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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.