A few years ago I went on a wine safari in south Rhone Valley with a guide who eloquently explained that in Europe dinner is not so much about sustenance, but more about connecting with people. He commented that the company one keeps affects our memories of how the food and wine actually taste. This sentiment was 100% apropos for my visit to the new Cleo at LA live. Its not that the food was bad, per say, and I wouldn’t necessarily deter someone from eating there if they were visiting LA live, but for the most part experiencing the Mediterranean fare at Cleo was plainly unremarkable.
Stark and imperial is one way to describe the ambiance at this new location. Brightly lit, sparsely adorned, and a bit sterile, the feel is much less intimate in comparison to the bold boudoir-esque climate at it’s sister location in Hollywood. Music seems to be playing, but only audibly enough to hear sporadically, making it more of a nuisance than enjoyable. Conversation is difficult, as the acoustics in the room create a loud hum and everyone’s voice becomes one big cacophonous overtone. It’s worth noting however, from the moment of entrance, the staff is very friendly and cheerful, an excellent juxtaposition to the chaos of LA Live.
With no Grenache or Chianti the wine list at Cleo is at the least limited, if not inadequate. Our waiter, Taylor, surmounted our frustrations over the wine limitations by serving a flight of their bold reds, which was accommodating and helpful in making a choice. The margarita was basic, clean and crisp but nothing to write home about. I should mention the management at Cleo will not allow you to buy a drink at the bar and transfer your bar tab to the table tab, which could be very annoying depending on what your plans are for the evening.
Taylor explained that the plates served would be “tapas style”; small but sharable. Our meal started with an in-house-made hummus topped with extra tahini, cumin, and a few scattered garbanzo beans. The hummus, accompanied by a warm lavosh served in a paper bag, arrived at the table in good time. The presentation was original and witty. The hummus itself was tasty, though once the toppings were mixed in, somewhat thin. Lesson learned: As my dinner partner pointed out, “don’t mix in the toppings”.
For our main course we sampled the scallops and the hangar steak. The scallops were actually delicious (though one was undercooked). The steak itself was flavorful though a bit overcooked for “medium” and did remind me of an in-flight airplane ration, albeit first class not coach. It was somewhat impressive for airplane food but not so amazing otherwise. The accompanying carrot purée, perceivably pumpkin sauce, was quite savory as was the side of fingerling potatoes. The staff politely checked on our table often, and engaged in entertaining but non-invasive conversation. From funny jokes to discussions of calligraphy, water fountains, and Caligula, my company and the staff most definitely made the meal more fulfilling.
As I took a walk around the restaurant, the clientele seemed to mostly consist of wealthy out of town-ers visiting LA Live, which makes sense. The kitchen was not as organized as others I’ve seen, and the women’s bathroom was a mess with paper towels overflowing everywhere. On my walkabout the hostess asked how I was enjoying my meal and the sous chef smiled as I passed by. The attentiveness of the staff here was definitely a nice touch.
Being somewhat of an introvert I often abide the law of Sartre, “hell is other people,” but regarding Cleo LA Live the truth seemed contrary. It was the friendly staff and my company that made my evening complete. With that being said, the food was far from inedible and I’d say the prices were comparably moderate for the area. If you are at LA Live anyways it’s potentially better than some other options, but I definitely wouldn’t plan my night around eating there. I give it a C.
As the music roared and voices filled the room, MSM and I stood at the rear of the restaurant, perfectly positioned fitting “just so” into the human puzzle behind the bar. The mirrored wall to the left containing inscriptions of “today’s fresh oyster” selections reflected a reality to us- this place was extremely crowded to the extent of claustrophobia and the chances of us getting seated any time soon were getting slimmer by the minute. What at first seems to be an extremely cute eatery was turning into a personal hell. Starving and in pain (I made the wrong choice of wearing my five inch healed Alaia booties designed to wear directly from the Taxi to a seat at a table), we started making deals with ourselves. “If we’re not seated in five more minutes, we’re leaving.” Then five minutes would pass. “Ok in TEN more minutes we are out of here.” Perhaps too hungry to actually think of another place to go, I’m not exactly sure what kept us there. We had a reservation at Salt Air at 8:30 and arrived at 8:27. As I have mentioned before, MSM has no belief in being fashionably late and unfortunately in this situation it would have been advantageous to be so. We had already been waiting 35minutes but the people at “our table” were “lingering” despite paying their bill. OK I get it. I actually love embracing that French attitude towards dining; slowly moving through each course, truly enjoying the conversation and in-person contact with your diner-mate (as opposed to the american style of getting it over with and running out so the next person can sit). Obviously the ramifications are great, considering obesity in France is significantly less than here. However, at this moment, in my painful albeit extremely gorgeous booties, I was wishing I could ignite my inner Vampire and compel the hostess to seat us (yeah- too much Vampire Diaries).
After a 38 minute wait, a DIFFERENT two top cleared and we were finally seated. Ahhhhh. My feet! WHOOT! I was ready to celebrate my new found lack of pain, not to mention feed my empty stomach and fuel my dizzy body.
WELCOME TO SALT AIR:
As previously mentioned, Salt Air is really cute. The front patio is ensconced in twinkle lights and has limited seating, all at small french bistro style tables. The coziness continues inside with minimally embellished white washed brick walls, an open high beamed ceiling, and small tables strategically placed. A few, maybe three, larger tables are sprinkled through the room to accommodate parties of 5 or more. Two large billowing plants hug the front door and creep up to the ceiling, adding beauty and probably acoustic padding. The music is loud but fun and though one can not hear conversations around the room, there is no problem hearing the people or person at one’s own table. Perfectly private but open. Can’t ask for more.
The age group was, I’d guess, young professionals 30+. One table of extremely well dressed (Hermes handbag and a fur coat clad) twenty somethings sat in the center table that accommodated their party of six. We are in LA after all. But they seemed an anachronism to me amongst the rest of the array. A few parties of more sophisticatedly aged couples were also there. Hip 60 year olds drinking rose. This was refreshing to see.
After our long wait we were both curious if it was going to be worth it, and I’m happy to say that yes, it mostly was.
MSM ordered a lemonade first. Non-alcoholic. I am extremely picky about lemonade, as I prefer something more tart and less sweet. My father taught me the art of lemonade creation using freshly squeezed lemon slices and just a hint of sugar- perfectly tart. I can’t stand the ones that are so sweet they actually send a shooting pain through your teeth into your brain. This one’s sugar to lemon ratio was precise and delicious.
The infamous tomato soup.
Holy hell. Yeah. A pitcher of dense condensed pulp of tomato is poured into a bowl of frothy cheddar foam creating the most fantastic tomato soup. Perfectly paired with three husky home-made croutons (not so crunchy to scrape your mouth) and a basil leaf topper, this soup is definitely worthy of its world renowned status. The rest of the food here was pretty good, but this soup alone would be the one thing to call me back. The lunch menu includes this soup with a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich. Looking forward to a day of decadence comprised of this meal.
The Mushroom Toast.
This is a delicious thickly sliced toast with a light smear of ricotta topped with caramelized onions, pan seared mushrooms, and thin slices of Jalepeno. It shys in comparison to the tomato soup, but is very tasty. We actually used the toast to clean up the remaining un-spoonable drops of tomato soup, delicious!
As per our waiters suggestion we shared the baked snapper over a bed of pureed butternut squash, topped with minced sweet potatoes (lightly fried) that looked like a hay stack. Our veggie of choice was the roasted broccoli with purred cauliflower and a chimichurri sauce.
The snapper was flavorful but I was a bit overwhelmed by the cardamom and tired of it quickly. The broccoli on the other hand was fantastic. Lightly grilled, its texture was soft with a crispy exterior. I recommend making a meal of this and the tomato soup.
The wine selections were nice here. I paired my main course with a nice Rose from Cote Du Provence, which delicately enhanced the flavor of our meal.
I chose the “fruit selection”, expecting a nice sweet but healthy bowl of fresh berries. Alas, when the desert arrived it appeared I had guessed wrong. Hahaha. The fruit selection was actually a delightful pear and pomegranate tart topped with honeycomb and a side of thinly sliced brie. MSM enjoyed the brie with the tart, explaining that the cheese made the dessert more creamy and smooth on his palate. I preferred my bites without the brie. Don’t get me wrong, I adore brie (I mean its cheese made with Champagne?! Hello!? How could I not love that?!), it was just a bit too rich for my needs at that time.
What the heck to wear to a grandiose restaurant in Venice Beach:
Despite my inability to stand for a long period of time, I felt appropriately dressed. Cocktail attire or a dress would have felt too elaborate. The key to Venice, I think, is finding an outfit that is somehow magnificently stylish but in a sneaky way. Think effortlessly chic. Here’s where knowing Danielle really came in handy.
Overall I liked Salt Air. I enjoyed my time there with MSM. We even found ways to laugh about the initial faux pas on their part regarding the delay with our reservation. I have two grievances: I feel they should have offered us a free glass of wine or dessert to make up for the time delay. Its one thing to have a lag regarding a reservation, but anything over fifteen minutes, I feel, should be made up for in some way. Otherwise, whats the point of making a reservation? Second, though the food was good I’m not so impressed that I feel the need to try anything else on the menu – other than maybe the Monkey Bread dessert (but only because I’ve made that camping and I’m curious to see/taste Salt Air’s rendition). I feel we chose well and ate the best things they had to offer. With that being said, the ambiance was fun and the music was good; I could definitely return for dessert or lunch /brunch for another bowl of that preposterously remarkable soup!