My first year-and-a-half as an Angeleno were spent in Santa Monica, soaking up sunshine and seabreezes. Unfortunately, back in 1999 and 2000, my home base lacked the most important element: good food. My fruitless hunt for a decent meal led me further and further east; now it takes me 45 minutes just to drive to Santa Monica, but if Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan were in business a decade ago, my move may have been abandoned, or at least delayed.
Josh Loeb, pastry chef/wife Zoe Nathan and executive chef Evan Funke already set the bar for seasonal California cuisine at Rustic Canyon. Last year, Loeb and Nathan opened Huckleberry Café & Bakery down Wilshire, specializing in equally enticing pastries, breads and savory market-driven dishes.
Architect David Montalba helped Loeb and Nathan transform a former Pick Up Stix into an airy, glass-fronted café with red chairs and blackboard menus. Nathan’s mother contributed the retro art.
Nathan previously cooked at Tartine Bakery, a landmark San Francisco cafe where owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson taught her to bake. Nathan features a Tartine-like display, with tantalizing baked goods lining the countertops and filling chilled display cases. We couldn’t help but order a number of baked goods to start.
Adding bacon builds certain expectations, and Nathan’s scone didn’t disappoint. Her savory Niman Ranch maple bacon scone was crumbly, interspersed with bits of bacon and featured a subtle maple sweetness.
I was already a cinnamon roll convert. Nathan’s cinnamon roll ($3.75) resembles her mentors’ legendary morning buns. She utilizes a dense, sticky pastry, a modest cinnamon infusion and almost every millimeter coated with granulated sugar, including the hollow center.
Nathan has earned acclaim for her baking prowess, but she also spent time butchering animals for Mario Batali at Lupa in Manhattan. We looked beyond the pastry case to the blackboard breakfast menu. My contribution to the table was Niman Ranch brisket hash ($12). The tender cubes of brisket were bathed in a tomato-rich sauce, strewn with quarter-cuts of potato and topped with two expertly cooked fried eggs with the yolks jiggling on the egg whites. Finishing the plate: arugula.
The fried egg sandwich ($9.50) featured country bread loaded with Niman Ranch bacon, gruyere, arugula & aioli. Of course the excellent bread’s baked in-house. Shelves host additional options like rustic baguette, ciabatta and brioche.
Huckleberry’s menu isn’t quite as compelling later in the day, but they do feature Wednesday deck oven pizza, Thursday tacos and Friday fried Jidori chicken, which rates with the city’s best. When Huckleberry first opened, they were basting rotisserie ducks with maple syrup on Thursday. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, which is a shame. Good thing there are so many other options.
Some Huckleberry detractors complain about the cafe’s prices. Since they’re located in Santa Monica, a wealthy area of the city, they can get away with charging higher prices. So they charge more because they can, but also because the rent is no doubt high, and because they use premium market-driven ingredients. Given the economics of the situation, I have no problem paying to eat at Huckleberry every now and then as long as the quality endures and the generous portion sizes remain.