Fresh at its heart
“HAVE you had the nine-grain pancake?” my extravagantly fit friend asks me. “It’s fantastic. About this big,” she says, stretching her arms wide. “But the secret is, you can get a half order.”
I nod and make evasive noises. I’m not unaware of the Venice cafe Axe (pronounced “ah-shay,” not “ax”), but it’s been years since I’ve been there. And let’s just say I wasn’t hankering to go back, remembering hard benches and lumpen vegetarian fare.
But when another friend, and another, began to sing Axe’s praises, claiming the food is much more interesting now, that chorus -- and (let’s be honest) the idea of a pancake with such a fanatical following -- nudged me into revisiting this popular Abbot Kinney spot.
Owner Joanna Moore founded the restaurant in 1990 in Santa Monica, but relocated to Venice in 1999.
I found something quite different from what I remembered. For one, there are now scads of cushions along the benches and banquettes, plus the occasional, very comfortable wicker armchair. I enjoyed the food too, especially the first courses and the sides.
I also found a restaurant that seems to run like a charm even though Moore and her sous chef Christopher Harbrant weren’t in on a couple of my visits. Moore acts more as an executive chef, working with Harbrant, who has been here for six months or so, and the other cooks.
The staff is engaging and helpful. And the crowd is fiercely loyal. These are the Venice intelligentsia, folks in their late 20s and early 30s who have made this their neighborhood restaurant. Glitz is in short supply, but seriously good taste -- and understated style -- are not.
On nights when you don’t want to spend big at Joe’s or brave the noise and the chaos at Primitivo or Hal’s, Axe is there waiting with its low-key, comfortable vibe -- and half a roast chicken for $24.
Axe keeps a low profile. The front of the restaurant is virtually hidden by two enormous palm trees, each framed in one of the big front windows. At the same time, it wears its colors up front: The menu, as well as a list of the farmers and suppliers of the top-notch ingredients the kitchen relies on, is posted on the front door.
Sit at the counter or at a table in the front dining room and you can see everything in the open kitchen. Wonder what the vegetable sides are today? And what the greens are? A cook pulls a heap of fresh, pristine Swiss chard onto his work table. There’s your answer.
Where vegetables star
AXE is not a vegetarian restaurant (pork belly and braised beef short ribs are featured, after all), but vegetables are at the heart of the menu. The first item on the appetizer list, here called little dishes and salads, is the composed farmers market plate -- arugula with your choice of any four of the five vegetable sides each night. It’s meant to be shared, but I noticed it going out to many a table as a main course.
Depending on the night, you might savor some of that tender, braised Swiss chard, delicious, dark, ruffled spigarello (an Italian leafing broccoli) and pan-roasted Yukon golds. Cut into big chunks, these potatoes are outstanding, crunchy on the outside, as light as a souffle on the inside.
Another great dish to share is something called “flatbreads and spreads,” a platter of four spreads or dips. The selection varies and might include a rustic, house-made hummus, a marmalade of long-cooked greens, a sultry eggplant spread and muhammara, a sweet red pepper and almond dip.
A long tongue of flatbread with char marks from the grill is rolled up in a spiral: Just pull off pieces as needed.
Axe is a vegetarian heaven without being too ascetic. Olive oil is used with abandon; herbs and spices too.
Salads are fresh and appealing, like the simple shaved radicchio and arugula salad topped with Parmesan, or even better, the watercress, pear and blue cheese salad, garnished with toasted hazelnuts instead of the sweet, candied nuts similar salads get all over town. The cheese is a gentle blue called Hook’s from Mineral Point, Wis.
The kitchen does a credible job with seafood. Pa-jeun, a Korean-style seafood pancake, arrives piping hot. Laced with shrimp, squid and lots of scallions and served with a spicy soy-based dipping sauce, it’s so satisfying and filling, it could do double duty as someone’s main course.
One night just as our waiter announces the fish special -- wild striped bass with various accompaniments -- someone from the kitchen rushes over to whisper something in his ear. “Change of fish,” our waiter announces.
It’s now New Zealand red snapper. But the kitchen doesn’t just substitute a fish; this one has a different preparation, which shows somebody’s thinking back there.
That braised crisp pork belly arrives as a single piece, in a bowl, surrounded by sharp, vinegary pickled vegetables and hot mustard, unctuous and delicious with that blast of heat.
Beef short ribs braised with soy sauce, chestnuts and daikon make a curious appetizer (or small main course). The Asian components take it out of the ordinary. Pasta is not the kitchen’s strong suit. Pappardelle with Bolognese sauce is oversauced and dull.
The roast chicken, beautifully browned, is large enough for two to share. When I tried it, the leg and thigh were perfect, but the breast was woefully dried out.
Porterhouse pork chop tends to be slightly overcooked as well, but the pan juices reduced with apple cider make up for any dryness. Add in some of that tasty sauteed spigarello and it all works.
Grilled rib-eye steak, though, isn’t the most compelling piece of beef. Oh, well, nobody ever thought Axe was a steakhouse.
The wine list is small and reads at first as a haphazard collection of labels. A closer look reveals a well-chosen selection, many at $30 or less. And there’s good stemware.
The small list of bottled beer is interesting, and in a way, Pilsener or ale may go better with the directness of the food. Check out the Erdinger Hefe-Weizen (wheat beer), the Chimay ale or Delirium Tremens, also from Belgium.
As for dessert, hope for the persimmon pudding special, a bowl of dark, steaming hot pudding laced with sweet spices and sitting in a puddle of cool cream. Or get the chocolate brownie pudding, which zeros in on the happy comfort zone of moist dark chocolate and cream.
And that legendary pancake? A half-order is about as big as a small pizza: The pancake is spongy and dense with whole grains, altogether delicious with a little butter and some maple syrup.
After almost two decades, Axe has the recipe -- and everything else about this hip neighborhood cafe -- down.
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Location: 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 664-9787; www.axerestaurant.com.
Ambience: Relaxed, popular neighborhood spot with a friendly vibe, featuring casual, eclectic cooking.
Service: Accommodating and friendly, but food can come out too slowly for type-A personalities.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $5 to $20; bowls, $10 to $26; main courses, $24 to $32; sides, $5; desserts, $3 to $8.
Best dishes: Composed farmers market plate, shrimp-squid-scallion pa-jeun pancake, braised crispy pork belly, porterhouse pork chop, whole grain pancake, persimmon pudding, chocolate brownie pudding.
Wine list: Small but well-chosen, selection, most with brief descriptions and many at $30 or less, plus some excellent domestic and imported beers. Corkage fee, $15 per bottle.
Best table: One of the two at the front window of the second dining room.
Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, for brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and for dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Beer and wine. Valet parking complimentary Friday through Sunday, $4.50 rest of the week.
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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