Joe’s Restaurant, Venice (February 2011)

On this shortish but much needed escape from Ann Arbor, I decided to take a bit of a risk and bookend my L.A. itinerary with two restaurants that I had never patronized (although I’ll admit, it’s not all that risky choosing among Michelin star recipients). With award ceremony festivities paralyzing Hollywood, we decided on Joe’s, a Venice mainstay for the past two decades. We checked in for our 6pm reservation and were led to our table by a doltish receptionist, who handed us menus devoid of any tasting menu option; when I inquired, he pointed us toward a three-course prix fixe and told us the kitchen doesn’t do tasting menus on Sunday, a major omission on their website. Fortunately, the situation was soon sorted out by our server for the evening, Ben, a skilled but not overly sociable gentleman, who told us the chef would be able to put together a tasting menu for our table.

After resolving that peccadillo, we were brought our first taste of the evening: a lobster knuckle cooked in brown butter with curried coconut, squid ink-laced mascarpone (described as “black mascarpone”), chives and picked pear. The succulent bite was a promising start to the two and a half hour dinner.

With amuses cleared, a busser came by with a selection of three breads: brioche, olive and walnut along with butter and tapenade. All three, I’m sorry to say, were dessicated–as if they had been reheated–and plagued by one-dimensional textures. I would have been happy with just one well-executed bread, preferably with a nice crust to it–is that too much to ask?–than three mediocre offerings.

Easing into the meal proper, out came a crudo of fluke with poppyseed, blood orange segments and pickled hon shimeji mushrooms. The citrus disarmed the fish’s protein structure, making the uniformly sliced pieces indescribably tender.

For our next course, we transitioned from the nearly raw to the just warmed through with two diver scallops, shitake mushrooms, sugar snap pea pureé and baby mustard greens in a mushroom consommé. Everything on the plate was expertly seasoned, and the broth was exactly what one yearns for on a hiemal night.

One delectable dish was followed by another: house-made cavatelli, wild mushroom ragu, Parmigiano-Reggiano and pea tendrils. The pasta had a great chew to it, but it was the caramel notes from the cheese combined with the buttery mushrooms that made this course memorable.

Having already enjoyed the lobster’s knuckle, we were next treated to its mitt and tail. There was just enough vanilla-parsnip pureé with which to coat each of the three smoked lobster nuggets, and tiny parsnip chips added a nice crunch to round out the dish.

I realize I risk rebuke from foodies by saying that something as mundane as chicken was my favorite dish of the meal, but this really was the best dish we had: a duo of Jidori chicken–sous vide breast and a roulade of dark meat with pistachio and golden raisin–in which all of the elements on the plate were simply exquisite; crisp skin on the breast gave way to meat that extruded juices each time even the slightest bit of pressure was applied, rendered pancetta cut through the velvety agnolotti filling of chestnut and foie gras, and the charred Brussels Sprouts did the same with the cherry-squash purée. In fact, the dish was so good the black truffle, meant to imbue the dish with opulence, struck me as wholly superfluous. After cleaning my plate, I walked past the open kitchen and told Chef de Cuisine Kris Tominaga, “That chicken dish was phenomenal,” to which looked up, smiled, and returned to running the pass.

For the final savory course, we were served a veal sirloin with barley risotto, black lentil purée and roasted carrots. Patina set the new standard by which veal dishes are judged, and this one fell far short. While I liked the barley risotto, the veal was tough, and the purée was gritty.

Unfortunately, another clumsy dish followed: a Prosecco and lime sorbet shooter. This palate cleanser was a technical failure. The lime sorbet was too tightly packed into the glass, so rather than enjoying the harmony of two flavors, I took in an unpalatably astringent shot of Prosecco and then had to use a fork to dig out the lime sorbet.

The slump of two underwhelming courses ended with the chocolate cremeux, coconut sorbet, and brown butter noodles. Luscious chocolate pudding, smooth sorbet, rice crispy-esque pieces of chocolate, and the nutty notes from the brown butter helped cleanse my memory of the previous course.

Prior to departing, as we sat at the table considering the meal in its entirety, we noted a number of foibles–rubbishy bread, a failure to mention the seared foie gras appetizer, no tray of mignardises–yet Joe’s put out a number of dishes worth returning for and still trumped our meals at other Michelin-starred restaurants in Los Angeles, including, Spago, Hatfield’s and, in some ways, even Ortolan.

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