The iconic restaurant Michael’s in Santa Monica, Calif., got a new lease on life this summer with a redesign and a young chef eager to make his mark.
It was quite a challenge for both the 28-year-old chef Miles Thompson, and the restaurant’s owner Michael McCarty, who opened in 1979 with a team that included now veteran chefs Jonathan Waxman, Ken Frank and Mark Peel.
In 1979, Michael’s was a forerunner in the revolution that gave birth to new American cuisine.
Over the years, Michael’s kitchen was an early stop for an amazing array of culinary talent — from Nancy Silverton and Sang Yoon, to Brooke Williamson and Roy Yamaguchi.
It was farm-to-table before anyone knew what that meant. “We had to build the farms,” McCarty recalls.
It was decidedly not French, at a time when all fine-dining restaurants were French. “Italians didn’t cook so well in those days, and Chinese and Japanese restaurants weren’t on their game yet,” says McCarty.
It was also ingredient based, and Michael’s came to define what became known as California cuisine, helping to inspire what is now a rich tapestry of regional American cooking across the country. “Now regional American is the norm,” McCarty observes.
So when an opportunity to find a new chef came up earlier this year, McCarty decided it was time for a redo.
He sat down with his 27-year-old son Chas, whom McCarty calls “an ambassador to millennials,” to get his input and said, “Let’s have some fun with this. Let’s stick to the core of what has always been Michael’s, but let’s take it to the next level,” says McCarty.
Enter Thompson, who at the time was on the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean helping a resort develop its food-and-beverage program, but whose previous experience included the kitchens of Shed in Sonoma County, as well as the restaurants Allumette, Son of a Gun, Animal and Nobu in Los Angeles.
Thompson set out to take all the tenets of Michael’s original iteration, “melding that into the 21st Century with modern technique and more daring flavor combinations,” he explains.
The menu, which will change seasonally, also takes on more global influences, in keeping with today’s Los Angeles, says Thompson.
Small plates, for example, include blistered baby broccoli with julienned pigs’ ears that have been braised Sichuan style. The dish is served with a Thai vinaigrette with spicy peanuts and soft egg Milanese sauce.
There’s a chilled rock crab, or sometimes sea urchin, chawanmushi, a Japanese egg custard dish. Another dish features chicken hearts, which Thompson contends are “so much less weird” than eating the thymus gland, “even though sweetbreads are so often considered the king of the offal world.”
Among only five large plates is a San Diego black cod, which Thompson cures with fish sauce, brown sugar and cilantro, then roasts. It’s served with lemongrass rice, fermented lettuce, pickled turnips, pickled garlic chives and a Northeastern Thai condiment called jaew made with toasted rice powder, lime juice, fish sauce, shallots, scallions, red onions, chilies and cilantro.
“It’s a really explosive flavor,” he says.
Desserts include a roasted barley pot-de-crème spiked with rosemary and chamomile.
McCarty also gave Michael’s an entirely new look, stripping down the décor to spotlight the paintings, drawings and lithographs from his private collection that have always graced the restaurant walls.
At 200 seats, Michael’s is a big restaurant — bigger than Thompson is used to, he admits — with 20 tables in the foliage-rimmed garden, a bar and lounge, three big communal tables on a terrace and two party rooms upstairs.
It’s also a restaurant where Thompson and his crew can literally walk with a dolly to one of the nation’s finest farmer’s markets to pick the best of what’s fresh in Southern California year round.
McCarty, meanwhile, is thrilled to see the young chef embrace that market and find his voice.
“It’s like a brand-new restaurant,” McCarty observes. “And we’re only just beginning.”