I saw Kris Tominaga shopping at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market this past fall, shortly after it was announced that he had left The Hart + The Hunter. The chef was talking to one of his vendors about a new project (yeah, I may have been eavesdropping a little) as he rifled through boxes of lettuce, not giving away too many details but visibly excited about the topic—his first solo project. That project is now Cadet, a beautiful French restaurant in Santa Monica where, if you were to peek through its large floor-to-ceiling windows, you'd find a center bar surrounded by rustic tables and chairs, wooden beams and brick walls. After being connected to The Hart's co-chef Brian Dunsmoor for so long, Tominaga is faced with the challenge of proving that people will come for his food and his alone. So how is he doing it?
With butter and sugar, it seems. This is a French restaurant, so butter is no surprise, but there was a surprising edge of sweetness to almost every dish we had. Sometimes it was welcome, sometimes it was not. Among the appetizers, a fantastic selection of tartines is offered, featuring toasted bread topped with everything from smoked mussels to beef tartare to—no surprise here—avocado. I loved the Bartlett pear tartine, which is as sweet as any fruit-topped toast should be, but smartly cut by some sharp pecorino and red cress. The sea urchin tartine? It's a lot to handle. There is shrimp butter and bottarga spread on top, both rich in their own right; combined with fatty uni, there's a high level of guilt that washes over you after one bite. Don’t expect to share these tartines easily—they’re piled high with ingredients and difficult to cut—but for the sake of your heart, it might be best to divide and conquer. For an appetizer that’s less guilt-inducing, the persimmon and kale salad is a great starter—also sweet, but in a balanced way as the bitter kale is tossed with sherry vinegar dressing and sharp sheep’s milk cheese.
What is not so French about Cadet is the collection of sides, accoutrements, banchan (as many people have compared it to)—whatever you want to call them. With every entrèe ordered, the table gets a plate of crêpes and small bowls of pickles, aioli, sea salt, carrots, lettuce, olives and other condiments on deck that day. This is the idea: You take a crêpe, place your protein in it (we tried the bavette steak and the roasted black cod), and top with the smattering of sides. I knew this because I had studied up on Cadet, not because our server told us. A brief explanation would have been nice as opposed to crowding the table with ten little dishes and an “Enjoy!,” but perhaps it’s more self-explanatory then I’m giving them credit for. In any event, it’s a fun concept, as long as you choose your protein wisely. The black cod is beautifully roasted: crispy skin on the outside, flaky meat on the inside, slathered in smoked butter and garlic. It doesn’t need any of the sides to make it better; the fish is excellent on its own. The steak, on the other hand, could have used something extra. To be fair, on our visit they ran out of of escargot, which is usually what this slab of meat comes with, in addition to dandelion green sauce. But for $23, the steak was a little too plain, and in a crêpe it was merely confusing.
Despite some of the missteps at Cadet, I would come back again in a heartbeat, because of these two words: rabbit boulettes. There is butter (oh, there is butter). There is cream. And yes, it’s sweet, too. Everything you could love about French cuisine is represented in this dish, and yet it’s not too much. Technically, the boulettes is an appetizer, but as a bowl full of hearty rabbit meatballs and dumplings speckled with herbs, it is filling enough to stand on its own.
Can you have dessert after a meal so rich? If you have a separate dessert stomach (don't we all?), then sure, why not. The lemon and blueberry tart is a good choice, with sour lemon outweighing the other ingredients in a bite that could almost—almost—make you forget about all that butter you just had.
What to Eat: The rabbit boulettes ($16). The Bartlett pear tartine ($6). The roasted cod ($29). The lemon and blueberry tart ($8).
What to Drink: Wine, beers, spirits and cocktails each get their own mini menu. A French margarita ($13) subs out the tequila for mezcal which, after one sip, is how I want all my margaritas made from now on. Combined with yellow Chartreuse, yellow pepper and firewater bitters, it’s a fantastic, spicy drink that balances out Tominaga’s dishes. Compare that to the Cadet ($13), smooth but another sugar bomb with White Dog whiskey, crème de bannana and coffee bitters. I was surprised that the wine list didn’t have more French options—on my visit, most were from California—but here’s to hoping that changes.
Where to Sit: Tables at Cadet include mismatched chairs—tall, beautiful ones that remind you of going to nice dinner parties hosted by your friends who can afford nice dinner party furniture. You can sit in a booth, but I prefer the more intimate single tables, though fitting multiple dishes on the table at once can prove challenging. If you like to people-watch, a seat by the large windows that look out onto Wilshire is ideal.
Conversation Piece: Looking at Cadet's dinner menu is like holding a fan of cards. As with the drinks, each section gets its own individual card that you're supposed to shuffle through—a unique, if kind of unecessary, display.