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At Santa Monica’s Dialogue, Seasonality Meets Surrealism

Dave Beran’s thrilling SoCal tasting menu feels at once like both dinner and an art installation

Choy sum filled with strawberry nam prik pao at Dialogue in LA
Choy sum filled with strawberry nam prik pao
Bill Addison

At Dialogue, a hidden rebel base of a modernist restaurant in Santa Monica, Dave Beran is serving a tasting menu that currently cycles through three themes: a glance back at summer, a celebration of fall, and a look ahead to winter. Conveying a sense of time and place certainly comes into play, but don’t expect a by-the-book sketch of California on the cusp of the year’s final solstice. This is a chef who cooks to the seasons of his own mind.

Take the evening’s fourth course. It’s a small dessert centered on chamomile that concludes the brief summertime motif. It arrives after a spoonful of caviar served in a tapered glass with strawberry foam and hazelnut crème fraiche; a sculptural meditation on choy sum, which is filled with Thai chile paste mixed with burnt strawberry puree; and lobster salad covered over with nasturtium leaves.

The dessert comprises maybe four forkfuls, but the elements are as intricate as a quantum circuit: crumbled shortbread scented with chamomile and lemon, powdered lemon curd and powdered chamomile tea, a slick of whipped honey, and shards of glossy honeycomb candy. Savory grace notes pop up in the mix: olive oil, transformed into custard and jam, and a scattering of feathery fennel fronds.

“Flavors of chamomile”
Mushroom consomme

Together it all looks like a cross between a deconstructed trifle and a pebbly arid landscape. Does chamomile even evoke summertime? It does for Beran, whose mother drank cup after cup of herbal tea during the warm months of his childhood in upstate New York. If I instead was expecting something like a deconstructed peach crisp to transport me back to August, I didn’t dwell on it. A crystal glass of foamy mushroom broth had already arrived, signaling the move to fall flavors. Soon enough I stopped trying to puzzle things through and surrendered to the meal’s surprises and rhythms.

For ten years Beran was a star player in Chicago’s modernist Alinea Group. When it comes to highbrow tasting menus, he knows how to bridge the intersections of intellectualism, cultural allusions, and abject happiness like few others. Dialogue is a brilliant solo debut. Beran earns the trust of diners who follow him into his cerebral labyrinth.

Entering the maze requires a passcode. (It’s emailed to you on the day of your meal, after you’ve made reservations by purchasing tickets for $180 per person.) Dialogue operates in an 18-seat space behind locked doors in an isolated corner of a touristy Santa Monica mall called the Third Street Promenade. Take the escalators next to Sloan’s Ice Cream, right there by the portrait of the Mona Lisa holding a six-tier cone, and look for the door to Suite K marked “private.” It is a location, no question — the high-low extreme borders on satire. Beran secured it via friends after an initial LA-area lease fell through. In its favor, the surroundings amplify the stranger-in-a-strange-land quality to the experience.

The tasting counter

Beran cooked at two lauded Chicago restaurants, MK and Tru, before joining Grant Achatz’s kitchen team at Alinea in 2006. He worked his way up to the title of chef de cuisine, and in 2011 Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas installed him as the opening executive chef of Next, the ticketed restaurant that changes themes entirely every four months.

With Achatz and Kokonas, Beran imagined, researched, and developed recipes for dramatized, ticketed tasting menus that traipsed through history and place — "Paris: 1906,” “Chinese: Modern,” “Trio [a defunct Illinois restaurant], January 20, 2004” — as well as conceptual motifs like “The Hunt” and “Terroir” and “Chicago Steakhouse.” The trick, always, was to create meals with a sense of momentum while also avoiding affectation and gimmickry — to never sacrifice pleasure in service of grandiose ideas.

He spent a decade with a restaurant group that puts forth dining as theater, and it molded him into a master storyteller. After years of interpreting or collaborating on others’ stories, Beran finally gets to be his own author — and in a food town that is currently the most creatively receptive in America.

But let me pivot from Dialogue for a moment to address the spaceship in the room. No recent restaurant opening — in Los Angeles or around the country — was more debated and dissected than Vespertine, Jordan Kahn’s Culver City phantasmagoria. Kahn wanted to disrupt notions of fine dining; he wanted to create something otherworldly. I’ve had one long meal there: I was riveted at times, and baffled and irked at others, which is an arc that likely fulfills Kahn’s intentions.

Oil painting for uni
Ball of French onion soup

The frenzy around Vespertine eclipsed the arrival of Dialogue, which is the restaurant I’d much more readily recommend. As in opera or art or theater, enjoyment at this altitude becomes a matter of preference. To couch it in cinematic terms, Vespertine puts me in the mind of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist The Exterminating Angel. I gravitate toward Beran’s menu. It certainly doesn’t shy away from surrealism, but its setup is as satisfying as Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown — a paradigm of the three-act form.

The current menu, in place until mid-January, coalesces around notions of color. End-of-summer dishes pop with bursts of red, and then the ingredients descend into muted tones — earth tones with occasional vivid flare-ups to suggest autumn leaves. Beran allows herb oils to slightly oxidize so the green hues dim from springtime-bright. Winter courses are all desserts, and the scenery is Winterfell stark: white, gray, black, and the subdued browns of a hibernating land. Chocolate, coconut, and menthol feature in the finale. They arrive on a frozen plate, the textures resembling a smashed cookie but also a patch of snowy ground. Servers bring a glass of sparkling water alongside; sip it and your breath gets frosty.

If at times this sounds more like an art installation than dinner, Beran knows enough to provide some comforting touchstones. One course, gone in an instant, is blowtorched sphere that in one gushing bite emulates a perfect spoonful of French onion soup. Another, called “an oil painting for uni,” is a hypnotic blur of uni, short rib, and three purees: one made of umeboshi (pickled plum-like fruits); a second of pumpkin seed, burnt lettuce, and nori seaweed; and a third of white bean. I blinked at the precise swirl of colors, and then a staffer pointed to the wall. The dish, down to the silver-gray ceramic plate, echoed an abstract canvas hanging on the wall by Los Angeles painter and graffiti artist David Choe. Beyond its intricacy, the dish’s flavors were as soft and soothing as beef stew.

Speaking of pure gratification, beverage director Jordan Sipperley pours one of the most utterly lovable wine pairings I can remember having alongside a tasting menu. He leans Old World and has an unerring palate for flavors that resonate with Beran’s mosaic food. Which isn’t surprising: The two worked together at Next.

Persimmon and maple

Eight seats line the counter in front of the open kitchen where Beran and his chefs cook; tables comprise the remaining ten seats. Reserving a table certainly affords a shred of privacy in a near-windowless space only slightly larger than a standard conference room. Perching at the counter is snug, but it usually includes some bonus interaction with Beran, who tosses out asides about ingredient repetition themes in dishes, or how combining the fermented tomato powder with the béarnaise in the lobster salad creates sauce choron, a Hollandaise derivation. Total geekery.

Of course, this kind of interaction is the literal reading of the restaurant’s name. The compactness of the place practically forces conversation. But the name is more accurately about Beran’s relationship to the world, and what makes him a singular talent to seek out while he’s performing in such an intimate arena. He’s in dialogue with the arts, with history, with global cuisines and cultures and popular trends — with everything, really.

Dialogue: 1315 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, CA 90401; dialoguerestaurant.com. (No phone number.) Ticketed reservations: $180 per person. Two options for beverage pairings, at $125 per person and $175 per person.

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