When friends tell you about Next Door by Josie, the first thing they mention is the popcorn. And the popcorn's pretty good — a small pail of caramelized crunch, lightly flavored with beer and bacon grease, neither as Cracker Jack-esque as the bacon popcorn at Tar & Roses nor as spicy as the cashews with caramelized bacon at Freddy Smalls.
If you're keeping score at home, Next Door by Josie was probably first on bacon popcorn — practically a pioneer — although it opened just last fall in Santa Monica. It's version is almost delicate somehow, holding its own in the world of bacony snacks. If you were going to choose a bacon popcorn for its ability to harmonize with a glass of cru Beaujolais, this would be the one.
The restaurant has also distinguished itself with its pickle jars stuffed with vinegared peppers, baby carrots and cucumbers; suave deviled eggs garnished with crisp shreds of rendered duck skin; and piles of barbecued potato chips. When you slide onto a barstool for a hot dog and a glass of Racer 5, it is easy to imagine yourself at any of the scores of gastropubs clotting the Los Angeles avenues these days, settling in for a couple of innings of the Dodgers game on the bar TV. Everyone around you in the sleekly modern dining room is gnawing on tiny pork ribs or eating chili with sour cream and handfuls of grated cheese, even as you power through a mound of the supremely porky rillettes.
Next Door by Josie is the annex of Josie, the elegant restaurant renowned for its game dishes and its farmers-market-intensive cuisine (it just celebrated its 10th anniversary). Josie's chef and owner, Josie Le Balch, is Los Angeles restaurant royalty, a second-generation chef who began her career cooking alongside Mark Peel and Wolfgang Puck at the old Ma Maison, was chef at Saddle Peak Lodge and the old Venetian restaurant Remi, and is well-known for dishes like trout with squeaky-fresh pole beans, pork belly with watermelon and roast venison with wild rice and pecans. Josie is where you go for a refined short rib tagine or a tomato tart not for … French fries seasoned with industrial quantities of pepper.
But 2012 is 2012, and it is gastropubs and small-plates restaurants with lines curling down the block. Even in Paris, chefs are supplementing their grand palaces with places to stop by for a few oysters, a slice of boar terrine and a glass of Chinon. We have short attention spans; it is hard enough for most of us to commit to a three-page magazine article, much less an entree.
The menu at Next Door by Josie has forgone the usual appetizers and entrees for small snacks and bigger snacks, big plates and sides. If you like the sliver of mushroom quiche Josie serves as an amuse bouche, you can have a slightly larger wedge of it here. If you enjoy Josie's salads, you will find happiness in Next Door's careful compositions of perfectly ripe nectarines with Parmigiano-Reggiano and piles of arugula, or slightly undercooked quinoa with grapefruit and toasted hazelnuts. If you come to Josie because of the precise vegetable cookery, you will adore the dish of barely poached haricots, asparagus and super-sweet cherry tomatoes in a light broth flavored with lemongrass — the best thing I have ever tasted in any of Le Balch's restaurants.
You don't even have to commit to a whole glass of wine. The standard unit of measurement here is the half-pour, although the rustic country wines on the list — Paco & Lola's Albariño, Henry Fessy's Juliénas, Fontanafredda's Barbera Briccotondo — are mostly the kind of wines better suited for joyous drinking than for sipping.
When ordering Next Door, you should probably ask yourself whether a dish you have in mind might be reasonably enhanced by the attentions of a French-trained chef or whether it might not. Both the chili and the ribs are relatively dry and bland, for example, while a po' boy, a special one night, benefited from an excellent mayonnaise and the careful frying of the fish. While the cheeseburger's superstructure collapsed after a bite or two, the shrimp and grits were chefly: zapped with umami but not extravagantly, flavored with smoky bacon, slightly crisped but not overcooked. The grits were from the Allen Brothers catalog, creamy yet firm.
A steak? Of course. You can get a thin, well-salted pan-seared ribeye, generous in area — just what you are hoping to get in a bistro when you order steak frites. Pasta? It's a crude but effective mass of penne tossed with cream, cheese and crunchy bits of smoked hog-jowl bacon imported from Burger's Smokehouse in the Ozarks.
But the half roast chicken is ordinary — golden and crisp-skinned enough certainly, but a little juiceless from its trip through the oven. On the other hand, the sloppy joe of roast pork with fried rapini and sharp provolone (an interpretation of the sandwich made famous by Tony Luke's on Philly's South Side) is gloriously pungent and delicious.
Restaurants, like life, can occasionally be mysterious.
This Santa Monica gastropub is the annex of Josie, the elegant restaurant renowned for its game dishes and its farmers-market-intensive cuisine.
2420 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 581-4201, http://www.nextdoorbyjosie.com.
Snacks, $4-$7; appetizers, $8-$13; charcuterie, $5-$9; sandwiches $9-$14; big plates, $17-$24.