Cinch Restaurant, Santa Monica – Trying Too Hard

Cinch Restaurant
1519 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90403

** 86’d: Cinch has closed and is now The Parlor, a sports bar. **

My first time at Cinch was a miserable, frosty experience. The hostess was cold, our server was snobby and as slow as ice melting in the arctic. Even the temperature of the restaurant itself was cold and though I put on a sweater, I was hunched over and rubbing my hands together in my lap to keep warm. I don’t remember the food at all other than that it was very very expensive for *eh*. But like I always say, I won’t completely remove a restaurant from my cache until I give it at least a second chance. Unless of course, it’s just so bad that it shuts down. So then I guess I couldn’t give it a second chance.

So when Cinch was a recent venue of choice for dinner with friends, I hesitated for two seconds, but then thought, well, it’s been almost a year, so perhaps the staff has mellowed out, stepped it up in pace, maybe the food has improved, and the thermostat had been re-set.

Cinch is two stories. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you might miss it because it is sign-less (very trendy). The restaurant’s dining room and main bar on the first floor, and then off to the side, there’s a small doorway that leads up a staircase to the second floor lounge and bar. It’s closed until 10 pm, after which, and large dark-suited, ear-pieced man checks ID. At first it was a clipboard list type of affair at the doorway to the lounge, but now they must have wised up to Westsiders’ impatience with such nonsense. It was closed off for a private party this time.

We waited in the bar with a few friends for the rest of our party to show up. It was still early in the evening, so other than a couple nursing martinis on one of the low lounge chairs in the corner, we were the only ones there. The bartenders were friendly, but drinks, for the Westside, weren’t cheap. They didn’t knock me over, but at least they were strong enough that I didn’t feel completely cheated putting $18 on my credit card for two cocktails. And that doesn’t include the three dollar bills I left for a tip. *oomph*

Cinch’s interior is sort of a modern, earthy Asian theme. Not usual for a restaurant, the floor is carpeted, which might prevent some echoing, but still the restaurant is loud. The main dining room, with white stone walls, is broken into two open spaces by a running water sculpture that throws flickering reflections on the ceiling right overhead. There’s no general lighting overhead, but accent lighting and lots of tiny votive candles create enough light to see fellow diners and some of the artistic flourishes in the space. Normally, a ceiling is just a ceiling, but Cinch’s is 3D sculpted with large, lit holes and protruding circles. There’s a small room toward the front with all sculpted wood walls. It’s private, but not really, since it’s open to the main room. Cinch is a fairly big, fairly beautiful space.

There were a few couples dining, but it seemed like an unusual proportion of the clientele were large parties like ours. The small dining room up front was overflowing with an odd mix of people that didn’t all seem to know each other. We couldn’t figure out if it was an engagement party, since they had set up their own enormous white floral centerpieces or perhaps a graduation or birthday party, since there was also a small table of gifts. Aren’t we a little nosy?! LOL!

Our table was set up in the center of the main dining room, but in a very awkward format. Cinch had put two round tables on either end of a long rectangular table, so that there were four junctions where people were sitting quite uncomfortably with table legs between their legs. It’s understandable that a restaurant does what it can to accommodate larger parties, but they also gave us hard, plastic patio chairs, instead of the regular dining chairs. I felt like I was at a church picnic.

As soon as we sat down, I asked for bread to tide us over while we looked over the heavily Asian-influenced menu, which includes an entire section of sushi. The server was doing the best he could, but he was still quite slow. The bread came to the table only a few minutes before our food. I don’t blame him, though. I fault Cinch for poor staff scheduling. They should have had at least two more servers in the dining room.

rubbery mozzarella eggroll

The kitchen sent us each an amuse bouche – a tiny stick of mozzarella wrapped like an eggroll and deep fried. Perhaps it was meant to be served that way, or maybe they were sitting at the pick up station too long before they were brought to the table because the mozzarella was rubbery, not melted, and the greasy eggroll wrapper was evidence of a somewhat bad fry-job. An amuse is always a thoughtful touch, but I’m glad we didn’t order and pay for something that tastes much better at TGi Friday’s.

where’s the (kobe) beef?

hamachi carpaccio

We ordered appetizers. A few salads aren’t even worth mentioning. The carpaccio was supposedly a Kobe beef, but it didn’t taste like anything special, especially since there were too many other things thrown on top – mushrooms, peppers, greens, spices – that masked the flavor of the beef. Pepper-crusted hamachi carpaccio had potential from the description on the menu, but it too was nothing special. Again, too many other things on the plate that drowned even the relatively strong hamachi.

ahi tuna tartar

too gooey crab softball

The ahi tuna tartar was an overwhelming mess. Cucumbers in a haphazard “design” on the plate, a pile of tuna, a mess of green things, and a few won ton crisps that suffered from a too-low frying temperature like the amuse, tossed onto the plate as an afterthought. The fairly sizable crabcake was presented simply with tiny piles of mache on either side. But it tasted sort of like gooey, gluey crab salad from the deli case dressed up in panko crumbs.

suspicious smear on lamb’s plate

There was a rack of lamb at one end of the table. No lamb for me, but it was plated with a suspicious dark smear across the plate that made it look like it had been used as – I just can’t be nice about this – as toilet paper. Quite unappetizing. According to Dave and Jimmy, New York Strip steak was unfortunate. Was the kitchen trying to hide something? A heavy sauce covered a thin, scrawny piece of meat and spilled all over plate. The meat must not have properly rested because its juices were gathering in a messy little puddle in the corner of the plate before it was even cut open. Perhaps calling french fries something as fancy as soufflé frites makes it okay to put only four or five on the plate. Unfortunate, indeed.

don’t drown your food!

seabass with *hmm* miso glaze

Jess enjoyed her miso-glazed seabass, though as commonplace as miso glazed anything is these days, it’d be tough to ruin something that’s a pretty much just a formula. The fish was atop some sort of vegetable that was cooked in such a way that she couldn’t identify it. Eggplant should taste like eggplant. Lots of flavors in the dish, but lots of things, almost too much, going on atop the plate. Jay’s salmon was the opposite. Simply plated, but so simple in flavor that is was bland. The sauce that was meant to sit on top of the fish had fallen overboard. Too hasty of a walk from the kitchen to the table. This was one plate that definitely needed all the sauce it could get because the salmon was dreadfully dry.

salmon – sauce overboard!

jidori chicken – spill, not ooze, of brie

Figi had the Jidori chicken (I now know that Jidori is a Japanese term that refers to free-range chickens) that was stuffed with Brie and served with orzo. On cutting, the Brie was overly hot, and completely spilled out of the chicken, drowning everything else on the plate. The chicken was difficult to cut and eat, though it was tender. Whatever lobster flavor the orzo did have was lost to the cheese.

I’m not on a diet, nor am I vegetarian, but I absolutely love tofu. The Tofu Tasting was such a regretful disappointment. Two little seared blocks of tofu devoid of any taste were served with a miserable little mushroom eggroll, and a tofu cream on the plate. Certainly, tofu by itself is bland, but when prepared well (as tofu, and not as a disguise for meat though!), it can be amazing. I couldn’t believe I was paying $20 for something so small and so flavorless. At least it was true to its name – a taste of tofu.

truly, just a taste of tofu

pathetically plain pasta

Jenn ordered the pasta, which of course, we don’t usually expect a simple angel hair, tomato and basil to be amazing. But it was pretty damn far from amazing. The dish was barely warm, the pasta a little bit too al dente than pasta should be, the tomatoes and basil were fresh, but it didn’t taste like there was anything else on the pasta except olive oil. Not even salt. She plucked out the tomatoes, but left almost all the noodles i the dish. It’s okay to be somewhat mild when pasta is an accompaniment to a main dish. It’s even okay for pasta to be *eh” if you’re at Olive Garden and it’s only $7.95 for all you can eat. This sorry excuse for pasta was not okay in any way.

We didn’t order dessert. Thank god.

Cinch is about trying a tiny bit too hard. This is comfortable, casual laid-back Westside, so thank goodness that most of the staff has let go of trying to make it feel like too-good-for-you Hollywood, but there’s still a little bit of it there. For such a gorgeous space, and particularly for the prices, the food was ridiculously just okay at its best, and pretty much just ridiculous at its worst. It seems like the kitchen is trying too hard to make the food fancy, but it ends up just looking like a big mess on the plate. They need to try a little harder to make it taste good first. Now I could understand why there were so many more large parties than regular diners – the restaurant itself is gorgeous, spacious enough to accommodate large groups. And having a great time with your friends can sort of make up for the food. Sort of.

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