Years ago we would gather at Gerri Gilliland's signature cafe on Main Street in Santa Monica and feast on all the familiar fare: crab cakes with some sort of aioli, a radicchio and endive salad with parmesan and balsamic, a good steak or piece of fish and even a vegetable and cous cous dish for the vegetarian minded. It wasn't that Gerri was not a chef. She was and is. It was her dynamic personality and straightforward cooking that made her neighborhood restaurant so popular. For all the celebrities to be found at 72 Market and West Beach in those days, you'd find many of them at Gilliland's as well. And being Irish she had an innate way with pastry. I still dream about her warm soda bread with melted butter and lemon tart.
Dining with two friends at Taste on Melrose last night, I was reminded of those simpler days on Main St. Melrose is sassier to be sure and Taste's sure footed and impressive design attests to that. Candles and lanterns are used effectively and there's a real grown up feel to this young restaurant. Unlike Ortolon on 3rd, here is a front patio we could of easily sat on, as many did, even in last night's wet weather. As it was we were accorded a front and center window table in the slightly raised dining room but it seemed to me that there wasn't a bad table in the house. Was this really Bourbon St. Shrimp at one time?
Like the design, the food has no discernable pedigree; or, at least, you don't go in name dropping the chef. This is a comfortable easy going neighborhood restaurant with good cooking, friendly and efficient service and stylish enough to attract a wonderfully mixed crowd.
Two of us arrived early and were grateful for the spiced fried calamari with a lime mayonnaise for $8. I particularly liked the pizzette section for noshing and enjoyed the pear and gorgonzola version that one friend paired well with a glass of a Sangiovese rose. Other wines by the glass included a Stone Street Chardonnay for $11 and an Oyster Bay SB for $7.50. The small wine list has some great affordable offerings but a 2003 Soter Pinot Noir courtesy of Mission Wines in Pasadena pretty much provided and stole the thunder of the evening.
A butternut squash soup for $6.50 was perfect for a cold night and I liked the grilled romaine salad with crisp bacon and creamy bleu cheese for $8.75, as well as my red and yellow beet salad with arugula and the obligatory goat cheese and balsamic for $8.25. I said familiar but refreshingly so.
We all wanted the braised short ribs with gremolata and pappardelle for $17.25 but I acquiesced and tried the orange ginger shrimp with noodles for $18.25. The excellent server tipped us off that he liked it more when they made it extra spicy in their opening days. I opted for that version which was about a seven on a scale of one to ten. My friends agreed that the short ribs were okay but the shadow of Lucques version next door loomed large.
We had two desserts ($8 each) and a chocolate ice cream sundae layered with broken pieces of chocolate cake, fresh whipped cream, and caramel sauce was right up my alley. However, a pear tart suffered from the Pepperidge Farm school of pastry. No matter. I look forward to returning soon.