Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mini Foodventure #104: FIG (Santa Monica)

Not being much of a fig person, when I first heard buzz of FIG I didn't really pay much attention to it -- a fig-themed restaurant? really? But after doing a little more research I realized it's a restaurant headed by chef Ray Garcia (who worked at French Laundry and Cyrus) and forager Kerry Clasby with an emphasis in using sustainable, seasonal and "the region's best" foods into "simple, elegant [cuisine] that focus on pure, uncomplicated flavor." Sounds great, even if I still don't know what FIG stands for, if anything (Foraged Ingredients by Garcia? Fresh, Innovative and Great? or maybe just a reference to the fig tree in the courtyard of the Fairmont Miramar hotel, where the restaurant is located at?)

While sorting a little confusion with their PR folks on the opening date, they offered to host me for a meal there. Alas, I wasn't expecting to be in Santa Monica area on opening week so I passed on their offer.

And what happened next? Due to an unexpected chain of events, my friend and I wound up there on opening week anyways. Darn it! Oh well, since we already ate a bit beforehand, I wasn't planning a full meal there anyways so I figured I could enjoy a few nibbles to get an idea of their offerings.

The menu definitely reflects the seasonal flavors, and I love how the bottom highlights what produce are at their peak or soon on its way. But it was mildly frustrating to see that the menu listed hen of the wood mushrooms as a peaking ingredient, but I didn't see it featured on any of the dishes (and the waiter assured me there are no off-the-menu specials either); so sad, since I haven't tasted those in a while and was looking forward to them.

My friend was feeling carnivorous so he opted for their 12 oz. New York Strip steak frites. I decided to get three small dishes to get a greater variety of flavors, asking for the starter to arrive first and the soup and side dishes to come with my friend's entree.
Shortly after our orders, the bread/butter and amuse arrived. While I love the presentation of the warm demibaguette arrived in its own little paper bread bag, I was also thinking "how not-so-sustainable . . ." But I was quickly distracted from that by the "green butter" dip, which tasty and intriguing for both of us since we can't quite place our finger on what the other ingredients in there are. Herbs? Avocado? Pistachios? all the above? I would've asked the waiter but he's already away before I got the chance.

The amuse of a warm salad with wild mushrooms with a drizzle of olive oil is more than a bite, but we didn't mind. It was scrumptious! These aren't your standard button 'shrooms and you can tell from the all woodsy, earthy and meaty flavors that came forth. I surely hope that this becomes a permanent menu item -- wild mushrooms are available year round, right? ;)
Moving on to my first of small dishes: grilled mortadella with pink lady apples ($7). Quite sensational, the sausage was mild and tasted more like a ham, and it was nicely complemented by the crisp and sweet apple pieces and the tinge of smokiness from being grilled.
Shortly after we finished this starter, I was served was their roasted tomato soup with basil and marscarpone ($9). A little bit confuzzling since my other dish and my friend's entree wasn't ready yet. Nonetheless, the tomato soup overall went above my expectations esp. since most of my tomato soup experiences came from a can or a carton thus far; the flavors were vibrant with bright notes of acidity and sweetness, it certainly wasn't like anything I've had before. Would've liked a little bit more mascarpone cheese and I am unsure about the basil foam topping (personally would've appreciated the more natural presentation of chopped up leaves in the soup) but it was a delectable dish nonetheless.
Finally, my accompaniment of sauteed cauliflowers with hazelnut and sage ($9) - again a well-done dish whose simple preparation highlights the freshness of everything that went in it. The cauliflowers were perfectly cooked, and their almost-buttery flavor was nicely accented with the nut and herb nuances. I am definitely going to experiment with that hazelnut-sage combination myself when I cook my veggies at home!
What of my friend's NY Steak ($29) - also solid. A perfectly cooked medium-rare, it was juicy, beefy, tender with an amazing crispy-caramelized sear of fat on top -- this is the reason why I can't even become a pescatarian or just a bacon-loving vegetarian. The fries were nicely done too, having been flavored from herbs that were either fried with them or tossed in right afterwards, but seemed to lost some crispiness.
Finishing off our meal, a shared cheese plate. They offered several flights at pre-set prices (or a build-your-own at $4 per cheese), but our server was rather unhelpful on explaining the flights (telling us "Local" is all locally-made cheeses, and "Progressive" is going from mild to strongly flavored ones when we are more interested in the exact cheeses featured in each flight.) Alas, in the name of trying "the region's best" we went for the local flight ($17) . . .

. . . which turned out about 50/50, I personally liked the first cheese (which has a brie-like creaminess but with tinges of gorgonzola flavor) and the very last one (which was pungent but goes surprisingly well with the figs or the fruit-nut bread slices.) The other two hard cheeses in between are a bit unremarkable. While I did like their crystallized structure and snap, I found both too salty to eat alone.

Despite the somewhat disappointing final note, FIG is overall solid and competent in the food -- it's a great spot to hit up for simple-yet-elegant fares where the flavors of the raw ingredients really speak for themselves. The service was waffly, though I attribute that more to opening week kinks that hopefully will get worked out. And while it is fairly pricey (aim for about $40/person on food) I definitely would recommend this place as the occasional splurgy or special occasional meal or even their wonderful-sounding cocktails, which, like the cuisine, is inspired by what's available and in-season.

And I wish the best for Chef Garcia -- menus that need a regular makeover are always an ambitious undertaking, and I hope that he can pull it off through the seasons. I for one can't wait to see what the next batch of fresh produce will bring to the restaurant and bar.

For another take, check out Caroline on Crack's review here. (Oh, it's Arugula Butter!)

101 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, Ca90401
(310) 319-3111

FIG Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Dom Naidoo said...

Awesome post. Now I am reallly hungry!! Speaking of Santa Monica, to preview the finest real estate in Santa Monica, please visit my website

Anonymous said...
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Diana said...

I couldn't agree more about your steak comment -- sometimes I think, "I like tofu/tempeh - I could totally be a vegetarian!" And then I remember what it feels like to cut into a perfectly cooked juicy steak.

Nice review!

Aaron said...

That's the problem with going all local--you miss out on so many delicious things the global food scene has to offer. That's why I'm questioning the "all local" cheese plate. There are good California cheeses to be sure, but then you'd miss out on so many quality European ones.

H. C. said...

@Diana, yea -- I alternate between meatless and "gotta have dead animal" phases too

@Aaron, well - they offered global cheeses plate too. And I am definitely sure there are better local cheese to be had, it was just an ill-chosen selection. Hopefully that gets rectified soon as well.

Unknown said...

LOL gotta have my steak especially when it was that good. Man I loved that steak.


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