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Summer House Santa Monica masters California artifice

The newest restaurant from Lettuce Entertain You is among the empire's most atmospherically successful.

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Sitting in the airy dining room of Summer House Santa Monica—which is in Lincoln Park, not California—on the coldest night in decades, with the ferns hanging from the retractable glass ceiling, the snow scattered on its window panes like wispy twilight clouds, and the wood-burning oven ablaze in the open kitchen, it was almost possible to forget that the moment you walked out the door the elements would try to kill you.

In this way Summer House Santa Monica, which is designed to evoke a southern-California beach house, is among the more atmospherically successful units in the Lettuce Entertain You empire, whose greatest powers lie in the ability to conjure artifice.

The good vibrations strengthen if you sit in the dining room, called the "Vitamin D Room" (for all the solar energy you'll be absorbing in the actual summer, presumably), and tackle the burger, a classic west-coast version dressed with lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island dressing. I'm usually repulsed by this sort of burger, its most popular and revolting form pushed by the In-N-Out Burger chain: a slippery, sloppy mess of patties squirting from between smooshed buns on dressing-slicked lettuce launch pads. But Summer House's burger doesn't invite that sort of disaster. It's restrained with the dressing and toppings, which allows for full appreciation of the thick, flame-kissed patty, spurting with juice.

Among the newer LEYE spots opened by the Melman brood, Summer House is one of the least annoying, a transplanted, off-focus facsimile of Santa Monica's M Street Kitchen, and a place that doesn't seem to have yet attracted the living dead who fill their River North joints.

It's helmed by chef Jeff Mahin, also responsible for the new Stella Barra Pizzeria next door (another LEYE LA transplant that I'll be writing about in the near future), and for Do-Rite Donuts on Randolph Street. Mahin and his doughnut partner, Francis Brennan, haven't duplicated the menu of the Santa Monica template—how could they in this climate? But they have presented a far-ranging selection of vegetable dishes, salads, seafood, steaks, pasta, and sandwiches—the familiar something-to-answer-every-whim approach that doesn't speak much to any sort of Californian pedigree, apart from a few regional dishes like the burger and, say, the "surfer-style" fish tacos. The latter dish is essentially a slab of mahimahi, grilled to an oddly plasticized texture, that you're meant to break up and use to build your own tacos on corn tortillas, along with some guacamole and corn salsa. The weirdest thing about this dish isn't its swollen price ($22.95), but the two large slices of out-of-season watermelon dominating the plate. The illusion of summer in Santa Monica shatters.

I met another weirdly textured fish in a barbecue-glazed skate wing, sweet and appealingly charred but turning to mush in a pool of oversalted dashi broth alongside a tangle of equally saturated soba noodles. It had a denture-friendly quality not unlike that of a grayish, carrot-flecked brick that looked like a serving of prison loaf, but was actually a pretty tasty—almost light and fluffy—bison meat loaf (yet not really tasting much like bison, or even beef).

Odd executions seem to plague many of the larger plates on the menu, and spoil what would otherwise be perfectly enjoyable dishes. The trio of house-made pastas includes delicate ricotta ravioli buried under a mudslide of rich arugula pesto that's brightened considerably by Meyer lemon. A simple grilled skirt steak hasn't a hint of seasoning but it does have an oddly rubbery texture, though the accompanying fries (which join the burger too) are dependably crispy and thoroughly scarfable.

One might have better luck with starters and salads, which are simple, minimally dressed, and feature an abundant variety of greenery. Basic, familiar vegetable dishes like roasted beets with goat cheese sprinkled with Espelette pepper, or nuggets of lightly roasted cauliflower dressed with a jalapeño pesto, would combine well with a ziggurat of sweet, fall-off-the-bone, Chinese-style ribs and a knob of the gooey California burrata for a decent dinner on their own.

To underscore the disparate extremes of the menu there's one item you can't even eat. For a mere $7.95 a white, Summer House-branded beach ball will be brought to you by one of the many well-scrubbed, recently postpubescent servers in sneakers and denim (and chambray or gingham), who appear more than game to bat it around for a bit.

As scattered as the menu is, it's a relief to see an approachable wine list focused on California vintners—largely southern California—in particular some drinkable ones on the lower end of the significant markups, such as a superjuicy Santa Barbara zinfandel blend or an almost cheesy-nosed Santa Barbara pinot gris. Barring those, there's a handful of light, breezy cocktails—a few built on sparkling or fortified wines. Even the bourbon, tequila, and pisco potions won't make your head spin.

If the dessert menu's apple-cranberry crumble or triple fudge cake aren't persuasive, a good finishing option would be to visit the large bakery case that faces the front doors and select one of the enormous cookies, ranging from apple oatmeal to bacon chocolate chip. The chewy gingerbread packs some sobering heat.

Summer House promises to source products locally as much as possible—though with the kind of dishes they're featuring now, that's pretty much impossible in this frozen town. But there's a chance it might be worth it to see what happens when the weather turns and that roof opens up, and watermelon is actually in season.

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