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RESTAURANTS : A MALIBU POINT OF VIEW : Geoffrey's Menu May Change Every Week, but the Vista Is Eternally Romantic

February 23, 1992|Charles Perry

Russian food in Malibu? Hey, let's make that great Russian food, the best ever had, in Malibu or anywhere else . . . at least for one week.

It's hard to imagine a more unlikely setting for Russian cuisine than Geoffrey's (the name is apparently pronounced "Joffrey's," like the ballet company, rather than "Jeffrey's," as in Chaucer), the gastronomic pride of this stretch of beach. This is one ultra-California, ultra-Malibu restaurant--engulfed in gardens, flooded with soft light and sea breezes, practically sloshing with ocean view. People mostly sit outdoors protected against occasional cold weather by space heaters. Even the inside seating seems outdoors because the huge windows are unglassed; on chilly or windy days, the staff just draws sturdy, transparent plastic over them.

In other words, it's an impressive Southern California date restaurant, rife with opportunities to contemplate Pacific sunsets and moonlight over the water. Its price list tends to the impressive-date category, too. Good food of any kind is rare enough in such places; good Russian food is positively amazing.

The Russian food was so good when I had it in January that I asked the waiter if the dishes listed as "Tastes of Moscow" were really Russian or if the chef was simply drawing inspiration from an exotic theme, as California chefs are wont to do. Really Russian, he said, researched and created by chef Robert Grenner.

I've got to get a copy, because these dishes made most Russian food seem heavy and flat-footed. Take the red-bean soup, for instance: It's a bean puree--practically a bean essence--with chunks of walnut and feathery bits of dill floating around, the whole thing sprinkled with parsley and garlic. Beans rarely get as exciting as this.

Actually, I knew the wild-mushroom-and-barley croquettes were authentic because they're often mentioned in Russian and Ukrainian cookbooks, though I never see them in L.A. restaurants. They were wonderful, as earthy as you'd expect but at the same time sophisticated--light and crumbly, separated by asparagus spears and spots of tangy tarragon sauce.

The idea of beef with prunes sounded risky, but it worked well enough (it would have worked better with pork or game, I think): strips of steak in a reddish sauce of prunes, meat juices and pearl onions with a whiff of fennel. By this point, I was too sated to try a Russian dessert. Next time, I told myself.

But the next time I went to Geoffrey's, the "Tastes of Moscow" had been replaced on the menu by a section absurdly named "Shanghai (Sichuan)"--the American equivalent would be "San Francisco (Texas)." It consisted of middling, fairly non-hackneyed Chinese dishes: fried "golden squid" with a mint-scented stuffing and a nutty miso sauce, tiger prawns cooked in very loud peanut oil and accompanied by crunchy little things that might have been fried bits of water chestnut. But they couldn't compare to the Russian dishes.

It turned out the part of the menu I had been looking at is an insert called "Tastes of the World," the restaurant's weekly ethnic adventure. The regular menu, which doesn't change, tells a different story. There you'll find California cuisine of a certain type: eclectic, overly hip (the words goat cheese , sun-dried and free-range are spattered everywhere, and every other dish seems to be grilled) or sometimes dated hip (roasted pasilla pepper stuffed with goat cheese and prosciutto) and betraying a penchant for too much sweetness.

The soups tend to light, simple flavors. Blue-crab-and-roasted-corn chowder may be based on crab broth--I didn't find any solid crab--but it's fresh and pleasant with the crunch of kernels and bits of nearly raw red onion. The Mediterranean fish stew resembles a soup rather than a stew, but the fish and scallops come in a good saffrony broth. The three-color gazpacho tastes fresh but lacks character--or maybe just olive oil. On the other hand, the caramelized elephant-garlic soup with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is thick (almost gluey) and full of complex toasted flavors, but by the time you've worked halfway through the bowl, the complexity may no longer register.

Geoffrey's does better with salads. Plain mesclun comes in a tangy miso sauce, and arugula and watercress are mixed with mushrooms and pecans. The combination is dressed in familiar honey mustard, which offers a clue to the entree, where quite a few of the meats are accompanied by something sweet.

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