Combine the first names and talents of twentysomething chefs Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta, and what do you get? Their 21/2-month-old California-French bistro, JiRaffe. Best friends for most of their lives, the two teamed up at Jacksons in West Hollywood for two years. Before that, they worked together and independently in France and in the L.A. kitchens of Wolfgang Puck and Joachim Splichal. Now they are back home in Santa Monica, where they grew up, cooking side by side.
Citrin and Lunetta had the good luck (or business acumen) to snag a corner space right next door to Abiquiu. The spare, light-filled restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides that look out on the street-level cityscape. So many L.A. restaurants focus inward that an actual view--of anything--feels exotic. This one is just that: beach-casual couples walking their dogs, other strollers heading for the Third Street Promenade, ballroom dancers decked out and bound for a nearby dance studio.
A first dinner, just days after JiRaffe opened in early April, was so good that I was thrilled. Finally, I thought, a new place I could rave about. But restaurants, as we all know, are changeable. When I went back several times recently, I never had what I would call a bad meal, but I also never had a meal that rang quite as true as that first one. Being able to cook is one thing; running a restaurant is another. And keeping the quality of the food consistent day in and day out may be hardest of all.
The truffled artichoke carpaccio that had seemed so surprising and delicious the first night, a swirl of thinly sliced artichoke hearts lightly perfumed with truffle oil, is doused with the powerfully scented oil. The lovely tomato and goat cheese gnocchi strewn with snap peas and a medley of picture-perfect spring vegetables in a pale pink sauce, now comes with a ragtag collection of vegetables, mostly zucchini chunks. Chilled pea soup, poured into a shallow bowl until the seared scallops are submerged, appears thick as porridge, dull in flavor. And the mixed mushroom salad, a fluffy mound of frisee, sauteed wild mushrooms, crunchy homemade croutons and shaved Parmesan, tastes a bit tired, just a little greasy.
Still, there are some high notes. The basket of buttery brioche is just as irresistible on later visits (and helps to keep hunger at bay when the food is slow to arrive). The pork chop, one of the best dishes on the menu, is every bit as good as it was the first time, a big, juicy chop caramelized at the edges and served in a sweetly seductive cider sauce. Peppered beef is excellent, too, sliced rare, with the strong bite of cracked peppercorns, accompanied by a stacked potato cake and fabulous sauteed spinach leaves. The duck breast, with its marvelous ribbon of fat and crisped skin, doesn’t have as much flavor; but I do love the fluffy golden couscous dotted with bits of dried fruit.
Whitefish encrusted with an ochre-colored Moroccan spice paste sharply scented with cumin, and served with a graceful carrot ginger emulsion scattered with sugar snap peas, is wonderful. Another night, thinly sliced swordfish is garnished with preserved lemon and Parmesan shavings: a terrific appetizer. These are imaginative, truly interesting dishes. I only wish there were more of them on the menu. Bass wrapped in potato “scales” takes a real technician to pull off; the danger is that by the time the potatoes are bronzed, the fish is overcooked. That’s exactly what happens both times I try it. It’s harder to fathom why the perfectly cooked salmon with pureed parsnip falls so flat.
With only two or three specials each night, everything on the regular menu should be terrific--but it’s not. I’m convinced that Citrin and Lunetta are talented enough to make their own restaurant work; they just need time to grow into it. But with prices fairly moderate, no one is going to feel too disappointed at the glitches. We know they can cook. They just have to learn to pull it off every night.
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AMBIENCE: Sleek corner bistro with loft.
BEST DISHES: swordfish with lemon, spiced whitefish, grilled pork chop, peppered beef.
WINE PICKS: Marimar Torres Chardonnay, Green Valley, 1993; Marques de Murrieta, Rioja Reserva, 1990.
FACTS: 502 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 917-6671. Closed Monday, and Saturday and Sunday at lunch. Dinner for two, food only, $50 to $65. Corkage $10. Valet parking on 5th Street.