Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen: A Rising Star

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Sometimes it’s unclear why food writers become enamored with certain restaurants. In March, LA Times critic S. Irene Virbila anointed Wilshire the city’s vanguard for seasonal California cuisine. Wilshire may be wonderful, but it’s hard to imagine it matching Evan Funke’s feats down the street at Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen.

Rustic Canyon is wine expert Josh Loeb’s restaurant, which he named for a nearby canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains. The restaurant had a pretty good reputation under Chef Samir Mohajer, but when Evan Funke became executive chef in May, it was elevated to must-try meal status. Funke spent the previous 6 ½ years working for Wolfgang Puck, rising to the rank of sous chef at Spago before leaving earlier this year. Funke debuts a new menu on the first Thursday of each month, relying on sustainable ingredients cultivated within 1,000 miles of Santa Monica. My cousin and I were in luck, since it was Day One of the September menu.

Olives Los Angeles
We received a complimentary dish of small Kalamata (purple) and slightly larger Picholine (green) olives bathed in oil, lemon peel and herbs.

Rustic Canyon has developed a reputation for having a great beer selection. A lot of the credit would have to go to Christina Perozzi (a.k.a. The Beer Chick) who regularly updates the list. Our waitress guided me to a Belgian-style Unibroue La Fin du Monde, a 9% beer from Quebec ($8). The brew had an amber hue and was oh so smooth, not hoppy or bitter.

Pasta Los Angeles
Funke makes his pasta fresh daily by hand with a pasta board he purchased on a spring foray to Italy. Terrific tortelli (stuffed egg pasta) ($14) were strewn with crispy bits of caramelized cauliflower and toasted shaved almonds. Each six-inch rectangle was then showered with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cutting open each tortelli precipitated oozing cauliflower puree. This dish was excellent, with varied texture.

Seafood Los Angeles
Carlsbad mussels ($14) were supple, piled in a white wine, garlic and wild herb broth. Slabs of grilled dipping bread were like oversized croutons that soaked up the sauce to good effect.

Pasta Los Angeles
It’s hard to blend in at dinner with a flashing camera. It must have been the camera that prompted a complimentary portion of sweet corn agnolotti, which just went off the menu. This pasta might have been even better than the stellar tortelli – tiny bites of sweet, thin-skinned pasta dumplings.

Seafood Los Angeles
Seared diver scallops ($32) were caramelized on the outside, plated with explosively flavored, multi-colored cherry tomatoes, slivers of black and green olives and tangy capers.

Hamburger Los Angeles
My cousin wavered between the flat iron steak and the Niman Ranch “cast iron” burger ($16). He went with the juicy burger with a nice char, which was topped with crispy onion rings, sharp Vermont cheddar, homemade pickles and wild arugula – served with excellent hand-cut, herb-showered French fries (and little white skillet of garlic aioli for dipping). The soft bun sure looked and tasted homemade.

Cookies Los Angeles
Zoe Nathan is a rising pastry star. She and Loeb plan to partner on a Santa Monica bakery and café in early 2009. In the meantime, her selection of House Made Cookies ($9) was varied and impressive. Her lemon squares were tart and silky. Mini chocolate cupcakes were rich but moist, coated with extra chocolate. Heart-shaped shortbreads practically melted in my mouth. “Kouign amman” turned out to be a solid sticky bun. The mini chocolate chip cookie was the least successful offering, flavorful but crunchy. The chocolate-dipped cream puff was served cool, filled with vanilla-flecked cream. Maybe the best bite was the rectangular apple galette with airy pastry and a caramelized base.

After the meal, Chef Evan Funke stood by the hostess stand, overlooking the dining room. I made sure to tell him the meal was terrific. He was clearly well prepared for his initial executive chef duties. One other thing is clear: Rustic Canyon is serving some of the best market-driven food in Los Angeles at the moment.

Update: In a crazy coincidence, S. Irene Virbila reviewed Rustic Canyon and awarded the restaurant two stars on September 10. She had the benefit of multiple meals, but two stars still seems stingy.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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[…] Food GPS » Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen – Santa Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen – Santa Monica, CA. Rustic Canyon is wine expert Josh Loeb's restaurant, which he named for a nearby canyon. – Food GPS » Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen – Santa […]

[…] Food GPS » Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen – Santa … Rustic Canyon is wine expert Josh Loeb's restaurant, which he named for a nearby canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains. The restaurant had a pretty good reputation under Chef Samir Mohajer, but when Evan Funke became executive chef in . […]

Prompt reply, attribute of mind 🙂

H.C. I was thinking the same thing. I should have gone before the review. I think the two stars might be a good thing though, since the rather tepid mark should prevent any overhype. Palate has had to beef up their staff after the three stars from Virbila.

Oh, one of the few places where I would seriously consider the cookie platter for dessert. Let’s hope SIV’s comparative rave review doesn’t make this place impossible to get into.

Looks like you would’ve given it three.

I’d give Rustic Canyon at least three stars, not that I’ll be awarding stars anytime soon.

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