A Rundown of the Dining Deck at the New Santa Monica Place

— by Caroline on Crack

Zengo's Tamarind Margarita by Caroline on Crack

Zengo's Tamarind-Togarashi Margarita, say that 3 times fast.

Earlier this week I was invited to check out the restaurants on the Dining Deck of the new, improved and now outdoor Santa Monica Place mall that opens today at 10am. When I arrived the security detail led me to the elevator that took me upstairs to one of the most beautiful mall food courts I’ve ever seen, The Dining Deck which houses six chef-driven restaurants plus an area for “fast-casual” eateries like Fatburger, Pinches Tacos and CrepeMaker.

Media folk were divided into groups and then taken on a tour of all six restaurants — Xino, Zengo, La Sandia, Pizza Antica, Sonoma Wine Garden and Ozumo — where they would sample the cuisine and booze as well as check out the new digs. It was such a whirlwind tour that it felt like the foodies’ edition of The Amazing Race as we basically had only 15 minutes to get the gist of each place. By the way, eating while running? Not a good idea. Erp!

All restaurants here are Vegas-huge and I couldn’t help but wonder if they’ll be able to fill all the seats. In any case the venues were airy with gorgeous and distinctive décor and it was hard to believe we were in a mall. The only real reminders are the beautiful views looking down Third Street Promenade. And sure, you may not know how to pronounce the names of some of the restaurants and may end up referring to them as “That [insert cuisine here] restaurant at the Santa Monica mall,” but you’ll remember the food and cocktails.

Here’s a rundown of the six new Santa Monica Place restaurants:

Xino, a Chinese restaurant that’s owned and operated by Chris Yeo, is a far cry from the Panda Express of yester-mall. Here, you’ll find a selection of starters like crispy chili calamari, Maine lobster and prawn potstickers as well as entrees like Mongolian cowboy rib eye, live crab and Chairman Yeo’s Crispy Chicken with kumquat compote and Fiji apples. No orange chicken here, sorry! On the dinner menu, prices range from $12 for a tureen of wonton soup to $38 for the classic Peking duck. As for the cocktail situation, the restaurant has a bar and lounge. At the preview I sampled their strawberry lemon drop cocktail which was this red, syrupy concoction rimmed with sugar. Suffice it to say, I couldn’t finish it. But at least the food was good and the space gorgeous. By the way, the Chinese beauty in that huge photo plastering the wall on the way to the outdoor patio is actually Mr. Yeo’s wife! If you want to get some air, there is an outdoor patio with dining banquettes and a full bar that overlooks the Promenade.

Zengo, a Latin-Asian restaurant owned by chef Richard Sandoval and my favorite tenor Placido Domingo, has an outdoor patio that also overlooks the Promenade as well as the Xino patio across the way. This venue offered a tamarind-togarashi margarita with a spicy salted rim which ended up being the fave of the bloggers in my group, myself included. The handcrafted beverage program here will have a range of tequilas, mescals, cachacas, sake and soju and cocktails like a Mekhong Pina Horchata, that’s a mouthful! They’ll have a happy hour Monday through Friday from 4 to 7pm. The food here promises to be a beautiful marriage of Latin and Asian cuisine as it uses ingredients shared by both cultures. Check out the Peking Duck Daikon tacos and the Apple-aji Amarillo Corvina Ceviche.

La Sandia Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar, Richard Sandoval’s second restaurant on the dining deck which is located right next door to Zengo, focuses on Mexican cuisine. That’s all well and good but I’m excited about the tequila library which will offer 250 tequilas and mescals! And they’ll have Latin-inspired cocktails like Horchata Blanco with tequila reposado, tropical fruit margaritas and mojitos. We had the Mescal con Pepino with cucumber, Serrano, lime and chile pequin. So spicy and refreshing. The food is your usual Mexican fare with even some combinations where you can get two tacos and an adobo shrimp quesadilla with refried beans and Mexican rice for $12.95. And here, their Chile Relleno is $12.95 compared to the $16.50 one at Border Grill around the corner on 4th Street. The space itself with its white stucco, azure wall of talavera tiles, and retractable glass sky light offers a nice respite from the bustling mall.

Pizza Antica, a California-Italian restaurant which specializes in thin crust Roman-style pizza, was a favorite of the tour. Even though at this point I was stuffed, I couldn’t say no to the pizza with heirloom potatoes, caramelized onions and truffle oil. It actually made blogger Diane Takes a Bite cry, it was so good. Pizzas here are available in small ($9.50-$11.25) and large ($15.25-$17) sizes for their specialty pizzas or you can make your own pizza starting at $9.25 for the small and $14.75 with tomato sauce and mozzarella. Additional toppings like fennel sausage, roasted garlic paste and Portobello mushrooms are $1.25-$1.75 each. There are also pastas and entrees if you want some variety. But at least split a pizza first!

Sonoma Wine Garden may give Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar up the street on Santa Monica Boulevard a run for its money as here they, too, have enomatic machines where you can conduct your own tasting but their food menu is more extensive with small plates like Sonoma foie gras, Manila clams linguini and grilled salmon and bib lettuce as well as hearty Dungeness crab BLT, Snake River Farms Kobe Bavette steak sandwich and truffle fries with parmesan! They will have weekly specials, too. The space itself is beautiful with walls seemingly covered with panels from wine crates. By the way, they will offer Sonoma beach picnic baskets should you want to take a stroll down by the pier past all the hordes of tourist families and thrown down a blanket on the sand for a romantic picnic.

Ozumo, a Japanese cuisine restaurant and sake bar, is surprisingly run by gaijin. Its owner is Jeremy Umland, who also owns Sonoma Wine Garden, and its sake sommelier is a sushi chef-turned-sake sommelier named Jess. But Umland says that they make sure they stack up to anyone including the Japanese in terms of their knowledge and appreciation of the cuisine. When you walk into the restaurant you immediately step into a sake lounge with a bar in the center that’s surrounded by wooden stools and seating areas all around. Further in is the sushi bar where you’re greeted by friendly sushi chefs. At this point in the tour, unfortunately, I was too stuffed to eat the sashimi and sushi they were offering but the other bloggers there did seem to like the food.

The mall will be celebrating its grand opening all day today with retail-hosted evens, live music and a happy hour with KCRW DJ Jason Bentley spinning some tunes.

Santa Monica Place
1453 3rd Street Promenade
Santa Monica, California 90401 (map)
(310) 394-5451
Facebook: Santa Monica Place