An appearance on Top Chef can do many things for "cheftestants" and their careers. If they stick it out beyond the first one or two episodes, they are likely to become famous, or at the very least be catapulted into that strange realm of reality TV pseudo-celebrity. Some, particularly those featured in the show's earlier seasons, have attracted investors and launched careers based on their newfound name recognition. But a percentage of alumni definitely suffers from the Top Chef Curse — chefs who simply can't seem to find their footing post-television.
A number of factors contributes to the Curse, and they may be different for each individual. Most chefs come to Top Chef as relatively undiscovered talent, perhaps after cheffing at a midrange restaurant or slaving away over someone else's dreams, someone else's stove. After the show they're famous, and that ought to count for something, right? People tell them not to sell themselves short, not to go back to the midlevel restaurant they left for TV, to aim higher now that they have the leverage of exposure. Yet they're still contracted to do appearances for Bravo, so throwing themselves into anything wholeheartedly can be a challenge.
On top of these conundrums, all of their personality quirks and faults have been aired on national television. And unless they won or came awfully close, they have lost at the very thing they do for a living. Given those odds, it's a wonder any of these people ever make it at all.
CJ Jacobson, the chef at newly opened Girasol in Studio City, isn't exactly a poster child for the Curse. For one, he has actually been a working chef since his original season three Top Chef appearance, most notably at Santa Monica's the Yard from 2009 to 2011.
But certain aspects of the Curse have bedeviled him. Yes, there have been "celebrity" cooking tours and consulting gigs (most recently at Mercantile in Hollywood), and even a second attempt as a contestant on the show, in season 10. But in the six years since Jacobson's original appearance, he's spent only two years in a kitchen as a full-time executive chef. Until now.
The career that led Jacobson to Top Chef is impressive on its own merits: An Orange County native, he was a professional volleyball player who nearly went to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and a culinary school graduate who held cooking jobs at Axe, Wolfgang Puck Catering and Campanile.
Between his time at the Yard and his second go at Top Chef, Jacobson landed one of the world's most valued internships — time in the kitchen at Noma, René Redzepi's modernist Nordic restaurant in Copenhagen.
Girasol, which opened in July, feels almost as if Jacobson put all his experiences into a blender and poured out a restaurant smoothie. In some ways, it is just the sort of place one might expect a Top Chef alum to open. The Noma tenure, combined with the interesting location, caused a fair amount of buzz leading up to Girasol's debut, and while it's not the hardest reservation in town, the room has been respectably full on most nights.
The name means "sunflower" in Spanish, and the space has a masculine floral theme, if such a thing is possible: huge, white petal-like elements cover the ceiling and walls, backed by slate-gray textured tiles. A soundtrack of vague electronica plays in the dining room, giving everything that smooth throwback vibe, like a bracing pink cocktail circa 2003.
But you can see Noma's influence on Jacobson's menu, particularly if you keep in mind that the Yard, his last full-time gig, was a gastropub. With certain dishes, he manages quite a trick, presenting the aesthetic of absurdly cerebral Nordic cuisine to neighborhood diners in Studio City.
So the gorgeous "beets and berries" appetizer consists of florets of leaves and herbs placed artfully in a base of whipped goat cheese along with beets and various berries. It looks like a masterpiece, yet it's a beet-and–goat cheese salad, albeit an intensely aromatic and enjoyable version.
Hamachi with citrus also brings the naturalist beauty. It arrives in a semicircle on the plate, the raw, cubed fish mingling with mandarin, macadamia nuts, finger lime and verbena. Despite all that citrus — preserved grapefruit makes an appearance as well — the fish tastes bare and fresh, almost unadorned in its simplicity.
Some concessions are made for those seeking comfort food: There's an appetizer of rustic and very good meatballs, and a dried fava bean puree served with sloppy Joe–style chorizo and warm grilled flatbread for scooping.
The entrees are reasonably priced at $16 to $26, other than a $38 steak, and pork satay, roast chicken and bruschetta all make appearances. Jacobson is hedging his bets a little, offering safe choices for a more conservative crowd while allowing glimpses of his time in the wilds of Denmark to be seen here and there.
Blunders in actual cooking seem strange, given some of this food's careful complexity, yet they're not uncommon. A piece of sockeye salmon, which we were assured would be cooked medium rare, came out dry and extremely well-done. I can imagine how the summery corn, Champagne grapes, kale puree and tomato water on the plate might meld with that rich, buttery fish if there were any yield or fat left in it — as it was, the textures seemed discordant: sparse salad under parched flesh.
The vegetarian entree, pan-roasted cauliflower, also had the problem of a lovely setup and dissatisfying main component. Almond cauliflower puree and lentils with bright satsuma citrus and grilled oyster mushrooms made a creamy, hearty base for the large, undercooked and slightly woody hunks of cauliflower.
And braised leg of lamb with carrot puree would have been a favorite dish if not for the meat itself. The plate's root vegetable underpinnings, brightened by plum and fennel flowers, were a fantastic accompaniment to the musk of the lamb. But again, it was cooking, not flavor or quality, that was the problem. Perhaps the lamb hadn't sat long enough in its braising liquid to reabsorb its moisture, rendering it dry enough to need that carrot puree for moisture rather than happy companionship.
Jacobson has complained publicly that good cooks are hard to find, particularly in the Valley, and it's possible understaffing is to blame for some of these transgressions. At the same time, he has been a constant presence on the nights I've dined at Girasol, and that salmon is not a piece of fish that should have left a kitchen in which the chef was present.
On the other hand, a whole fried red snapper came to the table crispy and succulent, its accompaniment of fermented Fresno chili, kumquat and sorrel nodding to the dish's Asian roots but also placing it firmly in its modern Californian context and location. There are places where Jacobson walks that line quite elegantly.
The chef also has been quoted as saying that the Valley needed a restaurant like this, somewhere swank and a little serious, with high design and a locavore ethos. He's probably right. Whether Girasol will be the restaurant to give Jacobson the post-TV identity he obviously deserves is another matter.
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GIRASOL | Two stars | 11334 Moorpark St., Studio City | (818) 924-2323 | girasolrestaurant.com | Sun.-Wed., 6-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. | Entrees: $16-$38 | Beer and wine served | Valet and limited street parking