The first thing you'll notice upon entering Taberna Arròz y Vi, the new "neighborhood tapas and paella joint" in Santa Monica, is undergoing an identity crisis. The too-large space is divided into a main dining room lined with candles, bull heads, leather chairs and wine barrels and a front lounge with blue mid-century modern chairs and a sleek red-lit bar tended to by servers in black cotton T's with logos that are more Jack Daniels than Juan Danielito.
Taking over the expansive space of the long-standing Tudor House, owner Michael Cardenas tries to modernize tapas just as he made the izakaya sleek at Aburiya Toranoko and cauliflower sexy at Lazy Ox Canteen. He brought in chef Verite Mazzola—Drago, Ford’s Filling Station, Akasha are on her resume—to create a menu of largely tapas and several "con arroz" aka paella and large plate "comida" dishes. However, the results are more pub grub than Andalusian appetizers. Shrimp gambas ($13), the garlicky national dish, is covered in a thick tomato-based paste that tastes of bottled BBQ sauce, studded with capers and wedges of lemon that server as a thoughtless garnish. Baked brandade ($10), the creamy, whipped salt cod of Iberian dreams is a bland, mixture of mashed potatoes and bacalao buried under panko bread crumbs that's too dry to be smeared on toast, which is served alongside. Spicy potato skins ($6), an updated version of patatas bravas, are dusted with paprika, red pepper flakes for a nice kick, but disappoint with chips that are too soggy and oily. The fideua negro ($23) is a disaster with different elements of the squid ink pasta cooked at varying degrees of doneness and flavor: The noodles are overcooked and combined with chunks of nearly raw garlic and a medley of bland and, what tastes like tough, frozen whole shrimp and pieces of calamari. Finally, perhaps Spain's most famous dish, paella, consisted of tasteless rice that didn’t yield the sought-after crispy socarrat crust. (Somehow, the rice managed to be undercooked and burned.)
Service is sloppy, inexperienced and just plain clueless. The top recommendation on the entire menu was dessert—the bread pudding tasted of propane—and dishes came out all at once with the runner forcing dishes onto a crammed table. Shortly into the meal, one realizes that the restaurant serves better as a bar destination for tourists than a gastronomic destination of pintxos and sangria for locals. What a shame then in this Spanish food–starved town, where tacos and tortas are aplenty—throw a rock in any direction and you'll land on a surefire taquería—but bacadillos and bacalao are hard to find. And with this dinner disaster, we'll gladly opt for al pastor instead.
Eat this: While dishes from tapas to paella miss the mark, a safe bet is the cheese and charcuterie plate for a pre-dinner bite. The three cheese and three cured meat combo ($14, $21) includes a Pierre Robert triple crème, earthy Tallegio, Cabra-al-vino Embutidos goat cheese, jamón Serrano, chorizo blanco and spicy coppa. For $39, a plate of the prime acorn-feeding jamón Iberico de Belota is served with marcona almonds and membrillo (quince paste).
Drink this: Kick off the evening with vodka—yes, vodka—in the seasonal salted watermelon ($7), a light and refreshing mix of with watermelon, cucumber and mint. For a boozy bargain (and more Iberian experience), order a lime and cherry juice–infused sangria or a glass of Estrella Damm beer (Spain's answer to Bud) or Rioja red (Tempranillo) or white (Viura) for $4 during happy hour (Mon-Fri 5-7pm, Sat-Sun 4-7pm).
Where to sit: Large parties can sprawl out in the main, dimly-lit dining room, while singles and date-nighters post up in the front bar/lounge area at high-table two tops or low-slung cushy chaise chairs.