I’ll be honest: As iconic as the genre may be, there’s usually nothing more snooze-worthy to me than California cuisine, the culinary movement pioneered up north by Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse and popularized in Los Angeles by Michael’s in Santa Monica and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, among others. (It also eventually spurred the creation of California Pizza Kitchen.) In the early 2000s, another wave of L.A. restaurants, including Suzanne Goin’s A.O.C. and Jeremy Fox’s Rustic Canyon, introduced a new generation of Angelenos to farm-to-table dishes made with locally sourced, high-quality meat, seafood and produce. While I’ve enjoyed my (generally quite pricey) meals at these places in the past, they generally don’t make the cut whenever I personally recommend places to friends and family.
One exception to this, as of late, is Isla, a newer addition to Santa Monica’s Main Street that offers remarkably delicious kushiyaki, wood-fired entrées and seasonal salads. Run by Brian Bornemann and Leena Culhane, the couple behind nearby Crudo e Nudo, the restaurant offers an interpretation of California cuisine that actually doesn’t make my eyes glaze over. While Bornemann, the culinary half of the duo, has been reluctant to utilize the term “kushiyaki” for Isla’s signature skewers, they come grilled over binchotan charcoal and brushed with koji marinade (zucchini) or dusted with the likes of black, white and pink peppercorns (duck or chicken hearts) and neon orange masago (an ever-changing white fish). The vegetarian-friendly bill of fare eschews red meat—a sustainability-minded choice on Bornemann’s part—and makes California cuisine’s typical grab bag of Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American ingredients feel brand new again.
While the menu changes regularly, you can usually count on the tender avian hearts, as well the black cod entrée, a paprika-spiked twist on Nobu’s famous miso black cod. Vegetable and mushroom skewers get equal treatment with seasonings like warm honey and sea salt (okra) and chili oil, mint and sesame seeds (snap peas, in the spring). While I’m not sure if they’ll remain constants, I loved the newer crispy items on the menu: za’atar spiced chicken wings draped in sherry vinegar glaze and a small plate of calamari, which Bornemann dresses with lime, macadamia nuts and a black garlic aioli. Other dishes, like the tempura-fried yellowtail collars and a melon salad with calamansi vinegar, are flashes in the pan, fleeting moments of brilliance that come and go with the seasons and market availability.
Isla’s wood-fired emphasis nods to Little Prince, the space’s previous tenant, but as with Crudo e Nudo (easily one of the best raw bars in the city), Bornemann infuses new life into a dining genre I previously found rather unexciting. Now about four months old, the all-day restaurant has settled into a groove with weekend brunch, available from 10:30am onwards, that adds the requisite pancake and egg dishes but keeps the skewers, appetizers and salads that make Isla stand out at any time of the day. An $85 “chef’s selection” takes the hassle out of ordering and can be tailored to your likes and dislikes. While none of the entrées are lackluster, I’d still steer you towards the skewers, whether you opt for the tasting menu or order à la carte.
On the drinks front, Isla offers a few zero-proof options, plus a selection of mostly French, Italian and California wines and ever-changing cocktails that occasionally stumble. (The Tropical Kabuki, made with gin, melon, lemon, amaro and sparkling wine, tastes like a Korean melon ice cream bar gone terribly wrong.) The dining room and parking lot patio areas are casually but stylishly appointed, and the menu pricing makes sense for a date night or a get-together among friends; without drinks, a meal usually costs under $100 per person after tax and tip. It’s easily one of the Westside’s best new restaurants this year—and if you don’t live in the area, this little Santa Monica bistro is worth schlepping for.
The vibe: Informal, laidback and ideal for a relaxed beachside lunch or dinner.
The food: Delicious charcoal-grilled skewers, wood-fired entrées and seasonal appetizers. Highlights include the duck hearts, chicken wings and chocolate sorbetto.
The drink: Mostly natural wines, cocktails and a few zero-proof options.
Time Out tip: Park in the public lot behind Isla—enter off Hollister Avenue or the Main Street driveway entrance between Augie's on Main and the Galley.