31 Flavors of Yum: An Homage to the People Who Pig Out With Me
Bistro 31 at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California – Los Angeles
2900 31st Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Bike Access: decent (take Pearl, not Ocean Park, if you can help it)
Bike Parking: bike racks towards the back side of the building
My oink partner C and I have been friends since 7th grade. Much to our parents’ disappointment, we haven’t changed much at our core: we are not doctors (nor have we married any), we are too into boys for their taste (although we are much more discriminating now, if I do say so myself), neither of us has grown more than 2 inches, and we spend a little too much time either eating or thinking about it (for 2 Asian girls, this is a very unbecoming trait). All, and I mean ALL, of our rendezvous center around food: lunch, second lunch, happy hour, dinner, late happy hour, fro-yo runs or (my favorite) the post-clubbing oink fest (really the only reason I’d stay up past midnight). We took a glorious Hawaiian vacation about 5 years ago, but really my only memory of it is us making our poor host chauffeur us to various shave (not “shaved”) ice shacks and shrimp trucks. For 2 years in a row, we built the largest strawberry shortcake towers at the Build-Your-Own-Strawberry-Shortcake Booth at the Oxnard Strawberry Festival (ok, fine, we crowned ourselves but, seriously, passers-by were AMAZED). More recently (like last month), we decided we would schedule Monday evening runs around the park, after which we could chow down guiltlessly. The “run” turned into a chatty half-hour walk, followed by a 2-hour dinner of sushi and udon. The “run” part also never happened again.
I’m rambling, as usual. The point is, we are pigs. In the last year or so, C started working about 20 blocks from my apartment. Which makes for very convenient oinking. We’ve tried out food trucks, mom-and-pop cafes, green grocers, sandwich shops, blah blah blah, but our hands-down fave is Bistro 31, the student-operated restaurant at the Art Institute LA. The annoying thing about this place is that it is only open Tuesdays through Thursdays for lunch when school is in session, the AWESOME thing is that the food tends toward the fancy but the prices are nice and low because little wannabe-chefs run the kitchen (OK, I kid. There is nothing wannabe about this place).
Yes, it’s a little weird to walk though a school to get to your table and I understand that the idea of students making your lunch may make some nervous, but Bistro31 is as professional as any of your typical lunch spots. The host (the director of the program, I believe) is a gentleman with a French accent (always a good sign), and there is never a wait for a table in the airy dining room. In fact, my impression is that extra effort is put into all aspects of running this little business because the students want to overcome that prejudice as well as make something of themselves.
Meals always start with bread and an amuse bouche, which had been a savory mushroom mini-tart on all of my visits. Items on the seasonal menu range from $5-12, which is insane when one considers the quality of the ingredients and the preparation. Though salads tended to be disappointing, the entrees more than made up for them. Grilled salmon and short ribs over root vegetables were fresh, flavorful, and a delightful luxury in the middle of a work day. The burgers were gi-normous, juicy, and at $7 a pop the biggest bargain this side of the 405 (for serious, their Shanghai burger lasted me 3 meals). The techniques and presentation are classic and not terribly creative, so you never do forget that these plates are the end result of students practicing their chops. But once you stick a forkful in your mouth, you also really don’t care.
DO NOT under any circumstance skip dessert. For $4, these creations astound. After tasting the chocolate lava cake and the flourless chocolate terrine with coffee ice cream, C made Facebook announcements about them and I simply changed my profile pic to an image of said terrine.
C and I have known each other for close to 2 decades and through quite a few emotional roller coasters. She is engaged now and will be married in the not-too-distant future. I think she and her fiance make a great couple and I love them both, but, whenever “adult” things (like an engagement) happen to one of us, I feel odd and disoriented. I don’t know about C, but I think it’s because at least half of me has never stopped being an awkward 7th grader who made up really dumb nicknames for her crushes but would never actually speak to them. I know being married might take C very far away from me, and it makes me just a teensy bit teary. But, whatever, we have at least a few months until then and we are gonna eat the whole world. Just watch out, C is about to put on some pounds!
TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: Would I like Bistro31 as much if it weren’t so surprisingly affordable? Probably not. But I won’t fight reality, and the way it is right now makes it a pure, little-known gem of a lunch break. NOTE: parking for patrons of the bistro in the Art Institute lot is validated for 2 hours.