An L.A. institution that started nearly 40 years ago stays relevant with 29-year-old chef Miles Thompson’s bold ideas and balanced flavors.
Sichuan Marshmallow
Credit: Michael’s Santa Monica

Let’s start with the Sichuan peppercorn marshmallow, because, come on, it’s a Sichuan peppercorn marshmallow.

For his octopus dish at Michael’s Santa Monica, executive chef Miles Thompson puts Sichuan peppercorns into a creamy meringue that he tops with seasoned salt. The marshmallow meringue rests atop a chickpea panisse, and the result is a savory, sweet, spicy, earthy bite. Combine this with the octopus and the accompanying black butter mayonnaise featuring lime juice and fish sauce, and you get an umami-rich dish that might remind you of eating in a Chinese banquet hall.

“It hearkens to salt-and-pepper squid like if you were eating in Flushing,” says Thompson, who grew up in Westchester, New York, and spent a lot of time dining around New York City.

Thompson has consumed enough salt-and-pepper squid to understand that a good version of it isn’t just about salt and pepper. It’s about “amping it up with all the other flavors” while creating a harmonious bite.

“I really like Sichuan food,” says Thompson, who’s also served Sichuan dumplings at Michael’s and previously made them at Allumette in Echo Park. “It’s really bombastic flavor-wise, but what’s really nice about it is it’s really balanced. Everything is very thoughtful. It’s not like, just rip it with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns because I can.”

It’s one thing to riff on Sichuan food and other fierce flavors from around the globe at some new restaurant in a scenester neighborhood. But 29-year-old Thompson is doing it at Michael’s Santa Monica, a restaurant that opened in 1979 and has an alumni network of chefs including Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Mark Peel, Roy Yamaguchi, Sang Yoon and Brooke Williamson.

Owner Michael McCarty, who has displayed pieces from his stunning contemporary art collection (including work by David Hockney, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Robert Graham) at Michael’s, still walks around his resplendent patio and checks in on customers after all these years. MIchael’s, which attracts both diners who’ve been visiting for decades and Silicon Beach arrivistes, is a restaurant that has all kinds of grand backstories. It’s a California cuisine pioneer that’s very much a part of LA.’s dining hotness in 2018.

Smash Burger
Credit: Michael’s Santa Monica

“The greatest thing about it is Michael’s started as a restaurant that was pushing the boundaries,” Thompson says. “That’s kind of been the expectation from Michael, to not necessarily rely on the things that people are going to expect.”

So Thompson serves a soul-warming black lentil dish that evokes an Indian curry.

“It’s not necessarily dal makhani, but it’s in that vein, an acidic black lentil dish,” Thompson says.

Thompson spent some time cooking in the Caribbean, where a friend who previously worked at Junoon in New York taught him how to make Indian food.

“Before that, I had only eaten soupy, Americanized Indian food,” Thompson says. “Trying something so angular and spice-driven and so tightly wound in terms of flavor blew my mind.”

The flavor-packed lentil dish at Michael’s is completely vegan, but, as Thompson says, “You don’t miss any of the things that you would miss.”

Thompson also builds layers of flavor into a beautiful sea bass dish. The bass is classically plated and served with spiced carrots and turnips, but it features a “pretty out there” aioli that’s infused with bonito flakes and also has light soy sauce (which includes yuzu), lemon juice, puréed rosemary and black truffle confit.

Michael’s just added a new happy-hour menu, and Thompson is putting a lot of palate-pleasing elements into bar food. So you can sit in the Michael’s lounge (with a $1.79 cocktail if you order by 6 p.m.) from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. and eat an excellent smash burger that’s amped up with a barbecue aioli that includes allspice, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, Japanese mayo, garlic and malt vinegar. There’s also the guerrero, which is based on burritos Thompson has made with leftovers at home. At Michael’s, Thompson stuffs a flour tortilla with braised lamb shoulder, sriracha, hoisin and Japanese mayo. The intensity of the lamb paired with the flavors of the sauces is powerful. This is drinking food that’s habit-forming.

“The lamb came about because it has a lot of its own flavor,” says Thompson, who clearly is a chef who simultaneously thinks about balance and pushing the boundaries. “It won’t get overpowered by all the sauces. It has its own identity.”

That’s a good way to describe Michael’s overall: It has its own identity. Michael’s is an institution that has stayed relevant while watching so many dining trends come and go. It’s a restaurant that isn’t afraid to let a young chef go all-in. (One previous executive chef, John-Carlos Kuramoto, took over the Michael’s kitchen when he was 23.)

The way that Thompson sees it, Michael’s is a place that was a major part of defining what California cuisine is but it’s also a restaurant reflective of the bold flavors and big risks that are driving L.A. food in 2018.

“It’s a restaurant with a huge personality of its own, and that’s fantastic and that’s going to inform everything at the restaurant,” Thompson says. “But it’s also completely influenced by what’s happening in Los Angeles right now, what’s good and trendy and exciting about food. We’re combing the streets for a grander concept of the city.”

This is some needle that Michael’s is threading. It’s living up to its status as an L.A. legend while Thompson adds to the culinary conversation one Sichuan peppercorn marshmallow at a time.

Michael’s Santa Monica, 1147 Third St., Santa Monica, 310-451-0843