Big City Sophisticate

Josie LeBalch was once part of an informal group of chefs--Fred Eric (Vida), Octavio Becerra (Pinot Bistro), Josiah Citrin (Melisse) and Raphael Lunetta (JiRaffe)--who met six years ago to figure out a strategy for making themselves better known. Why should Wolfgang Puck, Piero Selvaggio and Joachim Splichal get all the glory? A new generation was coming up and wanted attention.

At the time, Le Balch was chef at Remi in Santa Monica and was relatively unknown except to a small coterie of young chefs and foodies. Her next stop was Saddle Peak Lodge, where she had cooked earlier in her career. But like her fellow chefs, she longed for her own place.

Josie Restaurant finally opened in February, almost a year late due to various delays, in the former home of 2424 Pico in Santa Monica. That casual, eclectic restaurant had been a boon to a neighborhood where the alternatives are mostly fast food or chain restaurants. Josie, however, isn't just another neighborhood spot. Nothing on the outside gives away that this is a big city sophisticate. Walk through the doors, and it could as easily be San Francisco or New York as Pico Boulevard. The maitre d's podium is just beyond the brown velvet curtain. To the right, through an arched opening, is the small kitchen.

Le Balch and husband and partner Frank Delzio, who runs the front of the house, have transformed what was a cafe into an elegant, if slightly staid, American restaurant. Walls are a soft olive gray, with raw silk sconces. Banquettes are covered in a subdued artichoke print. A few cozy booths line one wall, and there's a handsome wood bar in the back dining room.

Le Balch moves from American to Italian to French, even Moroccan, with the aplomb of a lounge pianist. You name it, she knows the tunes. On most nights, she can't resist adding four to six specials to the already full menu.

When you sit down, she'll send out a little something for the table, a sliver of wild mushroom and gruyere quiche. (Whatever happened to quiche anyway?) Josie has done a good thing in bringing this savory custard back.

Her cooking, which she describes as "progressive American with French and Italian influences," is skilled, and she doesn't shy away from strong flavors. One of the best dishes is Mediterranean cuttlefish grilled on skewers and served with tiny green lentils de Puy permeated with the heat and spice of Merguez sausage. When she can find fresh sardines, she cooks them in brown butter with lemon and capers as an appetizer. You can tell she loves wine from two of the appetizers, both of which are beautiful matches with reds. Her wild mushroom sandwich is a fragile puff of pastry cut in half enveloped in dusky sauteed wild mushrooms and a silky reduction. Her pretty scalloped ravioli are stuffed with butter-tender oxtails and sauced in a red wine and bone-marrow-enriched sauce.

One night she serves a little boat of seared foie gras layered with triangular toasts in a sea of apple soup the color and texture of applesauce. The idea makes sense: After all, cooks in southwest France saute foie gras with apples. But somehow it doesn't work here. The toast gets soggy, and the sweetness of the apple soup becomes cloying after a few bites. Another special, her voluptuous white asparagus in beurre noisette (brown butter) with diced potatoes, is delicious, but the garnish of vinegar-marinated anchovies distracts from the delicacy of the asparagus.

Specials may come out of what's available at the farmers market. When cherry tomatoes came into season, for example, she made individual tarts filled with fresh goat cheese and covered with tomatoes.

When is the last time you've seen trout on a menu? Josie's is billed as "campfire trout," sauteed in butter to a rich gold in a blackened iron skillet and served whole with a fragrant lemongrass nage and a summery duet of green and pale yellow beans. It is American in the best sense. She also pan-sears a narrow bar of salmon so that the skin is crisp and the flesh still rosy and translucent at the center. A gentle Meyer lemon sauce plays off the taste without overwhelming it.

One of the prettiest dishes is a tagine of fresh cod with silky preserved lemon and an array of vegetables, less familiar than standard Moroccan stews of chicken with cracked green olives or lamb with prunes. When the waiter removes the conical lid of the earthenware pot, he releases the gentle fragrance of sweet Moroccan spices. On occasion, though, this dish verges on the bland.

There's a homey Brittany salt-crusted chicken breast pan-seared and served with ground white corn grits, so good that I wanted to ask for seconds. There also is game, of course, very similar in style to what Le Balch cooked at Saddle Peak Lodge. Antelope is awfully pricey for such a mild-mannered meat. It resembles duck magret and is served with a boulder-like savory bread pudding, adding one more note of brown to an already somber plate.

If you feel like steak, the New York pepper steak made with her "Pop's" feisty peppercorn sauce is the ticket. Kansas City filet doesn't have enough of a char or the flavor to measure up to the best steakhouse steaks. And at more than $30, the best thing on the plate is the mashed potatoes studded with soft caramelized garlic.

The wine list is fairly large for such a new restaurant, and filled with familiar California and French labels. It could use more exciting up-and-coming names.

For dessert, there's a chocolate bread pudding with a snowy cap of whipped cream beneath a tender and dark chocolate ganache. Warm blackberry crumble is something like a miniature blackberry pie covered with buttery brown sugar crumbs.

So far, so good. Josie has been busy on each of my visits, even on weekday nights. The appeal isn't just that it's new, but that it's a personal statement. I love that the minute you walk into this neighborhood sophisticate, you smell garlic, butter, meat sizzling on the grill--the first clue that this new place, at least, is more about food than the scene. And that can only be good news.

Josie Restaurant

2424 Pico Blvd.

Santa Monica

(310) 581-9888

Cuisine: contemporary American

Rating: **

*

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.

*

AMBIENCE: Elegant, understated dining room with bar at the back and small kitchen at the front. SERVICE: Competent but overly exuberant. BEST DISHES: Grilled cuttlefish with lentils and Merguez sausage, wild mushroom sandwich, oxtail ravioli, campfire trout, tagine of fresh cod, salt-crusted chicken breast, New York pepper steak, chocolate bread pudding. Appetizers, $7 to $14. Main courses, $18 to $29. Corkage, $20. WINE PICKS: 1999 E. Guigal Condrieu, Rhone Valley; 1998 Hitching Post "Highliner" Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara. FACTS: Dinner Monday through Saturday. Valet parking.

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