Inside Out

A debut at the new Santa Monica Place and an old favorite in LA spark our food and wine editor’s interest this issue.

I was barely out of high school cafeteria food hell when Ammo first opened its doors in 1992.

In an industry with notably short life spans, that Ammo is not just surviving but thriving makes it quite simply LA’s own “little restaurant that could.” It’s never had iconic chefs, to my knowledge has never hosted an Emmy or Oscar party and has never been featured in an episode of Entourage. Yet Ammo continues to chug along with happy diners who pack the dining room, which thankfully expanded from tiny to just shy of tiny when the neighboring tenant departed in 2000.

If I had to pick one word to describe the atmosphere, food and people at Ammo, it would be “sincere.” There’s a purity of purpose at play here, as Ammo has promoted seasonality and a market-to-table respect for farmers and ranchers long before it was hip to be humble. This may stem in part from owners Amy and Patrick Sweeney, practicing Tibetan Buddhists who are some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet in this business. That the dinner menu lists every single food purveyor, 28 by count when I dined there in October, but doesn’t list the chefs or the Sweeneys by name, is notable. From farmers market favorites like Harry’s Berries and Windrose to tiny Energy Bee Farm, everyone is given a shout-out at Ammo.

Don’t think that a self-effacing chef means an absent chef. Husband-and-wife team Daniel Mattern and Roxana Jullapat run the kitchen, and while I don’t know them personally, one hopes their harmonious food is a testament to their life outside the restaurant. It’s the romantic in me.

Romance was kind of in the air when Mr. Sexton and I last ate at Ammo, as we were joined by some good friends who are expecting twin boys after years of struggling to have a family. And as I myself am two pregnancies down with a third still up for debate, I was ready to toast to our friends’ happy news. Repeatedly and with good wine. Thanks to wine director and general manager Benny Bohm, we had many great choices.

We started with a tasty little half bottle of Domaine Barat Chablis made from the premier cru vineyard of Vaillons, one of my favorite sources for flinty, mineral-driven chardonnay. And as Benny is Austrian, I was happy to see a St. Laurent offered by-the-glass. Grown in Austria’s Burgenland region, the 2008 Rosi Schuster St. Laurent is kind of like pinot noir, if pinot noir were your beloved, intellectual college buddy who still eschews deodorant. I mean this in a good way, really, and the St. Laurent was a fantastic pairing for the autumnal pork loin with bitter braised greens and smoky bacon.

The menu at Ammo is blessedly concise, which allows Chef Mattern to focus on a few select ingredients on a given night instead of feeling obligated to bring the entire farmers market to your table in one meal. I liked the way late-summer tomatoes and sweet corn showed up alongside fall favorites like butternut squash and purslane.

A word to chefs everywhere, however, with no offense intended to those at Ammo: caper berries taste bad. Always, no matter how you prepare them, so please leave them at the market and off my plate. I wanted to like my black cod, but the offending caper berry relish with sunchokes confirmed my bias. Fortunately, the cheerful sweet corn succotash on my friend’s salmon met with a more welcome reception.

Chef Jullapat’s desserts lean towards the fruity side with figs, passion fruit, pears, Concord grapes, apples and huckleberries all making an appearance. The “crema de Jerez” with sherry caramel and roasted figs was a highlight, as was the homespun apple-huckleberry pie.

In a small-world moment, I recently learned that Benny Bohm used to live three doors down from me in Topanga. I also learned that he collaborates with his wife in a band that I love called the Sugarplum Fairies, and I have never even met the guy in person! Weird.
If not “sincere,” then perhaps the word for Ammo and its cast of players is “happy.” What could be better than collaborating with someone you love in the work that you love? I will remind Mr. Sexton of that when he gets home and we put in a few more hours together in our own little office.

1155 N. Highland Avenue
Los Angeles

Growing up in New Jersey and all, one finds it hard to get excited about malls.

Perhaps that’s why I hadn’t quite made it to the newly renovated Santa Monica Place despite all the hype and the intoxicating combination of Bloomie’s and the beach. While I can dimly remember spending long hours with my preteen pals at the likes of the Limited (Outback Red!) and at the Gap, version 1.0 (Fall.In.To.The.Gap!), I overdosed on malls too soon and too much to enjoy them as an adult.

Good food and, in particular, good Mexican food are much more of a motivation for me, so when I learned that Richard Sandoval was opening big at the new Santa Monica Place, I paid attention. Sandoval’s cooking at Maya in New York City and later in partnership with none other than Placido Domingo at Pampano earned him the reputation as the godfather of modern Mexican. His La Sandía brand makes its eponymous SoCal debut at this fourth outpost at the intersection of the Third Street Promenade and Ocean, where he has also opened Zengo restaurant.

I popped in for a casual dinner at La Sandía with two girlfriends after teaching a class at a culinary school on a recent Monday night, and I was pleased to see that the cavernous space was reasonably full, even on a Monday. Designed by so-hip-it-hurts firm AVRO | KO, La Sandía feels like a Mexican hacienda after a Bauhaus purification ritual – no need for the dust or the brown people or that colorful clutter. I loved the retractable roof over the main dining room. I am sure it was super-expensive, but if you’re going to build a hacienda inside a mall, you might as well take advantage of the gorgeous Santa Monica climate and starry coastal skies.

La Sandía is billed as a “Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar,” and it’s the latter that I think is simply without peer in Los Angeles. Whoever curated the tequila and mezcal collection knows what he or she is doing, and for anyone passionate about agave, the bar at La Sandía is where your butt should be parked for some serious research.

Our server insisted on bringing us a flight of three tequilas, served in pretty little snifters for appropriate sniffing and savoring. The sommelier in me loved the Asombroso, “La Rosa,” a totally unique reposado tequila aged 11 months in used Bordeaux barrels. It’s pink and intensely aromatic; agave traditionalists may scoff, but I thought it was a fascinating product. We also ordered a round of hibiscus margaritas which were dangerously good; cocktails and spirits at La Sandía are excellent whereas the wine selections, all six of them, scream “afterthought.” Too bad, as Sandoval’s food deserves a few wines beyond grocery store plonk.

The menu at La Sandía is extensive and strives to incorporate just about every aspect of regional Mexican food from enchiladas divorciadas to classic red snapper veracruzana from the coast. And yes, they do have that so very un-Mexican of Mexican classics – sizzling fajitas, although at least they’re called “iron skillet tacos” here. Standouts from our meal were the very good skirt steak and mushroom huaraches and the chicken zarape, served with plenty of cotija cheese and a Mexican-style risotto in portions designed for sharing. We also loved the special dessert offered that evening, a pumpkin flan served with a yummy little piece of green pumpkin seed brittle for dipping.

La Sandía is festive. It’s a great location for a casual meal with friends or for a private event under the stars. The service is impeccable. While one senses Chef Sandoval hasn’t spent much time in the kitchen at La Sandía – he also has opened two pricey locations in Laguna Niguel and in Scottsdale in as many months – he is very blessed in his front-of-the-house team in Santa Monica. Stop in after you’ve shopped yourself into oblivion and try one of those hibiscus-infused libations. Try it before you shop at your own risk – your AMEX card will thank you for waiting.

La Sandía
395 Santa Monica Place
Santa Monica

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