The West Side continues its parade of noteworthy new openings with Isla, the sophomore effort from Santa Monica’s beloved Crudo e Nudo team. Executive chef Brian Bornemann and creative director Leena Culhane are expanding with a new venture, Isla, just up the road on Main Street. While their first spot gained a loyal following for its creative treatment of raw fish and selection of natural wines, Isla is dedicated to a broader range of live-fire cooking. And while there is, of course, locally sourced seafood on the menu, expect plenty more, too.
Expanding their footprint had other benefits, too: “The thing that’s really exciting for us is being able to pull people over from Crudo who’ve demonstrated a lot of talent and growth,” Culhane adds. “We’re continuing to reverse engineer our businesses, from what we serve to how we serve it, and who we want to run it.”
Here’s everything you need to know before dining at Isla.
1. The name has a double meaning.
The name “Isla” is meant to evoke the coastal cuisine that Bornemann and his chef de cuisine Houston Stock are cooking at the restaurant. But it’s also a reference to 16th-century Spanish conquistadors who came up through Baja California and mistakenly believed California to be one giant island. “We’re not using anything that’s not from the two Californias, plus working with more robust Spanish flavors like smoked paprika, quince, and membrillo,” Bornemann says.
2. Isla’s location has a special meaning for the owners.
Before they opened a brick-and-mortar Crudo e Nudo in 2021, Bornemann and Culhane had their final pop-up iteration of the concept in the Isla space, which was formerly Little Prince (Little Prince owner Shane Won Murphy is a partner in the new venture). “As a small business owner, you don’t attach yourself to a company, you attach yourself to the mission — and the people, places, and organizations that are also in alignment with your ethos,” Culhane says. “We had always loved that space and dreamt about something that size, with those elements. We landed exactly where we were meant to be.”
Describing the storefront (which also has a parklet out of Main Street) as having “great bones,” Culhane made some aesthetic changes to the restaurant, painting one wall a warm shade of pink and installing a leather banquette where Little Prince’s retail wine wall used to be. She also decorated said walls exclusively with art from California-based female artists.
3. This menu brings the heat.
Menu-wise, “instead of leaning into the specificity of Crudo, it started to make a lot more sense to look for a space where wood fire could be our speciality,” Bornemann says. “It allows us to work with black cod, game birds, whole lobsters, and spot prawns — and to create other flavors and combinations through smoke, age, and fire.”
Bornemann describes the cuisine at Isla, and specifically the selection of skewers, as “California ingredients meet Spanish flavors, but on a robatayaki.” That translates to proteins and vegetables cooked over charcoal, like Del Pacifico shrimp with aleppo and yuzu oil; chicken hearts with black, white, and pink peppercorns; and chanterelle mushrooms with shiro koji and preserved lemon persillade.
Additionally, Bornemann and Stock are using the wood-fired oven to turn out roasted whole cauliflower topped with a garlicky tahini dressing, bottarga, and herbs; a half kanpachi with harissa and braised greens; and a guinea hen breast with green garlic, boquerone butter, and hedgehog mushrooms. The majority of the ingredients are sourced locally, and Bornemann’s goal is to make local food look and taste “highly craveable, not elite.”
4. Expect more natural wines, and a full bar, too.
At Isla, wine director Brittany Hoffman continues Crudo e Nudo’s ethos of low-intervention, mineral-driven, soil-friendly wines, with an expanded selection to complement the menu. The restaurant’s cocktails come courtesy of Kent Thompson (a Here’s Looking at You alum who worked with Bornemann at the Tasting Kitchen as well), who leans into influences from California and Spain, with drinks such as an Angeleno Spritz, a Martinez, and a new creation called The Seaworthy that features California gin washed with local oyster shells.
5. Drop by throughout the day.
The restaurant is currently open from noon to 11 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, and brunch is launching soon. “We’re cultivating a kind of a hotel lobby vibe in the afternoons,” Bornemann says. “You can come by and order an espresso or a cocktail, have a bite of fried calamari or a couple of skewers and hang out.”