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Ozumo and Sonoma Wine Garden
The Santa Monica Place restaurants couldn’t be more different, yet they share the same chef…
Photograph by Lisa Romerein
Ozumo is the sort of spot you’d happily drop by to relax over a draft beer and a bite of hamachi collar with spicy ponzu. Massive sumos smash into each other on the TV above the bar. Red lanterns hang by the entrance, while a succession of rooms decorated with sake casks, shoji screens, and a sculpture of ceremonial tassels establishes a modern-traditional look in one broad sweep.
You almost forget that you took a series of escalators to get here and that you’re on the top floor of a mall. The new Santa Monica Place, a multistory open-roofed structure, conveys a sense of Southern California that is almost too sun-splashed to be real. The food court, once a dour slice of Omaha plugged into the ground floor, has migrated to a bright glass-enclosed space on the third floor, where it looks out toward the sea. Ozumo is among a slew of other restaurants that have set up shop nearby. The mall signage refers to them as “chef driven,” but I wouldn’t go that far.
Ozumo’s chef, German-born Roman Petry, definitely possesses talent. The robata skewers have the charred compression that is so easy to love (and keep eating). At $6 the ebi shio-yaki takes what is best in prawns, scallions, fire, and salt and makes them one. Petry seems to delight in the inherent modesty of vegetables, cloaking batons of Japanese eggplant in an ethereal tempura and crowning a row of fork-tender purple potatoes with a dollop of soy-ginger butter. Every restaurant of this kind must have miso-glazed black cod—the Nobu DNA they carry demands it. Ozumo’s is finely delicate instead of marred by an overreduced lacquer. As surprisingly nuanced as the food can be, though, it feels more safe than exciting. Hewing to the standards, Ozumo is concocted from a playbook rather than from inspiration. The closest you get to riffing here is in the wasabi aioli slathered on a house-ground Kobe burger.
Petry, who’s 26, has cooked in Japanese restaurants in London, Hong Kong, and Scottsdale (the well-regarded Roka Akor). He was brought in to launch the Santa Monica outpost of Ozumo, a San Francisco-based minichain founded ten years ago by Jeremy Umland, who played in the Japanese baseball league. At the time, Petry had no idea he’d be charged with overseeing a second restaurant in the mall—the intriguing, if imperfect, Sonoma Wine Garden.
Located on the same level as Ozumo, Sonoma Wine Garden came about in short order when Umland landed the space before the mall opened. Petry says his inspiration was a heuriger, a Viennese wine garden. It does have some of that cheer. Strollers are parked by the heat lamps. Big parties celebrate at long tables. The bar is invariably boisterous. But as concept restaurants go, it’s flawed. The sprawling design lacks visual cohesion. While terra-cotta-colored parasols and a little grove of olive trees decorate a lovely split-level patio, the dining room drops the warm Cal-Med theme as if it were an imprudent summer dalliance. White, stark, and stripped down, the space only needs bottles of Maggi sauce on the tables to look like the breakfast room of a Swiss B&B.
The single-page menu can seem just as divided, with pizzas butting up against loup de mer and classics like Liptauer (Austrian cheese stretched with white wine). Still, Petry adds finesse to even the most familiar dishes. The crust of the pizza margherita is thin and billowy. Tart slaw tops the excellent fried chicken sandwich—grilled country bread bookending pounded chicken breast that’s been thickly battered. The duck rillettes—tender, fat-poached meat mixed with soft garlic cloves and spread on crostini—is both an appetizer and a love note to southwest France. Not that Petry is always on target. The flavors of Provence overwhelm when he crams too much rosemary into the Dover sole papillote; the combination of fish, Anson Mills farro, and chanterelles is occluded by what tastes like Aqua Velva.
The chef is at his best when his Germanic heritage shines through. The first time I went to Sonoma Wine Garden I knew nothing of Petry; however, from the moment I was presented with golden butterball potatoes sprinkled with parsley and served on a rustic earth-toned plate, I knew a northern European was involved. Most chefs, even the produce-oriented ones, could not have left those potatoes so unadorned. This is the kind of simplicity learned at someone’s knee.
Reserved in its seasoning, German and Austrian cooking has a generous quality. For generations of exiles and immigrants in L.A., such food was the strand of their past they could pull on to get home. Perennials like the European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen on Olympic and Alpine Village in Torrance manage to hold on to their clientele (and recent additions like downtown’s Wurstküche are turning a new demographic on to sausage and beer), but gone are the days when Mama Weiss was serving schnitzel to Ernst Lubitsch. Knoll’s Black Forest Inn on Wilshire survived until the aughts before packing up its gorgeous Moselle wines and decamping for good.
There are moments when Sonoma Wine Garden articulates Germanic food in a way that’s pitch perfect. The Tyrolean pumpkin seed oil plays off the tarragon vinegar on the greens of the grilled salmon salad. Elderflower syrup, that most Austrian of ingredients, elevates the lemonade and mimosas. Thick and flavorful, the celery root and apple soup is finished with a swirl of sage brown butter and served in an earthenware bowl. It happens rarely at restaurants, but the chicken here is a must. Crisp from slow roasting, it sits on a jumble of rough-cut carrots, celery, and parsnips that seems just pried from the pan. The kaiserschmarrn dessert, a souffléd pancake filled with stewed fruits and raisins, has the authenticity of something you’d savor in a Viennese coffeehouse. Petry’s recipe comes from his grandmother, who’d fill her version with cherries in summer.
Other than his ghastly Liptauer—colored by paprika and assaulted by cumin (the type of quick-mix, fake-farmhouse gambit that German cooking is susceptible to)—there are few missteps. The “artisanal” bread (for which they charge $3) is a soft mass that lacks salt and crackling crust, while the brownie scattered with raw pumpkin seeds is a way to offend two cultures at the same time.
These are small problems when compared with the service. Call to make a reservation and you’ll find a policy that changes from week to week. Sometimes they take them, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they accept them only Friday and Saturday nights. The kitchen staff has yet to get its timing down, sending out main courses five minutes apart, forcing a person to either start alone or eat his or her food cold. Wine service is a crapshoot.
If there is a sommelier, I’ve never seen the individual. The staff prefers to keep things moving in the always crowded restaurant by skipping the full wine list and getting people to order from the by-the-glass selection printed on the back of the menu. The Enomatic machine only creates stress. It’s an ordeal obtaining a self-serve card (which you top off with money), and nobody has taken the trouble to train the staff on the treasures the machine holds. Gaja, d’Yquem, Prüm—among the world’s great producers lie within the glass cabinet, but you’re going to have to communicate by pointing if you want a pour. The gaffes are enough to make me miss the certainties of Ozumo. At least that restaurant is not straightening out the kinks on the customer’s buck.
It has crossed my mind that Sonoma Wine Garden could represent the next chapter of L.A.’s slow dance with German food. How fitting it would be to find a confident and contemporary articulation of the theme (the way, say, Chris Israel is doing at Grüner in Portland, Oregon, where he makes his own bratwurst) on the top floor of a brand-new mall. The restaurant isn’t there yet. Whenever I leave the dining room, I can’t help but glance across the mall’s top floor toward the entrance of Ozumo. How good this place could be, I think, if Petry had only one kitchen to run.