Onda: Dining Review

Onda and inset of Koji marinated sweet potato with lime crema, salsa macha and housemade tortillas - H 2020
Courtesy of Dylan Jeni

Star chefs behind L.A.'s Sqirl and Mexico City's Contramar try to live up to the hype of their new Santa Monica collaboration.

Alta California cuisine, a recent movement of modernized Mexican cooking, so far has been spearheaded by local Chicano chefs like Wes Avila (Guerrilla Tacos) and Carlos Salgado (Tacos Maria). Now a pair of today's most buzzed-about culinary pioneers — Sqirl's Jessica Koslow, who helped popularize the everything-on-toast trend, and Gabriela Camara, of Mexico City power-lunch institution Contramar — are collaborating on a restaurant that expands on the notion of what Alta California can be.

The women, friends for several years, opened Onda ("wave" in Spanish) in October at Santa Monica Proper Hotel. It's perhaps the most anticipated L.A. debut in recent memory, especially since Koslow's 2018 Sqirl follow-up, Tel, imploded before opening. Each chef is known for laid-back yet refined dishes that customers can't seem to resist memorializing on social media.

At Onda, where the service is frictionless and the drinks are fun-loving (from the margarita to a Cuba libre), they've already landed on a handful of deft dinnertime winners, including an "inside out" quesadilla, an assemblage of crispy oyster mushrooms, turkey pastor and burnt herbs. The vibrant smoked pork jowl is a riff on Korean bossam, or pork wraps, with butter lettuce, burnt pickles and habanero hot sauce arrayed around the plate. Scallop aguachile, a type of ceviche, is balanced with thin discs of white yam, proving that these chefs can flex their formalist muscles when a dish calls for it.

Much of the menu, while capably executed, still falls short of the hype, whether it's a riff on fritto misto involving kelp or a black bean-strewn jackfruit sope. Visitors in $300 jeans might not blanch at a $19 arrangement of chips and dips, but its salsa has got to be meaningfully better than that at Baja Fresh.

It would've been wiser not to offer a shrug-worthy crab or trout tostada than to remind diners they're not at Contramar, where the tuna tostada is legendary. And the dining room, designed by the typically maximalist Kelly Wearstler, is austere bordering on sterile.

Proper first tapped Koslow with the hope of installing a Westside outpost of Sqirl. Onda's recently launched breakfast and lunch service is a charming fulfillment of that vision, with south-of-the-border twists. It's there in the cotija in the brown rice bowl, in the excellent chilaquiles, in the masa pancakes topped with blood orange hibiscus marmalade. It's Alta California, and it works.

The Bottom Line: Star chefs, crossed borders, mixed results.

This review is based on multiple visits. Reservations are made under another name. Meals are covered by THR.

This story first appeared in the March 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.