Photo by Anne Fishbein

Brooke Williamson is a mere 25 years old, but she’s already been an executive chef twice — first at the now-defunct Boxer, then at Zax in Brentwood. Nick Roberts is also 25 and has sturdy credentials — he’s worked at the New York restaurants Ducasse and Café Boulud, then, after a stint at the Hotel Bel-Air, he was a sous chef at Zax. Recently, the two bravely set out on their own. They appropriated Venice’s funky old Van Gogh’s Ear (once a railroad bunkhouse), gave it a lick of chrome yellow paint, prettied up the patio and upstairs dining room, filled with clear seaside light, and opened Amuse Café, serving California bistro cooking made with lots of local farmers market ingredients — a modest and lovely ambition.

On my first visit I found the cooking less refined than Williamson’s food at Zax — it was heartier, lustier, more . . . amusing. There was an air of excitement among the staff that was contagious: Amuse was good, they were psyched about it and wanted us to be too.

The hip one-page menu is divided between “little plates” ($8) and “bigger plates” ($13 to $18), with a short interlude of sandwiches ($12). Of course the meal began with an amuse bouche, the pre-appetizer taste stimulator for which the restaurant was named. That night, it was a demitasse of wild mushroom soup, a direct hit of intense, bosky flavor. From then on, five adults and two kids happily passed around plates of marinated beets, a thin and tasty onion tart, plump steamed mussels with luscious gobs of roast tomato, great cured meats (prosciutto, soppresata, salami) and long-cooked, deeply meaty caramelized pork ribs. Everybody got a good taste of everything, though we had to wrestle the kids for the ribs. Fun.

Beef short ribs, although slow-cooked like the pork ones, were quite different — darker and more profound. A ground rib-eye sandwich with Swiss cheese and bacon was really a luxury hamburger, so bursting with hot juices they soaked through even dense rustic bread.

When Williamson was at Zax, I considered the roast chicken her most satisfying dish; at Amuse I’d say her best dish is the grilled chicken paillards — salty, juicy, flavorful and served with agreeably bitter sautéed escarole. Only the roasted halibut with soba noodles in a lime shiitake broth was uninspired, the fish unevenly cooked, at once dry and raw.

At dessert, all of us went nuts for the fig brown sugar tart, which was buttery and warm and pleasurably gritty with the seeds — downright sexy. A panna cotta in passion fruit coulis was rich but too firm, and the plate of cookies went down well with the kids.

On a return visit several weeks later, it seemed a shift had taken place. The service was distracted and intermittent. Portions were smaller, and the food under-realized. The heirloom tomato salad was scant on an already small piece of china, and the slice of Humboldt Fog blue cheese was so thin, it was more just tracery — really, if it were any thinner, it would be air. The salad of prosciutto, arugula, strawberries and manchego cheese had three slices of a small strawberry and a few paper-thin slips of cheese. Of all the so-called little plates we tried, only the rich avocado soup with chewy strips of smoked salmon was at the level of our last experience.

The “bigger plate” of duck leg confit delivered the depth of flavor we expected of the kitchen — though I never found the promised huckleberries in the dish. The flat-iron steak came with a teeny portion of tomatoes. But the saddest thing was the fig tart, which came out cold and hard and indifferent. Oh, it broke our hearts — but perhaps one should never expect that much from a tart.

An off night, I figured — everybody has one. Especially a new restaurant settling into its routine. All the heartiness and flavor and generosity of that first meal clearly lay within the range of the kitchen — surely it would resurface.

I waited almost a month before returning and found the little place packed on a Friday night, indoors and out. The tiny parking lot looked like an ever-moving puzzle as guests arrived and left. Three of us ordered many of our favorite items, but some new ones too, for the menu had just changed. Servers seemed more settled in and relaxed, and there were glimpses of the same, original excitement.

All told, our experience that night was a mix of my two previous visits. There remained a disturbing scantiness to the small plates, and the quality was also erratic. Again, the amount of cheese on the heirloom tomatoes was laughably stingy, but more disturbing were the tomatoes themselves, which were past their prime. Though the onion and gruyere tart was said to come with figs, I could locate only one half of the tiniest possible baby fig on the plate. The chilled tomato soup was low on ripe tomato flavor, though strands of fresh celery were an intelligent, pleasing touch.

Baked rigatoni did display the chefs’ strengths: those great sumptuous roasted tomatoes, and the melted cheese with toasty edges, the crisped tube pasta, and the rich kiss of mascarpone cheese. However, a plate of farmers market vegetables (fingerling potato, carrot, red pepper, sautéed pea tendrils and greens) was astonishingly skimpy. Shockingly so. The vegetables, sautéed in a heap, were surrounded by a shallow moat of stewed tomato quinoa, but I doubt if there was a full tablespoon of the grain drifting in the few tablespoons of fresh tomato sauce. A dish that should have showcased the chefs’ abilities with farmers market produce showcased a disheartening and ongoing minginess instead.

We certainly had plenty of room for dessert. We were disappointed, then, that the croissant pudding didn’t have a few more chunks of chocolate. And again, the fig tart (we did keep trying) was resolutely indifferent.

Williamson and Roberts clearly have sufficient ability, talent and heart to make Amuse a terrific little restaurant — now begins the long hard job of accessing those virtues night after night, consistently, tenaciously, religiously.

Amuse Café, 796 Main St., Venice, (310) 450-1956. Open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, from 5:30 p.m. Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Parking. No alcohol served. Entrées, $13–$18. AE, MC, V.

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