Where the Hearth Is

Young guns take on rustic French at Cadet in Santa Monica

There's no place we'd rather be once the weather starts cooling off than in front of a roaring fire.

Lucky for us, we've found the hearth of our dreams at Cadet. The week-old Santa Monica restaurant centers around its wood-fired grill: An impressive open flame outfits the kitchen, overlooking the dining room through glass windows.

Cadet feels a little bit like a (grown-up) friend's home: exposed brick walls, weathered posts, chevron-planked floors, tasteful mid-century touches and, of course, that burning fireplace.

The bar at Cadet

Settle onto one of six circular banquettes (preferably fireside), then tuck into a tartine or two ($6 to $13): Variations include avocado and smoked olive and uni, shrimp butter and bottarga (though ours were missing the pungent fish roe shavings). Rabbit boulettes ($16)—tender, mildly seasoned meatballs and miniature biscuits soaked in buttery maple cream—nod to chef Kris Tominaga's Southern chops (Tominaga formerly of The Hart and the Hunter).

But the overall theme: playful. The young chef crisps potato and cheese pommes aligot ($10) into a crusty top. Garlic and herbed escargots are chopped and sprinkled atop bavette steak. The menu—presented as oversize playing cards tucked into leather sleeves—is something you'd expect in Silver Lake or Downtown, a far fling from the Santa Monica/Brentwood border.

Rib eye, smothered in Époisses

Presentations from the grill, too, just wanna have fun: Pig is served three ways ($30): grilled collar, toro and milk-braised loin. Rib eye ($36) is topped with—because why not—Époisses: a gooey, velvety bite of everything you'd want in a last meal.

But what we loved most was what the restaurant calls "table fare": They're banchan-like sides and condiments served with main course entrées for choose-your-own adventure dining. Butter lettuce leaves are perfect ssäm wrappers. Spongy, injera-like sourdough griddlecakes can be rolled into DIY burritos. It's cheffy food that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Cocktails, too, mix it up. The usual drinks such as a Negroni ($12) and an Old Fashioned ($12) are served straight-up classic, French and Cadet. Local IPAs on tap are poured alongside Brut Grand Cru and top-shelf Scotch and mezcal. Even desserts hit each category: The three options ($8) cover fruit (apple crumble), creamy (lemon and blueberry tart with almond cream) and chocolate (mousse).

There's something for everyone and that's the point: Cadet aims to please.