Walking into The OP Cafe, a minimalistic, hole-in-the-wall cafe with beachy vibes, one would hardly suspect that it was a. open after dark and b. housed one of the city's most exciting culinary pop-ups. I guess that whole never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover thing rings true sometimes, right? The kitchen has been taken over by Liason's Chef Nick Barainca, who is creating a $49 5-course tasting menu during the evenings from Thursday through Saturday. An exploration of California's raw materials, climate and landscape, gargantua uses all local products (no further than Santa Barbara) to produce food that is unpretentious, uncontrived, and refreshingly creative.
We arrived on the earlier side, so the cafe was pretty quiet. Despite the juxtaposition between the casual atmosphere of the cafe and the upscale nature of the tasting menu, there was actually a nice synchronicity between the Santa Monica ocean-vibes of the space and the California-focused cuisine.
Though the menu changes frequently, the chef's garlic bread seems to be a constant in some form, and for good reason. The bread was delicious. The crunch on the outside, moist but airy inside, and addition of air dried beef (I know, it sounds weird, but go with it) and salt added some serious flavor. Also that cultured butter! Yum.
Next up was the Melon "Ceviche" with trout roe. A cross between a salad and fish ceviche, the melon and trout was a surprising combination, but one that worked really well, with the sweetness of melon balancing out the bright pops of salty roe. Cucumber and corn added some nice textural and flavor elements as well.
Another surprising offering was the Ancient Grains dish. I'm usually not one to order a grain bowl, but this was an exception. It was such an interesting but delicious combination. I loved the addition of the eggplant cream, which offset all the more crispy textures of the grains themselves. Grapes provided some nice sweetness as well. It's a difficult dish to describe, but so worth trying for yourself (if it's still on the menu!).
Meat lovers, don't despair; the meal wasn't all melons and grains. In fact, our final savory dish was the wagyu beef belly, which was so great. Simply prepared, the quality of the wagyu really got to shine (that marbling!). A bit of sea salt was all the meat really needed, but the sun-dried mole was so good that I'm definitely not complaining. The beef was cooked a bit rare for my taste, but I still seriously enjoyed it.
To finish off, we ended with a dessert that was subtle and creative but cheekily dressed up to look like sushi. It was a sort of pastry with some lovely satsuma plum on top and accompanied by a buttermilk ice cream. Not too sweet, not too bready, and not too creamy, it was a simple, satisfying, well-balanced dessert.
Overall, I was really impressed by the meal from gargantua. Everything was done incredibly well, simply prepared, yet incredibly creative without being showy or pretentious. The meal was subtle, highlighted the right ingredients, and lacked many of the culinary clichés found on menus around the city. It was honestly one of the more interesting and exciting meals I've had of late, but managed to be satisfying as well. And seriously...a 5-course tasting menu for less than $50? Pretty much makes this a must-visit fit for foodies.