In the world of fine dining -- and specifically in their new restaurant, Josie -- Josie Le Balch and Frank Delzio have a marriage with a perfect division of labor. An experienced, critically acclaimed chef whose resume includes the Saddle Peak Lodge, Remi and the Beach House, Le Balch takes charge of the kitchen. An equally experienced manager, Delzio, formerly of the Broadway Deli and JiRaffe, runs the dining room. Their pooled talent, smarts and taste make for a sophisticated, smoothly run restaurant that already feels far more seasoned than its actual age, a paltry five months.
If the Beach House exuded an East Coast WASPiness -- a strong whiff of the Cape, with its summer homes and clambakes -- Le Balch‘s eponymous new restaurant on Pico Boulevard radiates a different, less seaside, but no less WASPy atmosphere. Here, there’s a staidness, a hint of Connecticut, in the subdued, dark slate-green walls, botanical prints, booths in a silvery brocade with a subtle artichoke pattern, and an impressive antique wine cabinet. But Josie is both formal and fun, adult and relaxed. The wealthy, elderly couples who frequent it seem perfectly in situ, as if the rooms had been set-dressed just for them, and yet younger, more casual folk appear equally at home.
The only glitch I‘ve found is at the door. On each visit, we waited some minutes to be noticed by a hostess whose cool, dubious ”Can I help you?“ seemed less a welcome than a preface to dismissal. Even finding our name on the reservation list did not elicit warmth or hospitality. One evening, although we arrived on time for our reservation, the three of us spent the next 45 minutes taking turns on the two-person bench outside, on Pico. (Our other option was to stand in the crowded bar in the back.) Each time we checked with the hostess, she greeted us with the same sang-froid, as if she’d never seen us before. ”Can I help you?“ Finally, Delzio himself was alerted to the difficulty. Abashed, he eloquently expressed remorse. ”It hurts my soul,“ he said, making our own annoyance and hunger seem, well, a minor kind of pain. ”The problem is,“ he confided, ”we‘ve made the restaurant too comfortable, and customers don’t leave.“
Well, yes. And perhaps the restaurant was also overbooked.
Once we were seated, all discomfort receded. The waiters were, as ever, professional and easy, and the rest of the meal ran like clockwork -- with appetizers comped in apology for the delay.
Le Balch made her reputation at the Saddle Peak Lodge, that rustic bastion of taxidermy and game dishes in the Santa Monica Mountains. But she‘s multifaceted, as her stints at the Venetian-style Remi and the American-flavored Beach House reveal, and her menu here ranges from codfish tagine to Texas wild boar.
All the salads are made from fine, fresh ingredients, but except for the lively, many-pleasured baked-pear and endive salad, with its peppery watercress, Stilton and pecans, the leafy appetizers lack a certain focus. They’re less compositions than greens with beets, greens with fennel and blood orange, greens with herbs and deep-fried artichokes and other crunchy bits.
Le Balch delivers more interesting and direct hits with her hot appetizers. Curls of tender, faintly crunchy snow-white sepia (cuttlefish), skewered and seared, sit on robust tiny lentils mined with merguez sausage. Smoky wood-grilled quail, a dark, flavorsome meat, comes with al dente Savoy cabbage.
There were moments when those of us who ordered game entrees feared we wouldn‘t have enough to eat: Four coin-size slices of wild boar, however succulent and meaty -- and at $29 -- just didn’t seem ample, and wouldn‘t have been without the bale of greasy deep-fried rapini and lake of creamy flageolets. The farm-raised venison had a good, clear, lean flavor, but the diminutive chop and small tenderloin disc seemed just a bit shy of satisfying, especially next to a huge heap of wild rice laced with green beans. Also, the requisite pairing of fruit, even Le Balch’s excellent poached pear, seemed overly familiar.
But portions were fine to generous on everything else. The firm, moist cod was perfectly cooked, tucked into a tall clay tagine pot with a lot of slightly dry vegetables and a side of gingery ground-carrot ”mustard.“ Chicken breast crusted with sea salt was delicious with comfortingly bland, soft white grits. And the surprise was the pappardelle, a wide, beautifully chewy ribbon pasta with a light tomato sauce, slices of rabbit breast stuffed with tomato and wilted greens, shreds of darker haunch meat, intense strips of oven-dried tomatoes, and big pieces of morels -- fabulous.
Jonna Jensen, the dessert chef, perhaps concentrates too much on the individual-portion idea: A lovely blackberry crumble does not need to be served in its own crust; it makes for simply too much butter-rich pastry. Her lemon zabayon, a small lemon cake drenched in lemon cream, is pure luxuriance. Sorbets are boldly tart, the tangerine excellent, the kiwi oddly pulpy and dry, not juicy enough. An individual warm, fresh peach pie with cardamom ice cream and a spiced-pear tart are both triumphs.
And yes, the booths are comfortable, and the place so pretty in its patrician way. Delzio is absolutely right: We‘re in no hurry whatsoever to leave.
2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 581-9888. Open for dinner Mon.--Sat. Entrees $18--$32. Full bar. AE, CB, DC, MC, V.
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