By Jorge Casuso
and Vince Basehart
July 12 -- Some are known for cooking up variations
on old dishes, others for concocting new dishes of their own.
One even claimed his place on the culinary map by not cooking
Yet, whether their cuisine is traditional or nouveau, whether
their reputations have grown locally or spread far and wide,
one thing is certain – some of the best, most original
chefs in the country are right here in Downtown Santa Monica.
The Lookout visited five of the growing number
of chefs who have made Santa Monica a dining destination to
learn what makes them tick and why they’ve chosen Bayside
as the place to exercise their art.
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
You can work up an appetite just talking to Susan Feniger,
who, along with Mary Sue Milliken, owns the Border Grill on
4th Street in the heart of Downtown Santa Monica. Feniger
is the dark-haired half of the nationally recognizable “Border
Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken
“We talked a lot about
doing Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, even a Japanese noodle
shop,” Feniger says. Luckily for Santa Monicans,
America’s most prolific purveyors of “modern
Mexican” settled on Border Grill. That "taco
stand," as Feniger wryly describes it, has been
packing in locals and tourists alike since 1990.
After working together at Chicago’s Le Perroquet
20 years ago, Milliken and Feniger left on separate
pilgrimages to France, vowing they would some day work
together at their real love, rustic Third World street
That’s about as far away from foie gras and consommé
as these classically trained French chefs could get.
After much international travel, and a turn by Feniger at
Wolfgang Puck’s LA-based Ma Maison, it felt natural
for the duo to set up shop in the multi-ethnic Santa Monica
area to explore their love of exotic, bold flavors. Their
first hit, City Café in Venice, served everything from
curry to Cuban sandwiches. After outgrowing that space, and
then another, they finally landed at their current 4th Street
digs to focus solely on modern Mexican cuisine.
“Santa Monica was a perfect fit,” Feniger says.
“It was exactly what we were going for. It has the laid
back feel of the beach while still being in the city.”
When not running their Border Grill restaurants (including
one in Las Vegas) and Ciudad, their downtown LA homage to
Latin cuisine; churning out a dizzying array of cookbooks
and appearing on radio (including occasionally, KCRW), the
“Border Girls” may be found at Santa Monica’s
farmers markets shopping for inspiration or providing samples
of their favorite recipes such as pomegranate lemonade. They
even regularly travel to Mexico to gain further insight into
their favorite food.
“Latin culture really speaks to us,” Feniger says.
Luckily for Santa Monica, it speaks volumes.
An avid guitarist, Daniel Snukal likes to compare cooking
to playing music. Every player has the same notes to hit,
but it’s the choices, the combinations, the nuances
that distinguishes one guitarist from another.
“You play around and you get different chemical reactions,
you see what you get right,” says Snukal, who opened
3 on Fourth in Downtown Santa Monica ten months ago. “Sometimes
it’s the idea, sometimes it’s the technique. Kitchens
look the same. You have the same notes to work with.”
|Daniel Snukal (Photo
by Jorge Casuso)
Snukal’s daily choice of culinary notes
is dictated by the buyer who scours farmers markets for the
freshest, and often most unique, ingredients. Snukal then
uses them to whip up dishes he’s jotted down on scraps
of paper when the muse strikes. As a result, 3 on Fourth’s
menu changes every day.
The menu dated June 20, for instance, included a smoked salmon,
ikura, vegetable pancake with a dill crème fraiche,
as well as scrambled eggs with sea urchin, black truffle and
“Sea urchin is one of my favorite things to eat,”
says Snukal, whose father always liked to experiment with
food. “I have a kind of weird taste. I like liver and
sea urchin. Santa Barbara uni is absolutely fantastic.”
A native of Canada, Snukal was prodded to open his restaurant
in Santa Monica, by his brother, a big booster of the city,
he has long called home.
“My brother tells everyone who moves to LA, ‘You
have to live in Santa Monica,’” he says. “Every
space we looked at he said, ’Do you know how far it
is from Santa Monica?’ I think that people really care
about the city.”
3 on Fourth has become a popular dining spot for folks who
visit or work Downtown. Those who live in Brentwood or the
Palisades sometimes drop in after work, preferring to sit
in front of a side of sweet potato fries, schichimi togarashi,
nori and aioli than behind the wheel in rush-hour traffic.
“I always hope that they enjoy themselves and enjoy
the food,” Snukal says. “We really focus on if
each customer has a good time. You always want more (customers).
The fun is cooking, and the more cooking you do, the happier
Juliano is probably the only famous chef who doesn’t
cook. He’s likely also the only chef who puts some of
his customers on fasts.
Not only is the cuisine at Juliano’s Raw on the corner
of 6th and Broadway vegan, and nearly all of it organic, none
of it is prepared at temperatures of more than 120 degrees,
the highest temperature before your hand blisters on metal.
“I follow the traditional recipes. We make the best
Indian food, the best Thai food, Mexican, Japanese, American,
only we don’t cook, and we use different ingredients,”
says Juliano, who only goes by his first name.
|Juliano and Ariel Michaels
(Photo by Jorge Casuso)
In the mood for lamb? Juliano’s executive
chef, Ariel Michaels, will whip up the dish using baby coconut
flesh. A burger? Try one made from scratch by blending mushrooms,
almonds and sunflower seeds, putting them through a grinder,
then dehydrating the patty in a refrigerator-looking oven
at no more than 120 degrees.
“I make the mayo from pine nuts, the ketchup from marinara,”
says Juliano, the son of a Sicilian gourmet who had restaurants
in Chicago, Las Vegas and Palm Springs. “For the pasta,
we use zucchini.”
Juliano gets 90 percent of his ingredients from the local
farmers market to insure it’s all certified California
organic. “We talk to the farmers and ask what kinds
of pests and fertilizers they use,” Juliano says. The
nuts he buys in bulk at the local co-op.
Since moving his restaurant from San Francisco “to get
out of the clouds and get to the sun,” Juliano’s
Raw has drawn “every celebrity in town,” he says.
Author of “The Uncook Book,” Juliano has built
an international following, personally preparing dishes for
the King of Thailand and the royal family in Saudi Arabia.
“Because the food is so unique and rare, I get flown
all over the world to make people well,” he says.
Juliano hopes to build an international brand of Raw and plans
to open restaurants in Hollywood, Paris, Milan and Tokyo.
But he likes it just fine on the corner of a Downtown street
lined with new apartment buildings.
“I really like Santa Monica,” Juliano says. “They’re
very environmental. It’s a very international city.
It’s really fantastic that we can bring the new food
to the world from Santa Monica.”
“If there’s surf, I don’t work,” chuckles
Raphael Lunetta, the chef at JiRaffe Restaurant. Creator and
owner of the upscale bistro located at the corner of 5th and
Santa Monica, he’s as much a fixture on our local waves
as he is one of the city’s most recognized chefs.
Earning numerous awards,
including being named one of Food & Wine’s
Top Ten Best Chefs of 1997, Lunetta could have chosen
to open his restaurant in New York, Chicago or other
big dining venues. It just felt natural, though, for
the 40-year-old Santa Monica native to do business in
his old stomping grounds
.“It’s the relationships and a loyal clientele”
Lunetta credits for his success. JiRaffe, opened with
original co-owner Josiah Citrin (now at Santa Monica’s
Melisse), has attracted rave reviews and a following
of serious gourmands since it opened in 1996, making
Lunetta an internationally sought-after cooking teacher.
After graduating from SaMoHi in 1985, putting
on the chef’s toque was, for him, as normal as pulling
on a wetsuit. With such influences as a French born mother
(“a terrific cook”), childhood summers spent around
Provence, and a Sicilian grandfather who owned a deli in East
Boston, “I was always around great food growing up.
“I rely on a sophisticated clientele which really gets
what we’re doing here.” The “it” he
explains, is his application of classic French technique to
every dish no matter how eclectic the ingredients may be.
“Every dish is uniquely designed and thought out. I
could get away with putting potatoes or pasta on every plate,
but my regulars wouldn’t be so loyal.”
“Summer is definitely a good time,” says Lunetta.
In addition to his regulars, the summer months bring the patronage
of many tourists who make a beeline to JiRaffe. “I consider
it a great compliment when vacationing Europeans come for
dinner two nights in a row.”
What else does Santa Monica’s “surfing chef”
like about the summer? “I love the beach, of course.”
When Luigi Fineo was growing up in Italy, his mother kept
the youngest of her five children out of trouble by having
him help around the kitchen. He grew up watching her make
pasta by hand, especially on Sundays, and bake her own bread.
They were lessons Fineo never forgot.
“Sometimes I call her,” says Fineo, the Chef at
La Botte Ristorante at the corner of 6th and Santa Monica.
“I ask her, ‘How did you used to do this?’”
After five years in culinary school in Puglia, Italy, Fineo
moved to Florence, where he honed his skills at a “very
nice restaurant,” then to Alto Adige, where he worked
at a “top-rated” eatery.
|Luigi Fineo and Stefano
De Lorenzo (Photo by Jorge Casuso)
Along the way, Fineo started putting together
dishes from the different regions of Italy. He also started
to experiment, modifying traditional recipes, varying the
techniques he learned in his mother’s kitchen.
“I like to create,” Fineo says. “I used
to do traditional dishes. I used to have the old-style soup,
green peas and squid. My mother used to cook all together.
I cook them separate and mix.”
Like all fine chefs, Fineo cooks “by taste and eye.”
He makes a dish and separates it into two or three portions,
each one a different variation, then serves the one he deems
Three steps down from street level, La Botte – Italian
for “Wine Barrel” – is literally fashioned
from wine barrels – from the floor to the walls to the
Owner Stefano De Lorenzo opened the restaurant two years ago
after his Piccolo Ristorante Italiano on Venice Beach “got
really busy,” he says. “The owner of the building
became a friend of ours. It was convenient for us to come
“It really is beautiful right here,” De Lorenzo
says. “We get business people, tourists from the hotels,
people living around here.”
De Lorenzo and Fineo regularly visit the farmers market down
the street, where “you find really good things,”
says De Lorenzo, adding that the menu is adjusted to the seasons.
“In the winter we have food from Northern Italy with
heavier sauces,” he says. “We use lighter sauces
and more fish during the summer.”
“I like to eat,” Fineo says. “It’s
my most favorite thing to do.”
Editor's note: This article also ran in
the Bayside Beat, the monthly newsletter of the Bayside