Friday, October 14, 2011

Ocean & Vine at Loews Santa Monica - dineLA & Happy Hour by the Sea (Feels Like Vacation)

How did I spend so many years in LA and never set foot in Loews Santa Monica? 

The sunlit hotel is pretty much on the beach - and last Sunday "Designer" and I were excited to check out TWO spots inside - spurred by the dineLA dinner deal and daily Happy Hour on the poolside terrace with a view of the Pacific!

The atrium / lobby was breathtaking - with towering palm trees underneath the skylit glass roof, and a waterfall wall behind the reception desk offering soothing background noise.  I didn't notice this until friends started pointing it out recently - but apparently whenever I really like a place I say: "it feels like you're on vacation".  Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel makes me feel like I'm on a tropical getaway, without the kitsch.

After taking in the decor for a brief moment, we made our way outside to Papillon, the poolside, beachfront lounge complete with wicker seating and fire pits.  Papillon offers Happy Hour every evening from 5-8pm, with a shortlist of cocktails, wines and appetizers for $6.60 each.  That's considered a great deal pretty much anywhere in LA - but the idea that it comes with gorgeous beach views, where you can sip and graze in an upscale but unpretentious setting, makes this an absolute hidden gem.
We found a table fairly easily (though I think we pretty much got the second to last open one!) and settled in to enjoy the view.  Though we were heading to Ocean & Vine for dineLA, we couldn't help wanting to check out the appetizers while we're there (that way we know what to expect for next time, as we already decided we were lame for not discovering this place sooner - we could have lounged here all summer!)

There were six appetizers to choose from. Our unanimous first choice was the Santa Monica Ceviche with lime, chili and cilantro marinated shrimp, baja sea scallops, salmon, guacamole, tortilla chips.  This was a decent sized platter, and the ceviche and guacamole tasted fairly fresh. But though I appreciated the thoughtful menu (they didn't just serve generic 'bar bites'), and understood these were offered at a pretty low price for SM beachfront property - the quality wasn't something we dreamed about after we left.  Not sure that I would crave it, if it weren't for the view. 
We allowed ourselves to indulge in one more appetizer (after pushing dinner back by an hour and a half!) - Duck Taquitos with mango salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo.  I was excited about this one - but not sure if it was because the service was a bit slow that night, that the taquito lost a bit of crispness and heat before we bit into them, and the duck was a bit dry, but again the trio of dips were fresh tasting, and I would say 'not bad for the view'. 

I guess we could sit on the beach for free - but I liked Papillon, again for making me feel like I'm on vacation.  Plus, you can drink at Papillon...
There are beers, champagne, wines and cocktails on the menu, but our server let us know the cocktails would pretty much be standard mixed drinks like rum & coke (they used to serve  pina coladas but not anymore :/ )

So, Designer decided on champagne and I went for the red sangria.  Of the two, I would recommend the champagne (the sangria tasted like 'a drink inspired by wine' and not really real wine with fruit - too diluted and only a piece or two of token fruit).
The terrace offered great views of the Santa Monica Pier, which was especially gorgeous around sunset with the ferris-wheel-light-show and palm trees blooming against the watercolored sky-sea-sand. 

As the sun retreated for the night, we made our way inside to the Ocean & Vine dining area.  I was excited about this menu as there were some dishes we have not tried before AND this was one of the dineLA deals with the biggest savings versus items on the regular menu ($34 for 3-courses, with estimated savings $29)!

After a pretty delicious bread basket containing what I thought was carrot bread (there were some orange - subtle, not dayglo - pieces in the mix) we both of course went for the seafood starter: Santa Monica Chili with Laughing Bird Shrimp, Baja Sea Scallops, Lump Crab, Roasted Garlic, Fava Beans ($16 on regular menu).  This reminded us of a bouillabaise but lighter and a tad spicy.  All the seafood tasted really fresh, and we appreciated that the shrimp was not overcooked, but tasted made to order.

Four thumbs up on this one.
For my main, I went for the Grapevine Smoked Beef Tenderloin Cold Smoked with a Hint of the Vine, Caramelized Onion, Cognac Beef Marrow Glaze, Artichoke Chips, Black Barley Pilaf ($38 on regular menu!!!).  This in itself justifies the price of the dineLA dinner deal - a perfectly cooked (medium rare of course) piece of beef that is rich with flavor (I'm guessing grass fed!).  Loved the marrow glaze and the sides as well - the sides were forgettable individually, but as a whole texturally served as a nice 'foil' to the tenderloin along with the original artichoke chips.
It did feel a bit Freaky Friday with me ordering meat and Designer ordering fish, but we shared everything anyway and were both curious as to how Catalina Thresher Shark with
Ginger Persimmon Nage, Pacific Lobster Mashed Potatoes, Agave Glazed Heirloom Carrots and Beets would taste (and it was not on the regular menu!).

Our server let us know the texture of the shark would resemble swordfish, which then deflated our expectations as neither of us were fans of swordfish - we both liked our fish tender and velvety smooth.  We should have guessed that the meat would be tough, as sharks of course swim constantly, are lean and pretty much all muscle.  We were glad we tried it, but probably wouldn't order it again anywhere else. The lobster mashed potatoes was the star on this plate.

As I already got my money's worth with the tenderloin alone, I wasn't as mad as I would have been to have wasted my dessert on the Warm Sweet Potato Lasagna with Vanilla Cream, Pecan Caramel (not on regular menu).  I love creativity and risk-taking in food, so in that regard I respect and applaud this dish.  However, the execution left us wanting less of a soggy, rubbery pile of flavorless pasta sheets layered with dehydrated meat and cognitive-dissonance-causing caramel and vanilla creme, and more of a sophisticated interplay of sweet and savory (the disparate elements didn't come together coherently for me).   

Designer wisely chose the Pear Chestnut Crème Brulée with Pistachio Tuile (not on regular menu, closest comparable item is Peaches 'N Creme Brulee for $9). This was an interesting twist on a french classic - the mix of juicy sweet pear pieces with earthy, softly crunchy chestnuts for me worked quite well with the crisp burnt sugar top and creaminess of the interior.

All in all, a great value for dineLA prix fixe - despite the faltering on the one dessert choice - you get to dine in a relaxed but beautiful setting, AND if so inclined - to grab a few cocktails out by the ocean before dinner at Happy Hour prices.

We will definitely be back again to Papillon for Happy Hour, and maybe dinner at Ocean & Vine at some point when we're able to splurge!

[For photos from other meals / deals from dineLA Fall 2011, check out the album on my Facebook page]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 4.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$$$ (4 bite marks regular menu)
Probability of return visit - 100% (for Happy Hour & view)


Happy Hour - Daily 5-8pm Wine, select cocktails and appetizers $6.60

Ocean & Vine  
dineLA dinner - $34

Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, California, 90401
Ph: 866.563.9792    

Parking:  Meters on Ocean Ave 2-hour limit, or free after 6pm daily; meters on Main Street 2-hour limit, free after 6pm and free Sundays (of course, double check street signs)

OpenTable: Look for reservations

Ocean & Vine (Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel) on Urbanspoon


  1. I find your blog very distracting! I can't focus on my job after reading about all the food! :-)

  2. Haha thanks...and sorry? ;) Time for me to look into putting "NSFW" warning badge on the site?! j/k Thanks for stopping by! :D



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