Many big name restaurants are now opening smaller, more casual places for those who want to sample smaller plates in a more relaxed atmosphere. Josie La Balch opened the Next Door last year, and it has become one of my regular Santa Monica stops for both lunch and Happy Hour. It’s nice having a neighborhood spot which combines local produce and international culinary skills to make food that delights the eyes and the palate.

The jewel tomato and opal basil bruschetta is one of the simplest choices on the menu, but the artful presentation and the balanced ratio of fresh burrata to ripe tomatoes, drizzled with quality olive oil perfumed with opal basil, elevates this appetizer to a work of art.

The creamy cauliflower and spring onion soup is actually made with cream and will make someone who says they don’t like cauliflower ask for more, please.

The chicken breast “Caesar” with romaine, radishes, and asiago was an interesting variation. Tarragon leaves and watercress sprigs added a floral bouquet which I found refreshing, but I found that the dressing was not strong enough to dress up the plainly roasted chicken breast and romaine. With the Asiago and the fresh herbs, I’m sure the idea was to have a more subtle dressing, but this dish didn’t work well enough for me to order it again.

However, I would reorder the Steak Frites any day I wanted this classic French meal. At only $19, this was such a wonderful piece of hanger steak that I could have cut it with a butter knife. It came exactly as rare as I ordered it (cold in the middle), although the plate was so hot it partially cooked the bottom slices! The truffle fries were perfectly crisp, salted, and delightful.

The lunch menu has a sloppy roast pork, fried rapini, aged provolone, garlic mayo for $14 that may be a too rich for some people, but if you love roast pork, the added crunch of the fried rapini and the creamy melted provolone, make this a very hearty sandwich. The freshly fried chips were dusted with spice and were addictive……

The chocolate torte was lighter than it looked and beautifully made with freshly whipped cream and a dark chocolate sauce. If you are a chocoholic, this is the way to end a meal without going into a sugar coma!

Wines by the taste, glass, or bottle are available from vineyards in California to Europe, so you can literally have a taste of wine with each course. There is a full bar and happy hour specials on drinks and appetizers from 4-7pm and street parking is plentiful, so if you are in the neighborhood trying to get to or from the 405 freeway, sit Next Door and relax while everyone else sits in their car.

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