Coastal cuisine | The weekly Argonaut
Sugar Palm invites its guests on a culinary journey
By Bridgette M. Redman
When it comes to cooking and creating great food, Chef Jason Francisco cares about the journey as much as the final destination.
Part of this philosophy grew out of a desire to escape the focus of his early career and into something more creative and rewarding.
“I started as an accountant,” Francisco said. “I was very driven by the numbers. In accounting, we are trained to look at the bottom line, the final destination or the end result as opposed to the journey. As a chef, you look at the journey, how the dishes evolve, how you can layer the flavors and build on that.
Francisco is the executive chef of Sugar Palm at Viceroy Santa Monica. You can eat indoors, outdoors or at the wraparound bar. The dining establishment opened in late October 2021 after a $21 million renovation of the property. It offers innovative coastal California cuisine and market-fresh craft cocktails.
Francisco brings his experience with a wide range of cuisines to the restaurant. He is a native Hawaiian whose father was in the military.
“We traveled a lot – in Italy, in France,” Francisco said. “He was in the Marine Corps, so we were always near the water. I used the marketplaces a lot.
He said that in that sense, Santa Monica has a vibe similar to many Italian and French coastal towns. Another way the Los Angeles area is similar to Europe is that when you travel between cities, each neighborhood has its own special atmosphere, its own unique personality, just like traveling between European countries provides access to very different cultures. different.
“The food scene in California has grown everything within 250 to 300 miles,” Francisco said. “There is a lot of culinary culture here. Everyone brings their dishes here, their cuisine here.
He gave an example of how he mixes cultures in a very LA style.
“My mushroom risotto is an Italian dish,” Francisco said. “But I took the dish out of Italy and dipped it into Thai cuisine to make it more like a Thai curry. Our fish stock has a lot of Japanese influence.
He blends flavors and traditions in a way he says reflects the metropolitan nature of Los Angeles, capturing the real cuisine of the city.
“When you look at people in Los Angeles, you can’t tell where they’re from, which is beautiful,” Francisco said. “You can only know when they share their culture with you. I try to do the same through food.
In addition to home-style international cuisine, Francisco said Sugar Palm derives its atmosphere from its location and decor. Located on the beach with outdoor fireplaces and a striking mural by local artist Evelyn Leigh, you can dine under the palm trees on the terrace.
“Sugar Palm has a beach vibe, a pool vibe,” Francisco said. “It’s amazing weather here and the outdoor seating is great — it’s also safer.
It is a restaurant that invites you to both relax and unwind while experiencing elegance and fine cuisine. Since the restaurant sits by a swimming pool, Francisco said he could support the dual concept of casual and fine dining.
“I want people here to get the kind of food you get when you wear a suit and dress up, but being at the beach, I don’t want you to have to dress up,” Francisco said. “You can wear flip flops and shorts and still experience sophisticated cuisine – a beautiful meal that looks great and makes you want to live. You can eat and then go to the beach. You can have a romantic experience in its most sophisticated form. With the ocean breeze, it’s a lovely feeling.
Seven cabins are available for meals, including one that can accommodate up to eight people.
Francisco said each visit to Sugar Palm can provide a unique experience because they change menus so often. Even over the course of a season, Francisco said he might change the menu two or three times depending on what grows and is available.
To always have the freshest ingredients, Francisco and his team focus on local produce and use suppliers such as Niman Ranch in Northern California for meat, Fish King in Glendale and Scarborough Farms in Oxnard.
Regional Food and Beverage Manager Mario Leal-Cruz Jr. curated a collection of craft cocktails featuring homemade syrups and juices. He calls on his Mexican heritage by using regional spirits and indigenous ingredients like agave, mezcal and ancho reyes. He even created a drink – the SaMo Sunset – which is infused with the colors of a Santa Monica sunset.
“Sugar Palm is going to be a very unique experience,” Francisco said. “I know everyone says that, but it’s not just about food – it can never be just about food. Food is only two-dimensional. You see it on the plate and taste it. But the ambiance — eating outside on the terrace, the sun beating down on your skin — is the added element. It introduces a feeling of being alive. There’s a moment when you walk into the restaurant and sit down – the first thing I notice people do is look up. You don’t see traffic and roads. All you see are palm trees all around. It’s almost like an oasis.
Francisco compared dining at the Sugar Palm to a lifestyle experience. He praises Los Angeles restaurants and says he loves eating out and trying new dishes, but you rarely get the atmosphere of the shacks and palm trees of Sugar Palm.
“It was very well designed,” Francisco said. “It’s fenced all around, but not too high, you can’t see the horizon. The walls block you from traffic, so you can’t hear the traffic, but you know you’re in a city. It’s this luxury design that gives you a feeling you can’t find anywhere else. You get that feeling of being in a tropical oasis and then you can snap back to reality in a heartbeat.
He commends management for giving him carte blanche to explore food and remain open to new culinary experiences that he can share with customers.
“When I came here, I knew I wanted to do cultural cuisine, but I had no idea the food would evolve into what it is today,” Francisco said. “The restaurant has gone from a toddler to the walking and running stage and now I feel like a teenager ready to explore the world.”
He said the restaurant had taken on a life of its own and his role was that of a bus driver. He has a map he follows, but he remains open to new routes.
“Tomorrow is going to be something big, I don’t know what it is yet,” Francisco said. “Some people live like it’s their last day on earth. I do the opposite. I live like it’s my first day on Earth because there’s so much more to explore. My favorite food changes every day. I like to keep this attitude because it means I’m open to new dishes and new experiences.
Part of this openness is letting everyone around you influence the food. Francisco asks all staff members to taste the food and give feedback. He keeps adjusting the recipe until it makes everyone smile. Only then does he taste it and record the recipe. He wants to make sure the food he creates makes people happy.
This is also why he describes his job as a journey: he wants to learn every day and pay attention to the evolution of the dishes, all the flavors overlap. Their kitchen, says Francisco, is a teaching kitchen where everyone learns.
“I borrow dishes from cooks’ and sous chefs’ moms and grandmothers,” Francisco said. “I talk to them and interview them a lot. They have lots of feedback and it makes them feel invested in the food. Whenever there is that positive feeling when they cook, cooking with a smile is important.
Where: 1819 Ocean Avenue, santa monica
Hours: Brunch from 6:30 a.m. to
2:30 p.m.; dinner from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.