It’s a shame that, on a Sunday lunch, the Santa Monica Place posh food court, otherwise known as The Market, is virtually empty. Better for me so I can browse and sample and buy in peace but, while the Promenade is the usual hustle and bustle of street performers, mobbed Apple store and bad pizza, the pretty mall is just not as crowded. The top floor, overlooking the ocean, even less so, especially inside the Market.
The idea was to create a gourmet experience that, on a small scale, reminded me a little bit of the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Well, not as many vendors and certainly no Farmer’s Market nearby but the concept is the same. A small concentration of high-end food experiences for those West side foodies who wouldn’t find the idea of buying food at a mall repellent. Something doesn’t seem to be working and it might be that people just don’t want to be inside, especially if the alternative is sipping wine on the terrace overlooking the ocean or just frequenting hipper parts of Santa Monica.
As I walk in, I am greeted by Souffle, another Rockenwagner’s offering – the Austrian chef is crowding this corner of Southern California, with a place just off the Promenade, one on Abbot Kinney and the stand at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. The concept is similar to the rest: pretty sandwiches, nice desserts and bread. And I love his bread, especially the pretzel rolls he has been making since the days of his eponymous restaurant on Main Street. Two of them have to come home with me.
The coffee corner, Groundwork, with meager pastry offerings wrapped in plastic and a bitter espresso doesn’t thrill me. L’Artisan de Chocolate entices me to buy half a dozen macaroons (pretty respectable) and some truffles (less so – I am not partial to gooey filled truffles).
My nose is then attracted by Primi, the largest operation of the bunch which belongs to the Valentino family. A small lady in a corner is making pasta and the large menu is pasta and gnocchi based (hence the name). The dining room is virtually empty and, when I ask to buy half a pound of garganelli, the people behind the counter seem confused, as if nobody ever does that. At $16 for less than half a pound, I can understand why no one would touch the handmade pasta (what was I thinking? I can make it myself) but I was too polite to tell them to put my parcel back after the chef had to come out and deal with my simple request.
At the very back, The Curious Palate offers an extensive local and sustainable menu but reading the enormous board was taking too long, I was hungry and Salumeria Norcino, with a counter and refrigerated shelves chockablock with Italian salumi and cheeses, beckoned. A low, marble counter offers the chance to sit down, have an awesome sandwich and a glass of wine or beer, for very reasonable prices. My Panini of prosciutto cotto (an Italian version of ham), mozzarella, sun-dried tomato spread and caponata on ciabatta was close to perfect. Now, making a sandwich is easy. Making the perfect sandwich, as the Earl himself would tell you, much less so. I hardly ever order sandwiches because they tend to be laden with too much of everything: meat, mayo and unnecessary accessories. But, today, my Parmacotto, just pressed in a panini maker and using bread from Rockenwagner, was just right. And when, in Italian, I made the staff notice that I expected fresh mozzarella and not the sliced variety, they rushed to cut me some, way more than I needed, at no charge.
It was impossible to resist buying something for the house: a quarter pound of bresaola for $7.00 was a good deal. I was tempted by the whole salami and the Di Stefano Burrata, a local Italian manufacturer with an excellent product but, knowing I will be out most nights this week, I resisted the temptation. Nice to know that, when the urge to have some speck strikes (and strike it will), it will be there. In the hope the crowds will keep the Market open…