicken flatbread?" the server replied that it was very big. Not negative, but not an answer to the question we had asked. She hadn't lied. The chicken flatbread, which was more of an oblong pizza rather than a flatbread (I know, it's the same thing, but let's not get technical here), was enormous, though it had been categorized as a starter. It was enough to serve as an entire meal for one extraordinarily famished smallperson. As I think back, there was something in the look she gave us and the tone of her voice that we should have used to translate "It's big" to "Ew." Aside from being a bit of a monstrosity, the flatbread was too dough-y. The chicken and other vegetables on top were not bad, but it was hard to appreciate against too-thick and too-chewy.
There were other orders around the table - a vegetarian pasta and something from the grill, but I was focused on my Green Crunch Salad. Admittedly, the mix of green dotted with pomegranate seeds was vibrantly stunning against the white plate. Asparagus had been blanched ever so slightly just to bring out the color, green beans were fresh, edamame and peas were sweet, and I am sure I had a Hello Kitty moment with the pink and green radishes. The only thing I didn't absolutely love was the dressing, which was a little too tart for my taste, but not salty enough.
Obviously, we had to order dessert, even though we were more than full after our meal, with food still left on our plates. It was no surprise that a restaurant called "Penthouse" would call their dessert menu "Happy Endings." I was still skittish about allergies, so I only allowed myself a molecule of a taste of the Angry Marshmallows, a cute name for bruleed marshmallows atop a brownie base. Like everything else, the Angry Marshmallows were presented as small bites in a row, but it didn't bother me in a dessert format. Thankfully, my little taste was good. Happy Endings are nine dollars.
I highly doubt I would ever go back to The Penthouse for food, but the reality is that they really have no incentive to improve the kitchen. The place could probably survive on the merits of the decor and view alone. Besides, they make a lot more money at the bar.
Happy Endings at The Penthoues for a Happy beginning for TasteSpotting!
Incidentally, if ever you are interested in joining our little group for another TasteSpotting dinner (not at The Penthouse), or have a suggestion for a place to tastespot, let us know. Just leave a comment or send me an email!