Restaurant Review #82: Josie, Santa Monica

Ostrich with baby turnips, baby carrots, brussel sprouts, shitake mushrooms, and truffle mashed potatoes

I rarely go out to nice restaurants, the kind of places where they pull out your chair for you and have sommeliers, but every once in a while, I get lucky. Last time it was Melisse, and this time it was Josie. Jonathan Gold recommended it. He put it in his 99 Essential Restaurants list. It had to be good. And I wouldn't have to sit in traffic for an hour to get there. Plus, I could finally pay tribute to one of the women-run restaurants in LA. Josie's kitchen is run by not one, but three women: Josie Le Balch, Jonna Jensen, and Jill Davie. It sounded perfect.

The Dining Room

Valet whisked our car away, and the hostess greeted us enthusiastically-so enthusiastically that I wondered if she thought she knew me and was expecting me to strike up a conversation. Hmm. Later I realized that she had a terribly lonely job and was probably dying for someone to talk to. The only hostess, she had no job but to stand there and seat people--and there were only about fifteen tables, so there weren't that many people to greet.

Someone brought us a wine list, which was presented like a large menu except the outside was made of cork. I put that aside for later. How do I know what I want to drink before I know what I want to eat? I guess the assumption is that I want to drink something before my meal even comes. Too bad I'm such a lightweight.

The menu is pretty short, consisting of about 10 appetizers and 10 entrees. There wasn't a tasting menu, but there were quite a few specials. We were still able to order all the specials we wanted at about 8:15, but by 8:30 they were returning apologetically to some tables, and by 9:00 they seemed to be out of too many of the specials. The specials we ordered were the escargot appetizer and the ostrich entree. From the regular menu, we ordered the fig tart appetizer and the buffalo burger entree. Our waitress commented that I had ordered well, and she seemed surprised, since it was my first visit to Josie, but pleased.

Once I decided what to order, the sommelier helped me pick out one glass of red and one glass of white. The wine menu was extensive, but almost everything had to be ordered by the bottle. There were a few half-bottles, but we wanted to try more than one thing without breaking the bank. So I settled on a chardonnay and a 1995 margaux. I can only think of one red I've ever enjoyed, which was something at Orris, so chardonnay was the best choice to go with our meaty dishes, and I picked the red because apparently it is rare for a 95 to be poured by the glass. Just tell me something is rare or unusual, and I'll want to try it immediately! By the way, our sommelier, I believe, was Frank Delzio, the general manager and Josie's husband (we're on a first name basis).

Le amuse bouche-something with cheese, egg, and a pie crust

I always appreciate an amuse bouche. This was good, but failed to impress me and was a bit heavy. I think an amuse bouche should be something incredibly impressive and light that will get me excited about the meal to come.

Fig and goat cheese tart
a savory tart layered with herbed goat cheese, figs, sweet-and-sour red onions, Oregon hazelnuts, and arugula
The first few bites didn't impress me that much, but once I got to the crusty tart, I was quite happy. I generally don't like pie crusts or any other kind of crust, but his one was buttery and crisp, not dry, mushy, or cardboardy (yes, I grew up on frozen pies). The goat cheese was very creamy and not grainy at all. The figs tasted like dried figs--I would have preferred more moist figs, though I realize that fig season has passed and there may not be much you can do to perk up a dried fig. I think there was a bit too much arugula, and the onions complemented the other flavors well, but didn't seem any different from ordinary carmelized red onions. I don't like nuts, so I won't judge those.

By the way, Josie gets a lot of its fresh produce from the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, which I think is fantastic.

This is escargot, I swear

I'd had escargot once before at a sushi restaurant in Newport Beach called Abe, where the sushi chef was mentored by Nobu. As much as I love sushi, I never would have tried snails (yes, they were cooked) had they not been on the house (we knew the waiter). They came in an odd dish that reminded me of the dialer part of a rotary phone, with each snail in its own miniature bath of garlic butter sauce. They were incredibly tender and completely amazing. Because of this experience, Josie's escargot had a lot to live up to, and unfortunately, I wasn't impressed. There were only 4 snails, along with a few mushrooms, a lot of mashed potatoes and a huge garnish. Of the three snails I ate, one was pretty good, one was okay, and one had an odd consistency as if there were some guts or waste product inside the snail (okay, I know nothing about snail anatomy or escargot preparation, but it was gross). The mashed potatoes were underwhelming and, I thought, a bit dry.

Buffalo foie burger with truffle fries

sirloin of buffalo, ground and stuffed with Gruyere cheese, topped with foie gras, and served on a brioche bun
My first encounter with foie gras. It has a very rich taste and a smooth texture, and I can see why some people like it, but to me, it just tasted like something I wasn't meant to eat. Maybe I just couldn't overcome the mental hurdle of eating duck liver, especially with all the semi-recent controversey, but I didn't enjoy it. Buffalo was new to me and has an interesting texture--it's much smoother than ground beef. It took me a while to get used to the idea, but I ended up liking it a lot, especially with the cheesy insides.

The truffle fries were my favorite part of the meal (incidentally, they can also be ordered separately). They were addictively good and had a salty kick due to some white mystery ingredient that was sprinkled on top. Also, one of the dipping sauces was muhummara, a Middle Eastern dip made of red pepper, pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and a few other ingredients. I love muhummara and it's particularly rare to stumble across it at an American restaurant with French and Italian influences. The mustard sauce was very heavy and tasted mayonaissey; I didn't care for it. Ketchup is ketchup.

Fry dipping sauces-ketchup, mustard, and muhummara!

The restaurant felt like being in someone's living room--cozy--but it was a bit too cozy. Some of the tables were much too close together, especially ours, which was positioned right next to a booth in an odd way that made it very difficult for my friend and I to hear each other. The restaurant was a bit noisy on a Friday night at 8:00. Also, the booth we sat at had a very narrow bench and a very upright back. The restaurant had tried to make up for this by providing a pillow, but since the bench was so narrow, I couldn't use the pillow and still have enough room to sit (and I am not a large person). I was uncomfortable the whole time.

View of the semi-open kitchen

The ginger pear upside down cake was joyously moist and something I would like to be able to make myself. I didn't love the brown sugar ice cream, and thought it would have been better as brown sugar ginger ice cream, a la Kiriko. But I'm also somewhat biased because I don't like ice cream with my dessert--I like to eat it alone. The ice wine was very sweet, so the tiny portion was okay, though it was somewhat alarming to get something the size of a shot for about $8. I'm used to budget dining, what can I say.

Ice wine and a ginger pear upside down cake with brown sugar ice cream

Overall, I felt sort of eh about the experience. I really liked the truffle fries, the buffalo burger, and the dessert. The service was pretty good, but the noise and discomfort of my seat really distracted me. American/French is not my favorite kind of food, so I'm not too inclined to go out for it often. If I go back, it will be for the fries, and I'll go on a quiet night of the week, like Wednesday.

2424 Pico
Santa Monica, CA 90405

1 comment:

Melanie said...

Not to be gross, but I just read a book ("A Year in the Merde"), which describes escargot preparation. Supposedly, they are salted while still alive, which causes them to excrete all of their slime. Then they are cooked live. I don't know what's more troubling... the way they are prepared or the fact that the one you ate probably still had some slime in it. Sorry, I think I made my own stomach turn.