Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Day to Day Workings of Excellence

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Santa Monica restaurant Typhoon. 

The Day to Day Workings of Excellence

“Your job is to be excellent, and if you can't be excellent then you can be excellent at trying to be excellent.”  My long time writing teacher John Hindman uttered these words specifically about writing, but even he is one to admit the philosophy is applicable to absolutely everything in anyone’s life, including your own.   About a month ago a massive earthquake hit Japan.  Three weeks ago a Santa Monica restaurant held a 12 hour “Jazz for Japan” fundraiser where ticket paying guests were treated to nine different jazz and blues musicians and a couple of 20 piece big bands while enjoying Pacific Rim style Bento boxes. In the end this event, between ticket sales and waiters donating the entirety of their tips, raised $10,000, 100% of which was donated to the Santa Monica branch of the American Red Cross.  The restaurant, which ran this event from 11 in the morning to 11 at night, who did this most excellent of actions (in the words of the immortal Bill and Ted)? Typhoon restaurant and its new Pan Am Room. 

Now we can’t go any further without confronting the pink elephant in the room; well it’s the pink elephant in the room as much as a two week national media story will create a pink elephant in the room: The Pan Am Room space was formerly the Hump, the Santa Monica sushi restaurant that became national news in March of last year for serving illegal and endangered whale meat.   But the thing about national media cameras is that eventually they all leave for the next story and Typhoon, a restaurant that’s been there for almost twenty years, and is still there, continues on. 

It’s easy to judge each of us on the days when we done the shittiest things possible.  But the thing is we’ve all done shitty things.  We’ve all betrayed the people who trusted us the most. We’ve all let people down.  We’ve all broken people’s hearts.   The question is: what do we do the day after that?    How do we own up to our wrongs and be excellent?  How do we seek forgiveness and move on, because really forgiveness is just the act of remembering we’re all human.  

Brian Vidor, owner of Typhoon and the Pan Am room, is a man of little words.    A man of little words in the way someone who’s lived a full life doesn’t have to fill the space surrounding him with a constant dribble of talk, his actions speak for themselves.   Vidor’s lived an adventurous life.  He spent fifteen years in Asia transporting animals to zoos, personally helping to bring over 4,000 animals to the Taipei zoo. Later in his life he owned an airplane, an airplane that one day he flew into the hundred year old Santa Monica Airport.  It was there he saw a building located where a fuel pit used to be with a sign in the window noting there was restaurant space.  The space, a location where you could watch the planes land and takeoff and that showcased an unobstructed view of the setting sun over the pacific to the west, and Century City to the east, was what he called, anyone really would, a no brainer.  

Thus the community focused Pan Asian cuisine Typhoon restaurant opened twenty years ago, with the sushi based Hump to follow five years later.  The Hump was a smaller separate space restaurant housed within the larger Typhoon restaurant, a space that is now filled with the Pan-Latin cuisine Pan Am Room.  The Hump was open for 12 years before closing last year as part of self-imposed punishment on top of the punitive fines determined by the court for a national media misdemeanor. 

Typhoon restaurant kept its doors open.

Open to a Sunday brunch where parents and their kids (and dogs) can watch planes take off.  Open to a Monday night Jazz night that is populated by hardcore Santa Monica locals (one of Typhoon’s day managers actually met her husband, a musician in one of those bands, during one of these nights) and that broadcasts these performances on YouTube for anyone who can’t make a Monday.   Open to Wednesday night community band night where local bands from high schools such as Crossroads and New Roads perform for friends and family at no charge.

The menu of Typhoon hasn’t changed in 20 years. There’s free parking and nary an entrée over twenty dollars.  The 70 dish menu includes elements from Thailand, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Burma and Singapore.  Some are classics: such as homemade Korean Kimichi (made with American cabbage) and Filipino Grilled Pork with Garlic-Vinegar dip.    Some definitely fare into more exotic elements: Thai Style Frog Legs, Taiwanese Crickets, and the Singapore Style Scorpions.

The forty-five seat Pan Am Room, which opened last summer, is a little more gourmet, a little bit more très cher (but all the entrees are under thirty dollars), and with a second floor location has an unparalleled view of the Santa Monica Airport’s landing strip. For over seventy years, Pan American World Airways introduced its passengers to exotic cultures in Latin America. Thus the aptly named restaurant’s menu features Argentine Empanadas, Uruguayan (yes totally a real word) Beef Tenderloin with Chimichuri, and a bevy of different style Ceviches from countries such as Ecuador, Panama, and Peru.  It’s an adventurous menu that reminds one of the potential found in the discovery of travel, of experiencing new cultures and dishes.     

We’re all looking for ways to become the person we want to become instead of the person we sometimes are, the person who’s made a mistake or two.  But the funny thing about getting there, the funny thing about forgiveness, is that the only one way to get it is to go out and earn it.   And to earn it one must be completely and totally honest, to own up to the totality of one’s actions. Last year when the allegations emerged the Hump did just this.  On their website they posted the following statement: “We write to address the misdemeanor charge recently filed by the U.S. Attorney. The charge against the restaurant is true: The Hump served whale meat to customers looking to eat what in Japan is widely served as a delicacy. In serving this meat, The Hump ignored its responsibilities to help save endangered whales from extinction and failed to support the world community in its uphill fight to protect all endangered species. While The Hump cannot undo the damage it caused, it will put into place procedures to ensure that it strictly complies with the laws and becomes a good corporate citizen. We sincerely apologize. We pledge to work hard to re-earn the trust of the public and respect of our customers." 

Think about it, in the world of plausible deniability that we live in these days how often does that happen? That, my friend, is ownership.

We can all aspire for excellence.   Whether it’s in the form of taking ownership, creating the best restaurant experience for families and the Santa Monica community at large, or helping raise over $10,000 for a country who’s definitely dealing with some hard core real problems.   We might not always hit the target, but we can sure as hell try. 

Typhoon Restaurant and Pan Am Room are located overlooking the runway of the Santa Monica Airport at 3221 Donald Douglas Loop South, Santa Monica, CA  90405.

Kat Thomas is a writer in Santa Monica.  Check out more of her writings at edibleskinny.com

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Lounge Comes to Main Street

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Main Street lounge 31Ten.

 The Lounge Comes to Main Street 

There aren’t a ton of fire pits on Main Street in Santa Monica. Which is just too bad because fire pits are sexy; they’re swank, and cool, and hip.  In other words there aren’t a ton of lounges on Main Street in Santa Monica.  There aren’t a ton of locations on Main Street where you can grab a cocktail (perhaps a combination of Vodka, St. Germain, Pomegranate Juice, Thai Basil, and Prosecco aka the Californication) while watching dangerously beautiful flames flicker in front of you. So when the 31Ten officially opened in the 3110 Main Street space in February, I was ecstatic to see that special lounge something: a fire pit.  

31Ten is a Hip place (not just hip, but Hip). The thirty something first date crowd transitioned into twenty something martini drinkers in our two hour window, 8-10pm, so by the time we left the place was hopping with a resplendent swanky chillness.  A neo-Italian lounge that only needs to be open Wednesday through Saturday from 5 pm to 2 am (the time management truly says it all).  On the interior, the 5,500-square foot space features exposed brick, couches and bucolic walnut floors.  For the outside spaces there’s the aforementioned fire pits, four bars, a trio of cabanas (for ultra swanky private parties), and an open space lounge topped with a retractable roof (for our random So Cal rainy nights) that allows you to see the moon while still being lit in moody red tones.  The DJ begins spinning at 9 p.m. and the music soundtrack sometimes includes someone having an orgasm.

Who’s the host?  Who’s our server? Are they the same person? Truthfully it’s a little hard to tell because everybody working at 31Ten is wearing the same thing.  An outfit that’s more Cahuenga than AWOL: short fiery red dresses and tall tall black boots.  Plus it’s dark.   It also turns out the confusion is justifiable: they’re a set of identical twins. That’s right this place is so Hip they have identical twins working there.  “Everyone thinks we’re the same person,” said the server, although she informed us that she is taller than the host sister.

Sequestered in the back, the 3110 Main Street space has been a lot of restaurant/bars over the years (Cache, Hidden, and Schatzi to name just a few).  And none of them have stayed to the point that many locals think of the space is somewhat doomed (Read: me).    But the cool thing about owner Paolo Cesaro is he’s been here before and he still fiercely loves the space.  Prior to Caché (3110’s last reincarnation) the space housed Hidden, a restaurant turned lounge where Cesaro served as General Manager.

Born in Italy, Paolo Cesaro has worked at restaurants around the world in Chicago, Miami, New York, Paris, London and Italy. He came to California in pursuit of a new experience.  After serving as General Manager at Hidden, Paolo had the opportunity to achieve his lifelong dream by opening Ado with fellow Italian ex-Pat Antonio Muré, his business partner and one of California’s best chefs.  Together the duo founded one of Venice’s most successful Italian restaurants: Ado (located two blocks down Main Street at 769 Main Street in Venice.  You might recognize it as the one with the ridiculous amount of half a million dollar priced sport’s cars in the parking lot…).  For Cesaro opening 31Ten was the perfect opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills he gained while working at Hidden and execute a concept he’s chiseled out with the success of Ado.

31TEN isn’t about fine dining; it’s not about sitting down to white linens tablecloths. The menu instead offers up international-inspired (through an Italian focused kaleidoscope) small plates at couches and low tables, Hip casual food. “The idea behind this,” explained Cesaro “was to create an atmosphere where it is easy and organic to mix and mingle.”  Along with cocktails such as Blueberry-Pomegranate Mojito, topped with ginger beer, the wine list consists of more than 10 white and 30 red varieties from Italy and California.  The beer selections focuses on Italian and German brews. 

The standout appetizer is the Crisp Kurobata ($8) Seared Pork Belly served over Le Puy Lentils and Baby Wild Arugula Char.  It’s grilled to perfection: the outside is crispy with the inside housing a very succulent and buttery smokiness.  The salad compliments the crispness with a buttery olive oil dressing dotted with teardrop tomatoes.  From the Mains make sure to check out the Seared Prime Beef Medallion with a Poached Lobster Tail, Seared Foie-Gras, and Pomegranate Sauce ($28, the highest pricing on the menu) Filet Mignon cut with lobster. It’s surf and turf (even if it’s too Hip to describe it that way) wrapped into a perfect bite: filet with lobster and fois gras it’s layer upon layer of umami that your taste buds almost can’t comprehend due to information overload (but do!).  

And one can’t talk about 31Ten’s menu without mentioning pizza (it is an Italian restaurant) which run a range of $10-$14.  The menu offers five different selections of Wood Fired Pizzas such as a Margarita, Diavola, and Prosciutto e Funghi (Ham and Mushrooms for those who don’t speak Italian restaurant).  Each of these choices are also featured on the Happy Hour (which runs from 5pm to 7pm every day).  But the standout pizza of 31Ten is the San Daniele, Parma Prosciutto, Shaved Parmigianino Cheese, and Wild Arugula (although the Arugula is generously sprinkled so it can be a little awkward to eat as the pieces have a tendency to fall off the slice).

All of these dishes are the brainchild of Italian-born Antonio Muré, who serves as Executive Chef at 31Ten and Ado. Muré was born in Portopalo di Capo Passero, Sicily, and raised in Parma, Emilia Romagna, know to be one of Italy’s most important food regions.  Influenced by his hometown, Antonio’s culinary style blends the essence of Emilia Romagna’s cuisine with the exotic flavors of Sicilian cooking tradition.  After graduating from Istituto Alberghiero di Stato, the Michelin award-winning chef spent several years perfecting his skills at exclusive restaurants and hotels in Italy.  Antonio moved to Los Angeles in 1995 and became the chef at Il Moro.  Since then, he’s served as the chef at a handful of local restaurants including Locanda Veneta and Allegria and Valentino in Las Vegas.  Today Antonio serves as Executive Chef at 31Ten and Ado. With 31Ten’s menu he collaborated with Chef Rodger Marsh to create a menu that boasts high-quality dishes at an affordable price.

Resplendent hipness is now present on Main Street.   “We take you from dinner to 2:00 a.m.,” noted Paolo Cesaro.  “You don’t need to go anyplace else.”  So lounge lovers and pyromaniacs (Read: me) take note.

Kat Thomas is a writer who has way too much love for fire pits.  You can find more about her at edibleskinny.com