Specifically, the set of some Beverly Hills-ified (ok that was so not a real word) version of Alice in Wonderland.
Among the lush, looming palm trees and greenery, sprouted marble tables surrounded by rings of high-backed, plush white leather chairs. There were white cabanas with tables set up underneath, as if ready for a very important date/ tea party. The chairs in particular were what made us feel like Alice - they were made oversized, so you pretty much sink into them (even if you're just average-sized!) - and the table top becomes mid-chest height so you feel like you have to reach up to eat off of it.
The friendly server who helped us with the seats unfortunately then disappeared into thin air, and in his place appeared...The Caterpillar. A rather strict and stoic figure who made us feel we were taking quite a lot of his time - friendly requests for recommendations met with blank stares and half-absentminded / cryptic replies to the effect that we can choose whatever we want to. (We will later realize the further appropriateness of this nickname based on how quickly / often he came by to check on us)
Not to let that affect our evening, we were somewhat appeased when the bread plate arrived, which included lovely pretzel and pumpernickel loaves.
To start, we had the awesome Beet Salad ($16) with hazelnuts, baby lettuces, and truffle-pecorino panna cotta. The truffle-pecorino panna cotta had EAT ME all over it - one bite and it really did inflate my endorphin levels, sending them shooting through the figurative roof. The consistency of the panna cotta was more like burrata, and instead of the expected sweetness it was savory and head-spinningly fragrant with truffle. The beets had perfect texture, tender but structured, and were a blush of lovely pink beneath the blooms of baby lettuces. Yes, very pricey for a salad and not sure that I would be able to afford it without the BBE deal, but glad I got to try it.
Next up was Meatballs ($11), a seemingly simple, rustic dish that is much raved about at Whist. So we couldn't go without trying this one. It came in a cast iron pan with shaved parmesan, basil and olive oil, and lived up to the hype - juicy, tender, flavorful and most importantly, served at just the right temperature - piping hot but not so much it would scorch your mouth.
I was excited to see what they would do with this dish, given the ingredients, and I guess some part of me expected perhaps a Japanese style execution with the pasta, given the use of uni. It turned out to be classic Italian spaghetti, with a tomato sauce, and all the other ingredients piled on top. The uni came in the form of a solitary tongue placed at the top of the pile, sticking out at us as if to mock us for the disporportionate amount of money (vs. what we got) spent on the dish.
For dessert, we went with the Brioche Donuts ($11) with housemade jam and ice cream. By that time it was too dark out to capture any photos - but our original friendly server came by to turn on the heat lamp for us and we enjoyed lounging and chatting with a cup of post-dinner coffee til late into the night. The 'garden' setting had a different vibe at night, but equal to the charm it held during daytime - perhaps with just more of an air of mystery.
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed the simultaneously chic and whimsical space. There were a few standouts with food, but mostly it was pricey and inconsistent in quality for what we got. I personally probably would only return either with a group buy deal, for drinks, a date where ambience is the priority, or for the "7 B4 7 Happy Hour" - if I ever get out of work early enough to make it there from the Valley. Whist's 7 B4 7 Happy Hour runs Monday through Friday 4pm-7pm with a $7 per item menu including a selection of cocktails, wine, beer and bar food such as meatballs, mussels, chicken wings and hummus.
They also have a great sounding lunch deal, which I also won't be able to take advantage of since my office is too far away - but it's called "Daily 5" and is $16 per person Monday to Friday 11am-2pm including sandwich, salad, 2 sides and dessert PLUS complimentary parking! Great for those who work/live in the area and can get to the place at lunchtime!
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 70%
[To find more deals like the one used here, check out my Get More Bites Outta Your Budget page, and follow me on Twitter for up to the minute finds!]
Viceroy Santa Monica
1819 Ocean Avenue Santa Monica CA 90401
Look for reservations: Opentable.com