Steamed black mussels can be a starter to share or a main course.

Steamed black mussels can be a starter to share or a main course (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Every chef dreams about opening his or her own restaurant — someday. For Paul Shoemaker, that day jumped closer when he arrived for work at Bastide one morning in 2008 to find out that owner Joe Pytka had abruptly decided to close it down, just weeks after Shoemaker had earned 31/2 stars from The Times for his refined, sensual cooking. (Bastide reopened a year and a half later with a new concept — bookstore café — and a new chef.) After an experience like that, it's easy to understand why Shoemaker would opt for working for himself.

The last couple of years, needless to say, haven't been the easiest in terms of launching a new restaurant. Even some of the die-hards are in trouble or just hanging on. Yet in July, after a long search for a space and a major remodel, Shoemaker opened Savory in Malibu.

Now that's a place that could use a good restaurant. And even though Savory is way out at Point Dume, I suspect his smart contemporary cooking is going to entice Westsiders along with Malibu residents to his new address.

The menu is small and seasonal, the prices relatively inexpensive for the quality, with main courses coming in under $30. And if you're thinking Malibu and funky: wrong. The former diner/Chinese restaurant is now sleek and modernist, but not at all chilly. Big picture windows let in the light. There's no view of Point Dume, if that's what you're thinking. But soon he'll have a glassed-in patio area. Inside, the wood and leather surfaces are warm to the touch. It's simple, but elegant without being stuffy.

On each table, a slab of slate holds a votive candle, a tiny bowl of sea salt and a miniature vase with a yellow-green fennel flower. Good stemware, simple flatware. Every detail is just right.

Shoemaker, who got married at Point Dume and now lives down the street, has honed his opening menu until each dish is focused and complete. I don't think there's a dud on it. He's a sensitive, confident cook and his food is fresh and uncontrived. Even a salad that sounds ordinary enough — endive with almonds and blue cheese — turns out to be out of the ordinary when sweet-tart peaches are added to the assemblage.

A butternut squash soup one night brings fall into focus with a rich purée of roasted squash (the better to bring out its flavor) garnished with toasted pecans and a dollop of crème fraîche. A gorgeous foie gras terrine served with black mission figs and brioche is enough for everybody at the table to share. But, believe me, no one is going to willingly give up a bite of the crab cake. Crusty and golden on the outside, tall and proud, almost all lump crab meat inside, it's served with a purée of Brentwood corn and a dab of excellent remoulade.

Shoemaker isn't trying to re-create Bastide here. He seems to be taking it slowly, feeling out the neighborhood, debuting with a small but appealing menu that he can execute in the restaurant's tiny kitchen.

Steamed black mussels can be a starter to share or a main course, depending on how you want to eat them. These are some of the best mussels I've had in a while, plump and sweet, steamed with a little garlic, white wine and served simply in the juices, alight with lemon, chile flakes and cherry tomatoes. Every other kitchen around L.A. does a similar dish, but Shoemaker has such a deft, light hand that most other versions seem clumsy by comparison.

And I loved the ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and tossed in a butter-and-olive-oil emulsion and garnished with toy box tomatoes and swatches of spinach. The pasta is supple and tender, the filling squishy and warm. Each bite is exquisitely delicious. Sometimes there's a pizza with puffy edges topped with a good tomato sauce, some creamy burrata and a smear of dark olive tapenade.

When you first sit down at Savory, it's hard to stay away from the basket of breads, all baked in-house, including adorable baby brioches glazed with cheese, miniature baguettes or fluffy focaccias topped with tapenade. What a treat! I just hope Malibu is going to appreciate all the effort that goes into this and all the small, poetic details that make Savory so special.

The crowd runs the gamut of Malibu — people in the industry, doctors, trust-fund kids, laid-back surfer types, fashionistas and families. A wife lovingly drapes a sweater over her elderly husband's shoulders as they leave. Neighbors come in to celebrate a birthday and end up knowing people at three of the other tables.

Did I mention that you can hear yourself talk? There is a soundtrack, but it's playing at low volume. Imagine: conversation. What a distinct pleasure. That, and the lack of anything that could be called a scene.

The handful of main courses doesn't change much as yet, although there are occasional specials. One night it is a beautifully cooked rack of lamb with cannellini beans. I highly recommend the pan-roasted Jidori chicken with lots of sweet onions tucked under fingerling potatoes. It comes with haricots verts. Beef with butterball potatoes and spinach is satisfying too. The potatoes have a haunting smoky edge to the flavor.

But for my money, Shoemaker's fish dishes are the most outstanding. Shoemaker worked side by side with Michael Cimarusti at Water Grill and at Providence, and that training shows. Nobody is cooking seafood of this quality, really, west of Providence.

I would never voluntarily order halibut, which I consider one of the most boring fishes going, but Shoemaker just might have changed my mind. One, his halibut is very fresh. Two, he cooks it so that, instead of a dry, lifeless piece of white fish, it's almost custardy at the center, with a delicate flavor that entices you back for bite after bite. It's beautiful with a little oregano and some pretty summer beans. Salmon is another fish that's become a bore. But this is cooked with a bit of crispness on the outside and a shivery texture inside. Served with farm-fresh carrots and vivid mustard greens, every bite is worth savoring.

Someone's going to write in to ask: What about vegetarians? What about vegans? Any and all of those persuasions should be very happy here. Just taste the Bloomsdale spinach: the fleshy leaves are still emerald, slicked with a little butter. I could eat two bowls of the stuff. You might find baby turnips and their greens or heirloom beets with dandelion greens and pistachios. Potato purée is made with Yukon Golds, and I loved his peewee potatoes with pearl onions.

The wine list is, at this point, short and sweet, with a handful of white and red wines from around the world by the glass, including Syrah from Malibu Vineyards. A reserve list of older Bordeaux and California Cabs has just been added. There's a modest cheese selection too, which is a good thing. Each of the three is à point, as the French say, at the right moment. And that includes a glorious Époisses, the sumptuous runny cheese from Burgundy that works so well to finish off a bottle of Pinot Noir.

Just three desserts, but they're all excellent: a delightful chocolate brioche bread pudding strewn with fat pistachios, a silky buttermilk panna cotta with an intensely peachy sorbet and a demure crème fraîche cheesecake with juicy local strawberries.

Although its location might make Savory almost a purely local spot in any other chef's hands, with Shoemaker at the helm it's definitely worth driving out to Malibu for dinner at this lovely little restaurant. Think of it as a getaway. Go early, stop for a walk on the beach along the way. The drive along the coast highway is soul-soothing, just like Shoemaker's food. I can't wait to see what he'll do as fall rolls into winter.

Savory

Rating: two and a half stars

Location: Savory, Point Dume Village, 29169 Heathercliff Road, Malibu; http://www.savorymalibu.com; (310) 589-8997.

Price: First courses, $12 to $25; main courses, $23 to $29; vegetables, $7 to $10; cheese plate, $20; desserts, $8. Corkage fee, $20.

Details: Open for dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Lot parking in front.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

irene.virbila@latimes.com