Monday, June 6, 2011

The Market at Santa Monica Place - Artisanal Marketplace, Oceanside

Imagine some of your favorite lesser known, local food producers and neighborhood market / restaurant finds, gathered in their very own permanent place, steps away from the ocean.

That is The Market at Santa Monica Place - a well curated collection of artisans bringing their passion projects to the fore. Kind of defying the concept of artisanal, by being placed at the top of a high profile luxury shopping complex - but somehow it works. I love a great underdog story, and it's like the underdogs have made it, finally getting the recognition they deserve with a platform to broaden their reach to a more mainstream audience - both of their wares, and of the larger message that local, sustainable, handcrafted is in demand, and has 'arrived'. Soaring almost literally over the heads of 800lb gorilla chains, and a tendency for mass consumption of goods of the lowest common denominator. And foodies everywhere across the city are cheering them on.
Much comparisan has been drawn of The Market to San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace - while the concept is similar, I feel the vibe and offerings differ a bit.  Ferry Building caters in general to a more upscale, sophisticated crowd, with creme de la creme artisanal offerings from traditional teahouse service of exquisite hand-picked teas, to exotic mushrooms/truffles to pristine oysters, delicate desserts, cheeses and wines, while managing to avoid any feeling of elitism. The Market has a more whimsical side befitting its more casual beach-going / La La Land drawn crowd, with a retro-cool ice cream purveyor whose marketing hook involves servers 'in character' as 50s pin-ups being one of the first 'stalls' you see - and signs like the one pictured at left emblazoned with fun foodie philosophy / catchy food-inspired one-liners adorning its walls.
Holding to the philosophy of 'dessert first' - sweets are truly what you will see first when you enter The Market.  To the right inside the entrance, next to Beachy Cream ice cream, you will be greeted by Rockenwagner, another dessert purveyor (ok, baked goods but predominantly sweet ones) with a sense of humor and touch of Hollywood.  I would describe their decor as understated whimsy - overall the space has a clean, streamlined look, but is embellished with unexpected pieces from faux grass-covered seats to a tomato mosaic wall hanging that on closer inspection is made of stylized images of LA icons including Bob's Big Boy.  A mannequin is dressed with an outfit made of chocolate covered pretzels; a table display is adorned with lawn gnomes. Rockenwagner's specialty is their made-to-order, from scratch, souffles.  I tried the passion fruit w/ honey-orange ricotta 'dip' - it was not as great as I expected, a little too light and foamy and single note in flavor.  They also offer various pastries, and a few token savories like sliders and paninis.

Moving down the row, there is a coffee/tea place and stall with 'farm-sourced' organic skin care (Benedetta is actually also in the Ferry Building!) and Magical Blooms for breath-taking floral arrangements, before hitting you with more sweets (love it!). One that I am glad to see at The Market is L'Artisan du Chocolat, easier and more central for me to get to now than their Silverlake boutique (in terms of having other stores around, so I can make an afternoon of a trip to The Market, after the beach or shopping, versus having to drive out to Silverlake specifically just for my chocolate fix).  Love their hand-painted chocolates with wide range of flavors from matcha to mango-wasabi to bacon to shitake and korean garlic (flavors available vary).

There is also a trio of Italian eats under the banners of Primi al Mercato and Norcino Salumeria.  Primi al Mercato is in two parts - on one side, you can buy everything you need to make great pasta dishes at home, from fresh semolina pasta handmade on the premises (you can watch the lady making it at the marble counter at the window, if you go early enough in the day!) priced by the pound, to jars of the best sauces Italy has to offer.  In their words, the fresh pasta is 'life-changing' - after trying their fresh ricotta-filled semolina gnocchi ($5/lb) with San Giuliano pesto-basil sauce, I would agree.  I am now ruined for home-cooked pasta - once you go fresh you'll find it very hard to go back to dried! Plus, they make harder to find pastas like squid ink fettucini.  Those who can't wait til they get home, or aren't in the mood to cook, can taste Primi al Mercato's pastas right at The Market in their adjacent restaurant. 

Norcino Salumeria, across the way, offers case upon refrigerated case of beautiful charcuterie and cheeses.  You can try their cheese plate (any 3 cheeses from menu for $12, add $5 for glass of wine) at the bar, or sit in the deli to enjoy a panini made with their finest selection of cured meats.  I was delighted to see that they carry Sottocenere, one of my favorite cheeses laced with black truffle, swaddled in a beautiful edible grey vegetable ash rind - though the going rate was $35/lb there.

At the far end of The Market is Venokado, a wine & modern gifts market (that carries SQIRL jams and Bakelab treats! As well as wine paraphernalia, wine country inspired soaps etc.) and The Gourmandaise School which offers hands-on classes in their open kitchen-lab right in The Market!

Last but definitely not least, in the far corner is the restaurant that had me screeching to full stop the minute I spotted their blackboard specials. The Curious Palate actually has a location in Mar Vista, close to the farmer's market (they specialize in farm-to-table cooking), but is making its debut in the higher profile SM space here.  I loved the casual counter space with full view into the open kitchen, as well as their narrow strip of, but lovely, outdoor terrace seating that allows diners to enjoy the gorgeous SoCal summer / sea-air.  But it was the menu that really captured my attention - some of the magic words were "Black Rice Beignets with Santa Monica Sea Urchin" and "Lamb Sweetbreads".  So we had no choice but to stop in for a bite.

Sliding up to the long wooden counter - my first order of business was Black Rice Beignets with Santa Monica Sea Urchin ($14) seasoned with black olive salt and salmoriglio aioli.  I loved the creativity of this dish - substituting the toothsome black rice beignets for the usual round of sushi rice under the pieces of uni that tasted like it was plucked from the ocean just minutes before (quality of both the sea urchin and the plating /presentation was unexpectedly high for mall dining!).  There were four beignets for $14, a fairly good deal for a dish involving uni!   
Next up were Lamb Sweetbreads ($12) with corn pudding, fresh herbs and meyer lemon.  I also loved this dish, which was juicy, perfectly cooked so that the lightly crisped shell yields to a chewy but not tough interior, and packed with earthy and subtly sweet flavors.  I hope they keep this on the menu as I would definitely come back for it.  We actually had dinner reservations at Drago later that night so I wasn't supposed to fill up at The Curious Palate, but couldn't help myself!
My friend 'Designer' was with me, but not feeling the same bottomless hunger that is my constant companion, so she opted for the small plate of Macaroni and Cheese ($8).  This was a good enough dish, with light creamy cheese and a lovely crusted top - but otherwise overshadowed by the other amazing dishes. 
Perhaps I wasn't as subtle as I would have liked with the food paparazzi shots, but without us ever at all mentioning the blog, our super friendly server surprised us with a dish 'on the house' near the end of our meal: Razor Clams - ceviche, leche de tigre ($10).  This was beautifully presented in a glass jar with a side of plantain chips.  The citrus and onion flavors were skillfully controlled so as to neatly cut through the shellfish, while not overwhelm it at the same time - so that the freshness of the clams were highlighted, not covered, by the marinade.  I loved the smooth slivers of clams, which offered a nice chew counterbalanced by the crisp and fruity crunch of the plantain chips.  Loved this dish and would defnitely order it again the next time we're back.

All in all, so happy to have this exciting new waystation for affordable gourmet in the midst of the somewhat overpriced dining terrace offerings at Santa Monica Place. 
And so glad that I can now pick up my favorite foods for easy weeknight meals, as an easy stop on the way back from the beach, at The Market.  All this gorging and I can feel good about it, afterall, I would be supporting local artisans in their sustainable food efforts, even if I'm buying the gourmet goods at the mall.

***See my full set of 35+ photos from The Market at Santa Monica Place here ***


The Market Santa Monica Place
395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Ph: 310.260.8333

The Curious Palate (The Market at Santa Monica Place) on Urbanspoon

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...