Restaurant Review #173: Punch Grill, Santa Monica - CLOSED

Filet mignon in pinot noir sauce

This review is a little different from my others in that I was invited to try Punch Grill by their PR firm and they paid for my meal. Despite this, you can still count on Foodie Universe to stand by our policy of providing unbiased reviews.

Punch Grill opened in June 2006 with the mission of offering "the finest American cuisine on the Westside." They bill themselves as "trendy meets casual," which for a non-scenester like myself brings on a lot of skepticism. When is trendy ever truly casual in LA? Surprisingly, the restaurant pulls off this promise quite well. While the decor is upscale, neither the staff, the patrons, nor the food are pretentious. Both the restaurant and its food feel very comfortable and aren't overly hip in any way.

Executive Chef Peter Sang's food mostly caters to an audience who takes comfort in the familiarity of foods like steak and mashed potatoes, but it also presents diners with accessible twists on common foods--take the braised short rib ravioli, for example.

Braised short rib ravioli in a fume horseradish cream sauce

The braised short rib ravioli was unlike any other ravioli I've eaten. First of all, I actually knew what kind of meat was on the inside--real, quality meat, not some manufactured meat mush. The horseradish sauce was not a cream sauce like I was expecting, but that would have been too heavy. Instead, the sauce was light and pleasantly tangy while still allowing the meat to shine.

Tuna avocado tartare with a soy ginger dressing and crispy wontons

I know that I missed the beginning of the tuna tartare fad (at least, it seems like a fad), but if Melisse's Josiah Citrin it still serving it, it can't be too passe. I really don't care if my food is fashionable or not though; I just want it to taste good. The tuna was surprisingly good for a restaurant that doesn't specialize in raw fish, and any less-than-perfect bits were unnoticeable with the crunch of the wontons. Again, Chef Sang allowed the ingredients to speak for themselves, but added a delicate drizzle of soy ginger dressing to enhance their flavor.

Lake Superior white fish in a lemon caper sauce with orzo and fresh veggies

The fish didn't actually come in a sauce as the menu suggested and as I would have preferred, but it was perfectly flavored with lemon, salt, and pepper. These condiments are a classic way to season a fish for a good reason, even if they aren't the most innovative. Rather than the fish being a vehicle to sop up sauce, the seasoning allowed the fish to speak for itself. Overall, this dish is a good example of a basic item done well--not every dish needs to be adventurous to be good, and many people prefer to eat what's familiar.

The accompanying carrot puree was a welcome variation on the more traditional side of steamed baby carrots. While carrots are a heavy, dense root, the puree's texture was as light as whipped cream.

I'm really not a steak person, to be honest, but how could I not order the filet mignon when it was free? We ordered it rare, which would have scared me had I not recently eaten nearly raw beef carpaccio. Though I grew up eating burnt steak, I've finally learned that perfect cuts of meat like this one were meant to be eaten while still pulsatingly pink. Any Texan would be proud of Punch Grill's filet mignon (though it might take an ex-pat like myself to prefer a subtle pinot noir sauce over a douse of A-1).

Our waiter was kind enough to let us know about the souffle as we were finishing up our entrees so that it would be ready when we were ready for dessert. Would we be interested? Um, yes! The souffle was very hot, very light, and just a little bit sweet--I wouldn't have changed a thing about it. For those who like their desserts sweeter, a small pot of chocolate accompanies the dish.

There were a couple of foreign words on the dessert menu that I didn't understand and hadn't seen before, which was surprising since the rest of the menu was so easy to read. I was impressed by the length and variety of the list, though.

Lemon cello gelato

If Punch Grill sold their lemon cello gelato by the pint, I would buy it! Limoncello is a very powerful Italian liqueur (if you've ever been to Italy, you know that in tourist areas, bottles of the creamy yellow liquid are as prevalent as postcards). I was curious to test the chef on this dish. Would it taste overwhelmingly like alcohol? Would the gelato really be gelato? Yes, it really was gelato--denser, creamier, and less icy than ice cream. The limoncello flavor whispered to my tongue -- it didn't smack me in the forehead like it's drinkable counterpart.

The key lime tart and a weak cappucino were the only things I tasted all night that I didn't like. It's possible that part of the problem with the tart came from eating it alongside the lemon cello gelato. I expected these two desserts to have compatible flavors since they were both citrus-flavored, but compared to the fresh, homemade flavor of the gelato, the key lime tart seemed heavy handed. I could taste the shortening in the crust (or maybe it was the unnecessary icing on top), and the filling was a few squeezes short of limey.

The dining room

One thing I must say is that I can't speak to what kind of service the average diner will get at Punch Grill on an average night -- I've only observed them on their best behavior. While I was there, both the owner and the manager stopped by not only our table but by other tables as well to introduce themselves. The hostess and our waiter clearly knew that we were special guests, but our waiter was just as friendly to nearby diners as he was to us. When another guest didn't like her soup, her server apologized and quickly whisked the dish back to the kitchen, no questions asked. Clearly, the staff's best behavior is friendly, down-to-earth, and helpful: in short, excellent. Hopefully, this level of service is standard at Punch Grill.

A complete meal including appetizer, entree, glass of wine, and dessert will run you about $50 before tax and tip. Even the most expensive item on the menu, the filet mignon, is reasonably priced at $28. If you're on a budget, you can still enjoy a nice meal here: the entree and water option will run you as little as $11 if you order a sandwich or pasta. You can make reservations online through their website, or go directly to Open Table. They also have a patio, and private rooms are available for events such as business meetings and parties.

Even on a street as busy as Wilshire, Punch Grill is easy to spot. It's directly on the street in a large white building -- you'll notice the old-school maroon awning with the restaurant's name. Valet parking is $3.75, but we easily found free street parking at night since most of the surrounding businesses were closed.

Overall, I'd recommend Punch Grill to diners who enjoy classic American food that tastes the way they're expecting it to taste. It's also perfect for business meetings and groups with diverse tastes: even a gaggle of picky eaters (like my family) will all be able to find something they like here. There are several trendier and more innovative dishes that will satisfy the more adventurous, but most of the dishes are timeless.

Punch Grill
3001 Wilshire Blvd. (cross street - Stanford)
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Open Daily
Lunch 11am - 4pm
Dinner 4pm - close
Punch Grill Website

Punch Grill also hosts a lounge with plenty of large television screens where you can enjoy signature cocktails and appetizers, happy hours Monday through Friday from 4-7, and watch your favorite sporting event.
Punch Grill on Urbanspoon


Chubbypanda said...

Good review. I think you handled the conflict of interest in a very classy manner.

- Chubbypanda

Tokyoastrogirl said...

Oooo! I am going on Dec 1st and now you've gotten me quite excited. The raviloi looks like something I'm going to HAVE To order. THanks!

H. C. said...

That looks like the yum! I have a fondness for limoncello desserts... and souffles - oh decisions, decisions. Nice stuff!

H. C. said...

Thanks for the tip on photoshooting, but my no-flash shots tend to need a lot of photoshopping afterwards and still looks kinda off ~ I'm sure it's a combo of amateur technique & dated equipment though.

Jonah said...

I'm really not a steak person, to be honest, but how could I not order the filet mignon when it was free?

I think this illustrates exactly why you can't claim that a sponsored review is the same as one you pay for out of pocket.

I don't fault you for accepting the free meal (I did so with West a while back, I declined Punch), but I do think that it is an ethical slippery slope.

Foodie Universe said...

I am not claiming that it's the same--if I felt that way, I wouldn't even bother with the disclaimer at the beginning of the article and the notes throughout on how things are different when you're eating for free. I agree that taking free meals can create a conflict of interest--that is why 171 out of 173 of my reviews were paid for by me. However, when you aren't a professional who gets paid to write reviews, advertising and the occasional free meal are the only ways to get compensated for your work.

I also discussed my policies with the PR firm in advance and they agreed to them. If I hadn't liked the restaurant, I would have sooner sent the a restaurant a check for the comped meal than lied to my readers about the experience.