Murphy Mojo

Photo by Anne Fishbein

The longstanding, beloved Jimmy’s in Beverly Hills was a landmark — and was brought to us by that great old redheaded charmer Jimmy Murphy and family. When it closed some years back, Jimmy’s sons — the two Murphy boys, Jamie and Sean — went to work over at Spago, Beverly Hills, where their personal acquaintanceship and excellent standing with a huge swath of locals made them invaluable assets, a huge windfall of goodwill. You’d see them gliding about the vast Spago floor in smart suits, towering above the tables with their Irish good looks, both so urbane and suave they could’ve been male leads of a ’40s romantic comedy. Then suddenly, for a few minutes a few years ago, the Murphy boys defected to open Jimmy’s II in Beverly Hills, a remake of their dad’s old place but updated, even trendy, with the hot chef Neal Fraser in the kitchen. The building, however, was shortly sold out from under them, and Jimmy’s II closed amid rumors that nobody was all that keen on the venture after all.

Now comes a new family effort, Jimmy’s Tavern, which has opened in the former Primi space on Pico near Prosser. This time, it’s Sean and his folks at the helm — Jamie is still at Spago — but there’s definitely sufficient Murphy mojo to lure in old friends and jump-start a going concern.

Trendy, Jimmy’s Tavern is not. Rather, it’s benignly stodgy, part old-boy steak house, part Irish hotel. In the bar area, a piano player resolutely transforms old standbys into a pleasant background tinkle while a gas fire glows like peat behind glass. Over the bar, a black-and-white mural of three sorry-looking drinkers appears in direct (or ironic) contradiction to the caption from Oscar Wilde: The best way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it! But Jimmy’s Tavern is not about restaurant design, and only incidentally about food. Most of all, this is a restaurant that’s about relationships.

Jimmy Murphy himself — Irish charm incarnate — greets you at the door with a handshake and genuine warmth. The pretty hostess couldn’t be friendlier. Customers are known by name and catered to, families celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and graduations. The original Jimmy’s crowd — a group of well-heeled Beverly Hills seniors, wealthy old movers and shakers who may not be moving quite as swiftly as they used to — table-hop, shake hands, air-kiss. Beside us, a group of businessmen in suits take notes, drink expensive wine. On the other side, an old guy out with wife and friends raises an authoritative voice: “That Rumsfeld is a liar. And Cheney is a liar. And Bush, Bush is . . .” This final pronouncement, too awful to broadcast, is whispered, inaudible.

The food is a mix of good, straightforward New American cuisine with a handful of Irish classics — think chophouse plus Irish pub fare. Also think: expensive.

Chef David Fouts, who came over from Josie’s farther down Pico, upgrades the classics by using top ingredients and a few unobtrusive, innovative flourishes. Smoked Irish salmon is sandwiched in thin, supple crepes — one mouthful took me straight back to July in east County Cork, where a neighbor brought fresh line-caught-and-smoked wild Irish salmon; the soft, oily meat plumps in the mouth as its flavor blooms and blooms. Also good, but not nearly as evocative or lively, is seared rare Kobe beef served sliced on a juicy arugula salad with sweet baby pear tomatoes and tangy, citrus-infused oil. Fouts also makes an excellent classic caesar salad, tossing in plenty of mild white anchovies. An up-to-the-minute beet salad matches multicolored root vegetables not only with the standard goat cheese but the newly standard blood oranges.

The Kilkenny corned beef and cabbage is what it is — no quarrel with the excellent ingredients — but I would’ve liked more vegetables with cabbage and potatoes, a carrot or turnip or onion . . . and hotter horseradish! The wild Irish salmon is indifferently prepared, a bit overcooked and underseasoned — conventionally Irish in the old-fashioned sense. (Ireland now has a flourishing, sophisticated fresh-food culture that is quickly vanquishing the island’s once well-deserved reputation as a culinary wasteland.) These days, in many upscale Irish restaurants, you’d find dishes more like Fouts’ grilled striped bass with minted peas, fava beans, artichokes and flecks of pancetta. I don’t try the Irish stew in favor of Fouts’ lamb three ways: a slice of leg, a short length of earthy long-cooked shank, a two-pronged bit of juicy rack, each revealing a distinct, optimum flavor and texture.

Desserts are updated classics, gratifyingly large. Pineapple upside-down cake is a dense, almond-rich cake under its caramelized pineapple, and comes with snowy coconut ice cream. An excellent hot chocolate-hazelnut cake is dark, bittersweet and best scooped up with both coconut and hazelnut ice cream and crunchy bits of roasted hazelnuts.

Jimmy’s Tavern already seems like an institution — an older one. One can’t help but wonder if, over time, the Murphy charm and the relationship-based values will draw a new generation of customers — Sean Murphy’s generation, younger customers who come to find that décor, food and even expense are slightly less important than a familiar, smiling face at the door, a welcoming handshake and one’s usual table over there, by the wall.

Jimmy’s Tavern, 10543 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 446-8808. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Dinner Mon.–Sat. 5:30–10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. Entrées $15–$29. AE, D, MC, V.


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