Leena Culhane and Brian Bornemann met during the pandemic. She's an artist and musician, and he's a veteran LA chef. If you've dined at The Tasting Kitchen, Michaels' or Potager over the years, you've had his food. Crudo e Nudo is the duo's lovechild, a pandemic pop-up and ode to sustainable seafood that's found a permanent home on Main Street in Santa Monica. During a devestating couple of years for the restaurant industry, with many heartbreaking closures of neighborhood favorites and new businesses that never had a chance to get off the ground, Crudo e Nudo is a rare bright spot – one of the best new restaurants in Los Angeles.
This is a true neighborhood restaurant, with just 20 seats on the heated patio outside. Diners order from a hand-written chakboard menu at the counter inside, where a small market also offers specialty provisions like olive oil and premium tinned seafood from Spain and Portugal. Start with oysters and crudo, and a glass of wine. There are about a half dozen natural, organic and biodynamic wines available by the glass on any given night from small producers and it's a great opportunity to try something new. Wine is served in simple stemless glasses and you'll dine on compostable paper plates because the tiny kitchen is too small for a dishwasher. Don't let the humble plateware and rustic wooden tables fool you though. Bornemann's meticulous preparation of fish – including dry-hanging and hand scaling – is world-class.
At Crudo e Nudo, Bornemann serves both farmed and wild-caught seafood, sourcing fish directly from fishermen and fisheries. Striped bass crudo with a housemade togarashi is from Ensenada and wild caught fish often come from the Channel Islands. While the offerings changing regularly, you'll never find any salmon on the menu – Bornemann developed a severe allergy to salmon as an adult. Over the years Bornemann has lived in New York, France and Italy, running so many other people's kitchens, but this is his first restaurant that's truly his own.
Sustainability is at the core of every decision and detail at Crudo e Nudo, and that includes Bornemann's passion for eating lower on the food chain. He's serving dishes like mackerel and whelk – a bycatch from Pacific spiny lobster trapping – and creating delicious dishes with these less-appreciated species with the hope of raising demand among consumers. I tried a whelk (a type of sea snail) toast this past weekend that was just divine, a truly one-of-a-kind dish. Bornemann combines chopped whelk with capers, shiro shoyu, caramelized fennel, orange zest and Chinese hot mustard purée all served on a hearty slice of Gjusta sourdough bread. This dish is a perfect example of Bornemann's style, melding Asian and Italian flavors to highlight sustainable seafood in vibrant new ways.
It's worth mentioning that there's a thoughtful dedicated vegan menu too, with about four dishes on rotation at any given time. On a recent evening, there was a vegan caesar salad, chickpea toast on Gjusta sourdough, a farmer's market mezze plate with black garlic hummus and treviso salad with Asian pear, almonds and maple miso vinaigrette. I was surprised that a sustainable seafood restaurant would also have such delicious vegan options, but Bornemann says that everything on the menu is either sustainably sourced seafood, or vegan.
Sustainability is about more than just ingredient sourcing though. Bornemann also runs his kitchen in a unique fashion. Everyone is paid equally and help out with whatever is needed. “It's pure socialism in action,” he says “Everyone works equally with no manager.” The pandemic really highlight the start inequality and unsustainable way that most restaurants operate, and Bornemann is creating a new model for the future. It remains to be seen if this business model can scale, but the cozy atmosphere at Crudo e Nudo makes you feel like you're being welcomed into somebody's home.
More than a third of guests at Crudo e Nudo order the 5-course tasting menu for $85, an ever-changing assortment of dishes based on the whims of the season and what's available. But you won't go wrong with any of the a la carte choices either. There's nothing like Crudo e Nudo anywhere else in Los Angeles, and if you're a seafood lover, you need to try this spot stat.