Photo by Anne Fishbein
In some cities, there are entire districts devoted to restaurants like Violet, pleasant, mainstream bistros whose virtues are most often summarized by their ratios of price to quality. But in Los Angeles, where two people can eat a serious Thai or Korean meal for about the price of a single appetizer at Spago, the word value usually bears a distinct Asian accent. And while I have always been the kind of guy who would rather schlep to El Monte for a spectacular dish of eel and fermented peppers than sup on Chardonnay and tuna tartare across the street, it is a good sign when a restaurant like Violet is packed night after night, when couples with matching labret piercings wait patiently for a couple with his-and-her walkers to be seated, when it is possible to have dinner with wine for about $40 a head.
Violet has all the appropriate buzzwords on its menu: the harissa aioli, the braised veal cheeks, the rare ahi tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes, but it is also possible to drop in after a show at McCabe’s up the block for a caesar salad, a decent pepper steak, or a dish of very nice macaroni and cheese made with Gruyère, slivered leeks and chunked-up Serrano ham; or to stop by at lunchtime for a cheeseburger or a sandwich of that same Spanish ham turbocharged with sliced manchego cheese and breathtaking amounts of fresh garlic.
If you order the seared scallops, the hostess may come up to your table and whisper conspiratorially that you have just gotten her favorite dish, and the combination of the shellfish with chewy soba noodles, steamed bok choy and a grainy, yellow curry sauce is a pleasant one.
In an article for Gourmet a couple of years ago, cookbook writer/restaurant consultant Barbara Kafka wrote about the concept of “critic bait,” the weird, indestructible dishes clever restaurateurs put on their menus in the knowledge that they will be remarked upon favorably by visiting food writers even if no other customers ever order the dish. Violet’s muticolored beet salad is a classic of the genre, discs of the roasted vegetable arranged clockwise around a single slice of grapefruit, the larger discs precisely bisected by fillets of smoked eel and strewn with flower petals. It is all rather pagan, this composition, fluty acidic notes dancing around the simple bass-drum sweetness of the beets like wraiths around a fire — not to become a red-state standard anytime soon. Point to chef Jared Simons.
A lot of the food at Violet has kind of a Thanksgiving-y edge, if you know what I mean, a duck-leg confit whose preparation emphasizes the innate sweetness instead of the potential sharp gaminess of the poultry; rosy-rare lozenges of roasted venison loin tamed by an autumnal risotto loosened with a butternut-squash purée; those braised veal cheeks, tasty although not quite as pillowy-soft as one might prefer, nestled into a bed of stewed mushrooms and polenta. Crispy shrimp won tons are probably the opposite of critic bait — the crunchy little empanadas seem designed to attract the sort of customer who would really rather be eating happy-hour snacks at a sports bar — but they are deftly fried, and the syrupy dipping sauce has a genuine chile kick.
Still, there are some dishes that are difficult to produce on a budget, and Simons’ menu occasionally runs into a wall. Ahi “ceviche,” which is to say diced tuna tossed with unripe avocado and a few drops of lime juice, is a somewhat under-realized dish, too bland and garnished with fried root vegetables that might as well be Terra Chips. A salad of endive, candied pecans and Roquefort, a combination that has become as close to ubiquitous in a certain class of Los Angeles restaurant as caesar and Chinese chicken salads (both of which are on the menu at Violet too), comes wetted with a thin dressing that tastes like straight vinegar.
But at this level of restaurant, it tends to matter less that the combination of brown butter, puréed cauliflower and raisins garnishing a trout is straight from the Jean-Georges playbook than it does that the trout itself is irresistibly crunchy and delicious, less that the parsley-intensive salsa verde saucing an appetizer of steamed mussels is a little clunky than that the mussels themselves are juicy and fresh.
Hair upswept like a character in a Charles Burns comic, looking more like a nu-metal bass player than like a critically lauded chef, Simons stalks the dining room at Violet, dodging the purple banquettes, adjusting his whites in the dark mirrors. He shakes the odd hand and greets the odd friend, but his focus is elsewhere, one suspects: on the aesthetic effects of the yellow flower petals he has chosen to scatter over almost everything tonight, on the shavings of Parmesan somebody has scraped off the mushroom ravioli, on the venison loin across the room that goes inexplicably uneaten. In another restaurant, this chefly hypervigilance might come across as a little too close to an unexplored facet of the Patriot Act, but here it just seems sort of sweet. Violet is a little restaurant that cares.
Violet, 3221 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 453-9113, www.violetrestaurant.com. Lunch Tues.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Dinner Tues.–Fri. 6 p.m.–10 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 5:30 p.m.–closing. Beer and wine. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $44–$66.