Zax Appeal

I had dinner recently with someone who'd moved here from San Francisco, and he told me his favorite restaurants here included a little place on San Vicente in Brentwood. Woodside? I ventured. With its exposed brick walls, wooden library chairs and tables jammed close together, it has always reminded me of San Francisco.

Yeah, he said, that's the place.

I had to break the news: It's not Woodside anymore. It's Zax. He responded with such a look of defeat and abandonment that I hastened to reassure him. I know people who refuse to get attached to a restaurant for fear it won't be there when they need it or that it will morph into yet another slick Italian or budget bistro. That's not the case with Zax.

The new owners, Chris Schaefer and his wife, Chantal, have kept the feeling of the place they named for their son, Zacharie. They did hang some new paintings and move the host's station, but the last time I was there, two guests felt comfortable enough to pull out a chess board for a game over dessert.

Even some of the wait staff has stayed on. Schaefer, who has managed local restaurants such as Ivy at the Shore, JiRaffe, Rix and Barfly, tried to keep Woodside's popular chef, Dean James Max, but when that didn't work, he found another up-and-coming chef ideal for the restaurant. Brooke Williamson had been executive chef at Boxer, the small, hip Los Angeles restaurant that recently closed.

Only 22, Williamson cooked her way into the sous-chef position at Michael's when she was 20. Before that, she worked with Ken Frank when he was at Fenix at the Argyle. For someone so young, she looks completely at home behind the stoves at Zax.

Six months into her tenure at Zax, Williamson's cooking is focused and in control. Weekdays she stays close to her one-page menu, which includes eight starters and just about as many main courses. On weekends, she adds more specials.

Her cooking is based on what's available at the farmer's market and from produce grown for the restaurant at the Veteran's Hospital garden across the street. Zax's menus follow the seasons--yes, we do have them in Los Angeles, though you wouldn't know it from many restaurant menus.

California cuisine means salads. Hers are nicely balanced and conceived. A big thumbs up to the grilled jumbo asparagus (these always have so much more flavor than the skinny spears) with baby arugula and a pleasant fig balsamic vinaigrette studded with gorgeous whole pistachios. Her red beet carpaccio is an arresting composition of thinly sliced crimson beets with Satsuma tangerines, lacy pepper cress and shaved ricotta salata--a firm, salted sheep's milk cheese. It's nice to get something other than Parmigiano-Reggiano. She also uses Manchego, an aged Spanish sheep's milk cheese, to good effect in a salad of prosciutto di Parma with tender butter lettuce.

For another starter, she scatters vinegar-marinated white anchovies on shaved fennel with mizuna, the Japanese green, roasted red peppers and a drizzle of aged sherry vinegar. But my favorite appetizer from the spring menu may be the brandade cakes, golden disks of garlicky salt cod and potato garnished with a dainty fried quail's egg and a dab of spunky horseradish cream. With the first corn of the season, she made a sweet corn soup swirled with creme fra'che and a touch of cilantro oil.

Her fish dishes are more imaginative than most. Instead of the usual steamed mussels, for example, she offers a mix of clams and cockles in a saffron-lemongrass broth. The latter look like clams, but are sweeter and more tender. And when she does something as simple as soft- shell crabs, she knows not to tart up the dish with too many competing flavors. Hers came out something like tempura soft-shell crab, crunchy and light. Alaskan halibut is grilled and served with lemon-braised artichokes and earthy fingerling potatoes in a citrus broth enlivened with coriander.

For a homey supper, you can't beat the meaty chicken glazed with lavender honey and served with a terrific soft polenta. It's a pleasing combination of flavors with the accompanying wilted bitter escarole. Dry-aged New York steak smeared with a Roquefort-shallot butter is juicy and flavorful, despite being thinly cut. It comes with enticing fried onion rings--the best I've had in a long time. Veal medallions have disappeared from local menus, so it's a surprise to see them listed here. Don't shy away from this old-fashioned dish: It's wonderful. The tender veal comes with a tangle of noodles sauced in the veal juices and tossed with porcini mushrooms, English peas and red pearl onions. Williamson's risotto is the essence of spring, made with white asparagus, crinkly morel mushrooms, small fava beans and perfumed with new garlic.

Desserts are just as fresh in feeling. If I had to choose, I'd settle on the cappuccino pot de creme served in a cup, topped with a little Frangelico cream and decorated with three coffee beans. Smooth and creamy, it's just what you want and not too sweet. Banana profiteroles are a hedonist's dream of banana ice cream, gooey caramel sauce and macadamia nut brittle. But though the creme de menthe ice cream sandwich looks ravishing--dark cookies against pale green ice cream with scissored fresh mint on top--the cookie was soggy the time I tried it.

The mostly California wine list offers a mix of tried and true labels with the occasional new name. And for those who'd like to linger, Schaefer has a handful of vintage ports.

One caveat: Zax is not as comfortable as it could be if the tables weren't so jammed together. Consequently the noise level is high. Of course, you can always dine early or arrive late enough so that by the time your entrees are served, half the restaurant will have emptied out.

Zax appeals precisely because it offers what a genuine neighborhood spot should: Real food and a relaxed and friendly ambience. The combination is so hard to find in Los Angeles that people from all over the city are claiming this small restaurant as their own. Brooke Williamson's delicious, uncontrived cooking plays no small part in their affection.

Zax Restaurant

11604 San Vicente Blvd.

Brentwood

(310) 571-3800

Cuisine: California

Rating: **

AMBIENCE: Amiable neighborhood restaurant with open kitchen, exposed brick walls and wooden library chairs. SERVICE: Friendly, yet crisp. BEST DISHES: Red beet carpaccio, grilled jumbo asparagus, brandade cake, steamed Manila clams and cockles, risotto, lavender honey-glazed chicken, braised veal medallions, banana profiteroles, cappuccino pot de creme. Appetizers, $7 to $11. Main courses, $18 to $27. Corkage, $10. WINE PICKS: 1994 Kalin Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Potter Valley; 1998 Dehlinger Pinot Noir, Goldridge, Russian River. FACTS: Dinner daily. Lunch Tuesday through Friday. Valet parking. 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.

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