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Michael's: Farm-to-table in Santa Monica

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When I'm asked about my favorite restaurants, and inevitably I am, one of the first places that springs to mind is Michael's. I doubt I'm alone in that regard.

The indoor/outdoor dining space on Santa Monica's Third Street is in many ways what I want a restaurant to be. It feels almost as if I'm visiting someone's home -- the bar is so intimate that even among strangers, you find yourself sharing cocktails as if you were guests at the same dinner party. There's comfortable sofa seating and a limited amount of tables, so it doesn't feel like a push-and-shove nightclub scene.

I enjoy dining on the back yard patio. And I love the garden. The restaurant is now 33 years old and there is certainly a lot of history in this location prior to that, but there is also a very casual vibe in spite of it.

Michael McCarty is a legend in the culinary world, and much ink has been spilled detailing his role in establishing what was once labeled California cuisine, but is lately regarded as regional cuisine. More interesting still, however, are his philanthropic efforts. He is part of a movement to teach gastronomy as an art; to get cooking "Out of the home ec department and into the arts, like theatre or dance." He's also involved in providing scholarships to would-be chefs from low-income neighborhoods who would not otherwise have the educational opportunity.

Michael (forgive the familiar sense, but he's the epitome of casual) was instrumental in bringing the Third Street Farmers' Market to Santa Monica, an idea he brought back with him from Boulder, Colo., where he had seen it work. Today, chefs and food-lovers from all over Southern California show up to the twice-weekly event to purchase fresh, locally grown foods.

I recently joined Michael on a Wednesday morning trip to market. He introduced me to his growers and explained what he liked about their products. What they all shared in common was a belief that plants are seasonal, and when one item isn't flourishing, another may be. One thing that approach has afforded is the ability to try new and more exotic varieties of just about every type of fruit or vegetable under the sun.

Every chef in his kitchen has heard Michael say at one time or another, "Green, crunchy, acidic -- not brown, mushy and sweet." That concept is at the heart of the menu, which varies by season, of course. The spring menu is filled with favorites and fanciful ideas.

Executive Chef John-Carlos Kuramoto (one of Zagat's Top 30 under 30) has put his signature on the spring menu, with dishes like Wild Alaskan Halibut and Windrose Farms Carrot Puree, Roasted Tomatoes, Pea Tendrils, Haricots Verts and Lemon-Caper Vinaigrette, Asparagus Risotto with Zuckerman Farms Jumbo Green Asparagus. I recently tried the Snake River Farms Kurobuta Pork Chop with Goat-Cheese Polenta. It paired perfectly with a Pinot Noir from The Malibu Vineyard (the "The" is important -- similarly named labels exist), Michael's personal winery on Rambla Pacific in Malibu.

One of the things I'm most pleased about, and I hope will catch on around town is the new happy hour special. The restaurant recently adopted a $6 happy hour menu, which is offered Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to close. All happy hour menu items are $6 -- oysters on the half-shell for $3 each.

Of course, there's a downside to Michael's, as well. The valet parking is expensive, and there's not many alternatives unless you're willing to find a spot in a nearby structure and hoof it a few blocks. But now I just sound cheap and lazy.

Anyway, if you don't have any dinner parties scheduled and aren't throwing your own, Michael's may be the next best thing (with better food, of course).