After a year of sitting vacant, the former James Beach space is now Si! Mon, Venice’s most exciting restaurant to open in literal years. If the old venue—an iconic Westside queer space and locals’ watering hole—reflected the needs and wants of a bygone, more eclectic and affordable era in the beachside neighborhood, the new Central American restaurant exemplifies the type of place desired by the area’s new set of monied locals: Stylish, pricey and intended for those willing to casually drop $150 apiece on dinner and drinks. Luckily, head chef José Carles generally, but not always, justifies the expense with impeccably made raw dishes, yuca tostadas (a carryover from Carles’ globally recognized Fonda Lo Que Hay in Panama City) and other small-to-medium plates that distill the country’s Chinese, Spanish and Afro-Caribbean culinary influences into a delicious meal, the likes of which you can’t find anywhere else in Los Angeles.
While not L.A’s first Panamanian restaurant—that title goes to Mid-Wilshire’s Caribbean Soul Food Kitchen, a casual joint serving oxtails, jerk chicken and Latin American staple stew sancocho—Si! Mon offers an upscale, seafood-centric interpretation of the country’s cuisine that introduces Angelenos to lesser-known ingredients like pixbae, a peach-sized palm fruit with an earthy flavor, and yuca, an oft-fried root vegetable indigenous to South America and the Caribbean. Stick with the smaller seafood starters and you’ll find out just why World’s 50 Best ranked Fonda Lo Que Hay the 51st best restaurant in Latin America. The curry-spiced sashimi offers a delicate twist on now-common dry-aged fish, and the combination of ceviche, leche de tigre and plantain chips remains unmatched. There's also the clam gaucho, which offers a flavorful mix of seafood in a hearty, winter-ready rice stew with a consistency somewhere between congee and risotto.
However, the kitchen falters with the modestly sized entrées, like the gluten-free fried chicken, which arrived underseasoned and less than crispy the first time I ordered it and perfectly cooked on another occasion. The newer jerk-marinated king tiger prawns are scarcely worth the steep cost ($48) or the effort involved—the flesh is difficult to separate from the shells, and the dish offers little of the heat usually associated with jerk sauce. While tasty enough, the makrut lime-infused kanpachi in banana leaf and cashew miso-marinated hangar steak are underwhelming compared to the well-executed, flavorful starters, though they at least offer the benefit of actually filling you up. Then again, if I need to steer diners towards the appetizer section of the menu, and the average cost of the meal runs around a not-insignificant $125 or more, then we have a problem here.
For about the same price and emphasis on seafood, you could enjoy an equally great meal at nearby Dudley Market or travel across town for upscale mariscos at Frogtown’s Loreto, where a $68 family-style zarandeado gets you an entire grilled fish, quesadillas, rice, beans and tortillas. You can tuck into a glittering seafood tower on the makeshift patio outside East Hollywood’s Found Oyster, or enjoy fried Ipswich clams and tinned fish within the nautical-inspired dining room of West Hollywood’s Saltie Girl. In Koreatown, $150 will net you a full spread at Master Ha’s or Jae Bu Do, to say nothing of the $120 Yucatecan-style mariscos tasting menu on Thursdays and Fridays at Holbox in South L.A. All of these more tried-and-true places excel at consistency and make the case for avoiding the trap of novelty, one of Si! Mon's current selling points.
What you seem to be paying for then, is the stylish ambience of Si! Mon's terracotta-colored dining room and heated patio, outside of which a security guard waits to ostensibly ward away homeless people and the tiny cocktail tables for two are scarcely large enough to hold two entrées at the same time. (Perhaps an attempt to steer people towards costlier drinks and small plates?) If I sound ambivalent about this, it’s because I am. Carles’s culinary talent is undeniable, but I would only recommend Si! Mon for a full meal if you’re in need of an upscale dinner spot and are unwilling to leave, or find yourself in, the deep Westside. Coming here for a few seafood starters and a drink or two makes the most sense, but for anyone familiar with L.A.’s wealth of seafood restaurants, the price-quality ratio isn’t exactly favorable.
The vibe: Escapist and tropical.
The food: A mix of seafood, including standout raw dishes, clam gaucho and shrimp dumplings, plus a few meat items and desserts. (It’s not vegetarian-friendly.)
The drink: Seasonal creations that run breezy and light, plus a few spirit-forward cocktails, non-alcoholic options and natural wines.
Time Out tip: Your waiter will probably suggest you order the shaved cabbage slaw with your mains, but don't: The pickled mango and caramelized carrot makes it almost sickly sweet, and does little to refresh the palate in between bites.