Chef Tom Block of Santa Monica's The Independence Tavern, has applied his personal philosophy on food, flavor and presentation to create a menu that exceeds its beach-casual surroundings. These dishes are as pleasing to the stomach as they are to the eye.
The Snapper Crudo elevated me. The combination of candy striped beets, murcott tangerine, serrano chile and fresh lime was all at once breathtaking and scream worthy. The tangy, spicy, sweet juices swam together as one remarkable flavor, guiding the clean meat to my palate while my eyes absorbed pinks, reds, oranges and greens.
The following dishes only continued to impress. The Smoked Whitefish Toast with pickled shallots, apple and fried capers. The Kale Chopped Salad with iceberg, smoked egg, baby carrots, green beans, feta, candied walnuts and lemon mustard vinaigrette. The Rack of Lamb with Thai red curry rub, smoked eggplant puree and coconut. As a persistent diner, this is the experience I am seeking -- a kitchen lacking in fear.
Block grew up in Connecticut and came west to study at Pitzer College, but, after graduation, found himself wanting to experience the kitchens of Manhattan — which he did for a decade. Oh, he also squeezed in a year and half long stint in Hong Kong.
“My first experience in a professional kitchen was at Lutéce and it was mind blowing to me. I had never seen anything like it before and I was just pulling herbs.” From Lutéce, Block went on to several notable kitchens including the 21 Club, Zoe, Aquavit, Falai and of course there was BLT Steak in Hong Kong.
When you taste Block’s food, you taste his experiences from the various kitchens he played in. Mainly, his exposure to techniques at Zoe, Aquavit and Falai helped him to develop his desire for food to taste interesting and be visually enticing. At Zoe, he worked with Tim Kelly, who had brought West Coast color and seasonal-ingredient appreciation to Soho and with whom Block also traveled with through Southeast Asia.
At Aquavit, on its way to becoming a two-star Michelin restaurant, he dabbled in molecular gastronomy.
With Iacopo Falai, he learned the delicate and sometimes tricky art of modern Italian cuisine. “We were doing kind of molecular gastronomy stuff but still seasonal, still very ingredient driven, but a very modern style of Italian food that was hard to get people to like — people are not used to seeing a plated pasta with ten different components.” Now he’s in LA turning his lessons into edible proof. He knew he would end up here eventually.
Independence's menu consists of American classics and a few internationally inspired items as well. There is an Angus Burger, but also Butternut Squash Arancini. Inspiration, begins with shopping. “It starts with one thing, either a product or ingredient that’s either from the Farmer’s Market or from Japan. Local’s great, but I’m also looking to really get the best product. Sometimes it starts with the idea to do something, but I’d say 90% of the time it comes from a product or going to the market and seeing stuff and then there’s my interpretation of it.”
All of the details are important to Block. The sun gold cherry tomatoes from Long Farmsor the fish he had flown in from Japan. It’s all part of his plan to surprise diners. “I’d rather have people be impressed with the way something looks or just the way it tastes, how delicious it is. I try to surprise people.” He recently served peas, uni, and burrata with cous cous and a stinging nettle gnudi with bacon and asparagus. “That’s the kind of thing I like to do. Instead of spinach we’re gonna use this local wild product.” It’s hard to get more wild than stinging nettle.
His ingredients are imaginative, but, also his plating is wonderful. His use of flavor and design go hand in hand. Nothing incredibly technical or highly stylized, but recognizable as his own. There is color. You could say it's his compass. “You eat with your eyes, you know what I mean? Color is very important to me —the way to cook vegetables right, they should have color. If it’s dark and it’s not vibrant that means it’s cooked wrong.” He emphasizes with certainty in his voice. This chef is painting with multiple taste sensations too. “I think all of those things, color, acidity, spice, kind of play off each other. I know everyone talks about minimalism, but I’m kind of a maximalist.”
When asked about his future ten years from now, he sees himself staying put. ” I love neighborhood restaurants and I like working in them. I would like to have several neighborhood restaurants. And I’d like this place to be an institution.” His business partners, most likely, would agree. A chef’s career depends on how hard he or she is willing to work and how clever they can be with flavor interpretation, reinvention and presentation. Chef Block seems pretty smart to me.
The Independence Tavern
Santa Monica, CA 90401