3221 Pico Boulevard (between 32nd Street and Centinela)
Santa Monica, CA 90405
You might miss it because the storefront blends right in with the art gallery and other small boutiques on the block of Pico just east of Centinela. You might even mistake the bigger, flashier 310 Bistro and Lounge just up the street for it. But what you’re really looking for in this neighborhood is a subtle, simple, sleek silver sign that whispers “violet” in quiet, all lower-case, neon violet letters.
Violet carries out its color scheme theme from the moment you pull up to the valet, who’s wearing a glittering electric purple necktie. We hand off the keys, step inside to let them know we’re here just a few minutes before our appointed time, then immediately step right back out. No, no. It wasn’t bad. He needs a cigarette, and is thoughtful enough to do it now, since it would be rude to get up in the middle of a meal when he started fiending again. Thoughtful.
Violet is small, but feels spacious, making smart use of clean design and simple lines. Dark violet gray carpeting, cloth-less woodtop tables, chairs with ivory upholstered seats, and large framed mirrors on the walls feel very Pottery Barn; even the sleek brushed silver architectural accents and bar top feel PB, just a different page in the catalog. But the violet leather seating around the perimeter of the room, the bright almost Van Gogh Starry Night like abstract on the back wall, and a planter full of very Zen bamboo add some personality.
We take a seat against the wall, and of course, I sit on the outside facing the wall because, well, guys always like to sit facing the dining room. Better view for him? I’d like to think he was giving me the seat that would let me sneak photos.
Our server drops by and offers water. He’s dressed in a funky version of conservative shirt and tie. We order Iron Horse pinot noir, take note of a few recited specials, then start our review of the menu. It’s a little hard to understand, as there are no categories, and different types of seemingly related foods are scrambled up with everything else. But that’s the way we’re meant to eat here at Violet. No formal course by course by course. Just order casually and eat what you like.
Cream of onion soup special was smooth, milky white in a wide shallow bowl and speckled with perfectly snipped chives. Like our surroundings, and the rest of the food to come, the soup was clean and simple, but I didn't love it. He always talks about his mom’s creamed onions, so I let him finish the soup. ‘Cuz, you know, I’m sweet like that.
Even though I am not a fan of goat cheese, of course we had to get the crispy goat cheese wontons because just a few months before, I thought I was culinary genius when I made goat cheese, prosciutto, and dried fig wontons with garlic-sherry vinegar dipping sauce. I guess I’m not as inventive as I thought, LOL! Violet’s wontons are like your best friend’s baby sister in whom you see a lot of potential, but she’s still slightly plump in not quite the right places yet, over oiliness could use a bit of blotting, not quite tanned to crisp, and somewhat disheveled in appearance with edges that weren’t sealed shut all the way with the egg wash. She just needs a little more time to polish.
With cream (soup) and deep fry (won tons) already on the table, and beef on its way, I needed a vegetable. Sauteed baby spinach wasn’t outstanding. Pine nuts were an interesting addition, but didn’t really rescue the overall dish from being somewhat bland, except for a faint bitterness in the greens themselves. Nothing a dash of salt can’t fix. *sprinkle sprinkle* made it bunches better.
Friends had gone to Violet a few weeks before and had mentioned the braised shortribs. Two boneless shortribs, each about the size of a very small tangerine, nestled in a mound of creamy..Omigod, I can’t believe I can’t remember what it was! I am certain they were potatoes, but had the Iron Horse already trampled me that much? With the exception of perfectly tender crisp asparagus laid quite suggestively between the ribs *naughty* and a garnish of fresh thyme, the dish looked suspiciously like the braised medallion of shortrib at Beechwood a few months earlier. But hey, they’re shortribs, and there’s not a vast array of different preparations for shortribs, right?
The shortribs were incredibly tender, with meat falling apart into supple tendrils of beef and fat right there atop the creamy...nooo! I still can’t remember what it was! Subtle flavors in the pool of sauce in the bottom of the bowl and soaking into the pillows propping up the beef. Since there was thyme on top, I am guessing it was thyme in the braising liquid that made me want to do the unthinkable in Tiffany’s Table Manners – lick the bowl. Instead, I tore off a piece of bread and sopped up the sauce. Not completely refined on my part, but that is what what one must do when it’s absofockinglutely delicious.
Strange as it may sound, it was only four small plates between two people and one of them a simple saute of spinach, and yet I was feeling quite satisfied. Still, it didn’t feel right to walk away from a new restaurant having only tried the few things we had. The table next to us ordered macaroni and cheese, and I even recall friends mentioning it, but instead, we ordered duck. I don’t like duck. But, maybe tonight would be the night that Violet would convert me.
Four medium slices of duck breast fanned out in perfect spacing over a small collection of what look like flattened golden golfballs. I tried these first. Soft yet still dense enough to require a bite, they were gnocchi. Lounging there in sauce that looked similar to the nectar in the bottom of the bowl of shortribs, and under the gentle weight of the duck on top, they had just ever so slightly soaked up flavor. I could have eaten them all, but I didn’t. I may be a first-born, but I know how to share.
The duck breast was still there, and I couldn’t really ignore it any longer. They looked scary to me, even though I could have mistaken them for petite cuts of beef or pork. I think I had it in my head that duck is a bird. Birds are white. Such dark, and rare, meat for a bird is scary. I’m such a damn baby. Eat the duck, dammit!
So I took a cautious bite from the edge that looked the most cooked and least fatty. It wasn’t bad, though I couldn’t taste “duck.” Maybe that was good. Maybe that was bad. It was most certainly tender, and I ate the whole slice, but after that, I decided to become absolutely intrigued by the small purple flower garnish. I asked our server about the flower.
I sniffed it. Then I practically shoved it up the server’s left nostril, trying to make sure my attention was entirely focused away from...duck. Is it lavender? He said yes. Are you sure? No. I asked the server to go inside and ask if it’s thyme. He had finished the duck and I was in the clear. When the server came back, yes, yes indeed it is a thyme flower. Confession: I knew that all along, I just hadn't been converted. ;)
Dinner had been wonderful, but before dessert, I needed to take a quick break. I ran my hand along the silver bar top as I walked to the back and stopped at a small bowl. Inquiring minds want to know what those dark, almost black ruffles are in there? Purple potato chips – Violet’s bar nosh – and I was offered a sample. Thick and crunchy. Very very salty over an almost imperceptible sweetness. I think they remind me a bit of those *ooh la la* potato chips at the market that cost beaucoup bucks because they’re in a glossy black bag. Not Lay’s.
On my way back to the table, I stopped at the bar a moment to grab another “sample” of chips, reaching just beyond a guy now seated. There. White jacket....Ohmigod. It’s the chef. An embarassed smile, a hello to be polite, but shy because I know who he is. He stops me. He’s looking at me with a knowing smile. Is there toilet paper stuck to my heel? Were there remnants of the sauteed spinach stuck between my front teeth? Did I take too many chips? I can’t speak. I am mute in the presence of a man who...chefs. I mean cooks. See? Stumbling all over my words. He asked me how the food was.
I played dumb. Of course I knew who he was. For fox ache, I do research before I go somewhere to eat and Chef Simons’ darling photo is right there on the website. I answered him back with a question. Are you the chef? He is. Hello. And I shook the hand that probably didn’t prep the vegetables in my dinner, but still! I told him I loved it everything, even the thyme flower. Everthing except the soup.
Omigod. Did I just say that out loud? Did I just stand right there in front of the chef and tell him to his face that I didn’t really like his soup? I am a moron.
“Really? You didn’t like the soup? I thought that was one of my best things on the menu.”
I could have melted into the floor like the beef fat on the shortribs. And then I guess the Iron Horse was now at a full gallop trampling my brain. “I thought it was a little bland.”
*gasp!* What the...?!?! Did that just come out of my mouth again? Holy shite, shut up, Sarah!
Chef Simon chuckles and then asks me why, young lady, I’m taking pictures. Aha, so that’s why he was smiling. He had caught me in my food porn fantasy, and I thought I had been all sly going flashbulb-less. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was the fact that I was posessed by a goddamn demon. I burst out laughing. Right there in front of the man who just sent out the most tender, succulent shortribs to my table, I was laughing out loud. I actually had no idea what to say. Um, well, it’s nothing really. I just, uh, like to take pictures of food. I was stuttering. The chef, the wine, my completely moronic replies, were just too much to recover from. He asked me if I was from...some food related publication this that and the other? No. I swear. I am a nobody. He believed me. *phew*
Then it was easy and casual. We just chatted about Violet (Sorry about not liking the soup), his background in San Diego (Oh my god! I ate there when I worked in San Diego!), how much he likes being in LA over SD, blah blah blah. And I was in a complete chef-crush trance.
The server tapped me on the arm, pointing over his shoulder with a *raise eyebrows* Oh, bother. In my mesmerization with Chef Simons, I had completely forgotten about him. Oops! *double air kiss* for Chef Simons and off I run back to the table with the most charmingly apologetic smile I could sincerely muster.
“I got caught up having a word or two with the chef of this restaurant...” My words were falling on pissed-deaf ears. Had I really been that long? He had gotten a dessert menu, ordered, and already eaten half of a lemon tart because yes, I was gone that long. Apology apology apology, because of course I felt terribly guilty for leaving him there at the table alone, but moreso I just wanted to taste dessert. :) The lemon tart was a shimmering golden mass of silky smooth filling with the perfect balance of sweetness and lemony sass, barely held in place by just a paper-thin pastry crust, not quite crumbly shortbread, but not quite flaky pie crust either. I ate every last bite of the half that was left for me. Maybe it was delicious, or maybe I was trying so hard to focus on the tart because I was still breathless from my chef interlude.
It was late when we left the restaurant. We might have been the last ones there. As I shut the
door to the car on the passenger side, I saw Chef, jacket off now in just a plain white undershirt type of tee, had come outside, arm around the parking valet, talking about something funny I’m sure since they were laughing.
That’s the kind of restaurant Violet is. Casual, comfortable, totally unpretentious. Chef Simons isn’t trying to make a scene. He’s just wants to invite his neighbors into his Pottery Barn-esque dining room and feed them with really good food. He cares if you like the food. He even comes outside at the end of the night to thank the valet for taking care of his guests.