The newest trend in California cooking in Los Angeles might be called the Farmers Market School. This trend has its roots, of course, in the ’80s food revolution and Alice Waters‘ search for purveyors of fine ingredients. Going to a farmers market is nothing new to some chefs — Nancy Silverton has been hitting the Santa Monica market on Wednesdays for a decade or more. But now it’s downright de rigueur for chefs to fill up vans on market days with regional, seasonal produce. This is (mostly) a good thing. While it is frustrating for a lay shopper to hit a farmers-market stall in the aftermath of chefs — think Millet‘s The Gleaners — the increased demand for excellent and organic products has only increased the supply. In general, we’re all eating better.
In restaurants, the Farmers Market School of cooking is easy to spot — in jewel-toned heirloom-tomato salads; in fresh shell beans and potatoes of various hues and shapes; in the now requisite bitter green and, on dessert menus, that long-neglected, car-staining backyard fruit, the Persian mulberry. Such items appear on menus the way that carpaccio, capellini alla checcha and tarte tatin once did; they have become signifiers, a kind of shorthand indicating a certain level of taste, sensibility, sophistication. (Good shopping, however, is still only the beginning of good food.)
If you‘ve lost out to a chef at the farmers market, Zax, in Brentwood, is one place where the choice plunder may be had after all.
The 60-seat, brick-walled restaurant on San Vicente was most recently home to Woodside, but the last 15 years have seen many owners; unlike at other seemingly ill-fated locations, the progression of tenants here has charted a near-steady course in improvement and staying power. With any luck, Zax will prove the culmination. Owner Chris Schaefer’s work history in restaurant management reads like a pedigree of hipness (Ivy at the Shore, ZenZero, Rix, Barfly, JiRaffe), but Zax, his first solo, proprietary venture, has a convivial neighborhood feel, a pleasantly adult seriousness of purpose. There‘s no loud music or art, just an open kitchen with a shiny brass hood and racks of wine (Schaefer is known for his wine lists). Oldsters and hipsters find the decor and warm, no-edge staff equally welcoming. Unless I’m mistaken, Schaefer and his co-owner and wife, Chantal, are in it for the long haul.
Brooke Williamson, Zax‘s 23-year-old executive chef, is a wonderful shopper and a budding great cook. Formerly at Fenix at the Argyle, Michael’s and Boxer, she is pure Farmers Market School with commendable CampanileLucques aspirations, although her cooking style is decidedly less rustic than that of chefs Mark Peel and Suzanne Goin. They start with the big, clear flavors of Mediterranean peasant food; Williamson‘s base is more New American cooking, blander and less distinct.
That’s not to say she can‘t hit homers. Sweet tiger shrimp are sauteed and propped on pillows of ravioli stuffed with fluffy pureed carrot — the pasta bursts in the mouth with indecent pleasure. Summer soups — a tomato made with low-acid, flavorful brandywines and spiked with lemon basil oil, and a haunting chilled cucumber-garlic (with a scattering of crunchy thick potato chips) — are excellent. Fresh warmed figs stuffed with fourme d’ambert cheese are another sensuous revelation, though the accompanying arugula salad is swamped in sweet balsamic vinegar. The same vinegar oversweetens a salad of beautiful heirloom tomatoes and haricots verts that are visually perfect, but taste like paper. The promised ash-covered chevre is replaced, without comment, by plain chevre, as if we wouldn‘t notice. Frog legs are lightly breaded in cornmeal, overcooked and a bit tough; their garnish of fava beans and chanterelles is also stunningly bland. The best ingredients, we’re reminded, are only a beginning.
For an entree, the dry aged New York steak with Roquefort-shallot butter is a compelling study in agings; the meaty sourness plays well against the tang of the cheese. The accompanying “balsamic” (take that bottle away from her!) onion rings are too oily. A modest oven-roasted chicken with charred escarole, mild horseradish mashed potatoes and wine-marinated red onions is a quiet, perfect meal. Judiciously cooked arctic char is moist and sweet; its bed of quinoa and chopped vegetables is a bit of a mash. When Williamson does go for bigger flavors, she‘s not always on target. The juicy pork loin doesn’t need its pancetta wrap; the crisp exterior is nice, but the flavor, that of overcooked bacon, adds nothing. And it‘s a mistake, I think, to overwhelm meaty, mild albacore steak with a strong black-olive sauce.
A warm dark-chocolatehazelnut souffle cake is the way to finish dinner; it comes with rich hazelnut ice cream and crisp, thin cookies. A too-eggy, stiff creme brulee is inexplicably studded with kernels of sweet corn. And the ice cream sandwich is made with good, profoundly dark chocolate cookies, but the ice cream’s too soft: One wants to take a bite without squeezing out all the filling.
11604 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; (310) 571-3800. Beer and wine. Open Tuesday–Friday for lunch, Tuesday–Sunday for dinner. Entrees $18–$26. Valet parking. AE, DC, Disc., MC, V.