Monday, April 11, 2011

A Garden Grows in Your Glass: Michael's Restaurant

Michael's Restaurant in Santa Monica was one of the originators of California cuisine and focuses on the seasonal bounty available locally here in Southern California.  Founder/owner Michael McCarty still aims to provide his customers with the freshest ingredients simply prepared to let them shine.  Now he has brought that same approach to the cocktails at his restaurant.  Michael's hired bartender Jason Robey to revamp the cocktail program and the restaurateur has such faith in the new program that he has reconfigured the restaurant to devote the entire interior space to a lounge setting with small bites and cocktails and with the garden functioning as the primary dining room.

Robey, most recently of Bar Kitchen in Downtown Los Angeles and Les Deux in Hollywood, has created a list of cocktails that emphasize the local produce, with lots of infusions and other house made ingredients.  I was recently invited to a media tasting to sample the new cocktails and bar bites.  I joined forces with Daniel of Thirsty in LA to try the full range of drinks and food.

The Regional Export is made with Jefferson Reserve Bourbon, Kelt VSOP Cognac, orgeat, vanilla simple syrup, lemon and egg white.  It is frothy and sweet but not overly so.  This take on the whiskey sour was a pleasant beginning to the tasting.

My personal favorite was the Karai Karai as it is spicy with a citrus tang.  It is made with Yamazaki 12 yr Single Malt Whiskey from Japan, Jalapeño-Bell pepper simple syrup, lemon, grapefruit and basil, with jalapenos floating in it as a garnish.  There was no denying the spiciness of this drink, even if the visible Jalapeño wasn't enough of a clue.  I am a big fan of the Yamazaki and it stood up well to the potent pepper.

The Schipol Layover is made with Bols Genever, Cynar, lemon juice, avocado honey and grapefruit juice.  The avocado honey, a new ingredient to me, is made with honey from an avocado grove and does not involve any avocados proper, although the honey tastes different than traditional honey.  The name of this cocktail is a tip of the hat to the Genever, as it refers to the airport in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where Genever is the national drink.

The Mary Rose is a mixture of Cranberry-Ginger Tito's Vodka, vanilla simple syrup, lime, and garnished with charred rosemary.  The charring of the rosemary adds a dramatic element to the cocktail.  When Daniel and I first got to Michael's, we saw Joel Black flaming some rosemary and the scent carried to us.  The cocktail itself did not have a lot of depth.

The final drink on the introductary list is the Big Red Hat, which is surprisingly yellow, not red.  The cocktail is made with Don Julio Reposado Tequila, Yellow Chartreuse, lime juice, lemon clove simple syrup, fresh lavender, and finished with a grapefruit foam.  The Big Red Hat is refreshing and light but with a backbone and strong citrus elements.  Each of the drinks is $12.

The new cocktail menu coincided with the launch of a new bar bites menu.  The options include Yellowtail Crudo ($12), Duck Prosciutto ($10), a Slider Duo ($12), and Sage & Lemon Popcorn ($8).

The Yellowtail Crudo arrived as three Chinese spoons of yellowtail sashimi topped with citrus, micro greens and sea salt.  These were light and tasty. Below, the Duck Prosciutto is served on top of crostini with arugula and pickled citrus.  The duck was good but the portion size feels small.

My favorite of the Bar Bites were the Duo of Sliders: one with Foie Gras and Market Berry Mostarda and the other with Wagyu Beef and Shaft's Blue Cheese.  These little sliders were rich and just a couple of bites each but full of as much flavor as a full size hamburger.

I'd agree with Daniel's assessment that the popcorn is the least interesting option, as it didn't taste of either sage or lemon.  The sliders and the yellowtail are attractive options to munch on while you enjoy Robey's new cocktails.

At $12 each, Robey's produce focused cocktails are fairly priced and it is great to see Michael's continue to evolve and extend its innovations from the plate to the cocktail glass.  The roof of the restaurant is being planted with produce for the bar program, so this summer expect some exciting things.  Robey is not afraid of spicy, even in Santa Monica, which bodes well for fans of well crafted cocktails.  Another big plus for the program is its setting as Michael's is relaxed but lively.  McCarty himself was there on the night I visited and he is enthusiastic about the changes.  It is commendable that McCarty is not afraid of making changes.  I recommend you check it out for yourself.

Michael's: 1147 3rd Street, Santa Monica.  Phone: (310) 451-0843.  Website:

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