By Ann Shepphird of GardenstoTables.com
Fresh Picks and Catches is a regular column by Ann Shepphird. Ann keeps our readers posted on restaurants around the world that are at the forefront of bringing the best local, seasonal and environmentally sustainable agriculture, meat and seafood to the table.
With a legendary Wednesday morning farmers market that’s celebrating its 30th year (and four others scattered about the city), Santa Monica, California, makes it very easy to be farm-to-table: Hotels such as Shutters on the Beach and Loews Santa Monica offer guests the opportunity to walk through the market with their chefs, Copa d’Oro offers farmers-market-fresh cocktails and Beachy Cream, at the new Market at Santa Monica Place, features farmers-market-fresh popsicles. Restaurants such as Misfit, La Cachette Bistro, Rustic Canyon and Fig (which has its own chef’s garden) are all considered top farm-to-table choices, but here are three that have taken the concept and added a little extra.
A Santa Monica institution since 1979, Michael’s--and its owner Michael McCarty--has been at the forefront of sourcing local ingredients before it became popular. Trained in France, McCarty originally would bring seeds back and look for farmers who would plant the products for him. “Back then, you couldn’t just go to the supermarket and find fresh basil or arugula, haricots verts, heirloom tomatoes or any of those other quality ingredients we take for granted today,” says McCarty. Now McCarty continues to work with local farms such as Coleman Family Farm, Weiser Family Farms, Windrose Farm and Pudwill Farms, and conducts tours of the Santa Monica farmers market once a month. Called Michael’s Market Meet-Ups, the group gathers at the restaurant for cappuccinos and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls and then tours the market along with Executive Chef John-Carlos Kuramoto before returning to the restaurant for an early lunch on the garden patio that showcases the products they’ve just bought. Participants also leave with an autographed copy of McCarty’s latest cookbook, “Welcome to Michael’s.”
FYI for New Yorkers or those traveling to New York, Michael also owns Michael's in New York, which he opened in the late 80s.
Locanda del Lago
It is impossible to get closer to the Wednesday farmers market than Locanda del Lago. The restaurant is literally steps away, allowing many of the farmers to walk their products right into the kitchen for Executive Chef Walter el Nagar-Cestrone. Lago combines a focus on northern Italian cuisine--specifically the Lake Como region, which is where owner West Hooker-Poletti grew up--with seasonal Southern California produce. Even the burrata is made locally by an Italian family, and then served with market tomatoes and a house-made basil sorbetto. The names of the farmers and seasonal specials, including cocktails--which in the summer are named after celebrities with homes on Lake Como (the “Clooney” features blood oranges)--are written on a chalkboard and change weekly depending on what is at the market. A recent off-the-menu seasonal item included Ravioli di Barbabietole: homemade ravioli filled with market red and gold beats and tossed with poppyseeds in extra virgin olive oil. A perfect blend of market freshness and Italian flavors.
A Santa Monica native, JiRaffe’s Chef-Owner Raphael Lunetta is known as the surfing chef--and, true to his name, he’s often found catching some waves before hitting the farmers market on Wednesdays. In addition to the regular menu, which changes based on what’s in season, the restaurant offers a special Monday Night Bistro tasting menu that highlights his market finds. For instance, a recent Monday night menu featured seafood ceviche, with local wild white sea bass, Monterey squid, red onion, cilantro tortilla chips and lime, and pan-roasted grouper with farmer’s market artichoke puree, fire-roasted cherry tomatoes, oven-dried olives, grilled sweet red onions and white balsamic with an herb salad. The restaurant is celebrating its 15th birthday through the end of the year with a $28 four-course small-plate menu (that will include a mix of classic, new and farmers-market items) the final Thursday of each month. In this video, Chef Lunetta talks about some of his favorite stops at the market.
Photo Credits: Berries by James Carroll for Michael's; Insalata di Nizzarda (chopped salad served with seared Ahi tuna), courtesy of Locanda del Lago.