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STYLE / RESTAURANT

Miller's Outpost

September 15, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Last year, the guys from cafe katsu ventured over the hill to open Cafe Bizou on Ventura Boulevard and proved that good food at bargain prices can pack a restaurant every night of the week. More recently, Joe Miller, the chef-owner of Joe's Restaurant in Venice and Reed's in Manhattan Beach, has taken the plunge, opening Joe Joe's Restaurant in Sherman Oaks. And now, just a stone's throw from the first site of Cafe Bizou (so successful that it had to move down the street to larger digs), Joe Joe's is serving budget-conscious customers soul-satisfying food in a neighborhood-friendly space.

Miller took a typical boxy storefront, painted the interior light pink and outfitted it with plain but sturdy chairs, industrial carpet and a wine rack set in the wall at a jaunty slant. The only splashes of color come from the quirky children's book illustrations hung as art, the name "Joe Joe's" scrolling across a computer screen in red letters and the waiters' eye-catching ties. In the back, just like the original Joe's, the staff can be glimpsed hard at work in a brightly lighted kitchen.

Neither the comfort level nor the noise level (Miller has vowed to do something about the latter) will invite you to settle in, but Joe Joe's is such a good-natured place that these seem like minor annoyances. Just don't plan to have any leisurely get-acquainted dinners here. Mostly the well-dressed suburban customers seem ecstatic that they no longer have to drive all the way to the coast for a taste of Miller's food.

Though it's very much in the same vein as Joe's, the cooking at Joe Joe's is perhaps a little less polished. And some of the more complicated dishes haven't made the trip. But otherwise, the restaurant's lanky young chef, Thomas Munoz, handles the menu deftly. A dish that I love at Joe's, braised lamb shank with tomato-eggplant gnocchi, appears here as an appealing first course: pillowy tomato-pink gnocchi, satiny Japanese eggplant and chunks of succulent lamb shank in garlic-scented juices. Add a small salad, and this would make an excellent light supper. Another of the best dishes is the penne tossed with wild mushrooms, brilliant green fava beans and Parmesan. It's a good combination of textures and flavors that could be even better if the sauce were less soupy.

To best appreciate the chicken ravioli, you have to set aside everything you know about Italian pasta and consider Joe Joe's thick, saucer-shaped disks on their own. Substantial and chewy, they're filled with a finely textured forcemeat and sauced with a graceful tomato coulis perfumed with ribbons of basil. Saffron risotto is disappointing only in the way 95% of all restaurant risottos disappoint; it's almost impossible to make risotto in a restaurant setting without resorting to some sort of shortcut. As a result, the rice is swollen and gummy. The kitchen does know how to make a salad, though. At $4, pale endive embellished with good crumbled blue cheese and candied walnuts is one of the great bargain first courses around.

Entrees, with the exception of an occasional special, all come in at under $15, which may explain the restaurant's brisk weeknight business. If you order the roast beef medium rare, the kitchen doesn't fool around. The beef arrives on the rare side of medium rare, sliced and fanned out over good mashed potatoes, served with spinach and a beautifully modulated aceto balsamico sauce. Roasted pork tenderloin, served slightly pink, is juicy and delicious, and arrives on its own bed of mashed potatoes, bathed in garlic-scented juices and accompanied by perfectly cooked broccoli florets--a dinner any mother could love. There's also a demure chicken breast with carrots and mashed potatoes flavored with thyme. But just a lit-

tle repetitious, no?

Fish dishes are consistently very good. Grilled salmon is a nice piece of fish, translucent at the center, flanked by lovely grass-green basil mashed potatoes. Moist, flaky whitefish cooked beneath browned potato "scales" is a creditable version of this tricky dish, especially paired as it is with a wild rice pilaf under a spinach blanket.

The limited menu is supplemented by a few nightly specials, which are worth noting. One night, there's an arugula salad garnished with lardons of pancetta and two little bocconcini of mozzarella as well as a bright orange carrot soup laced with rosemary. When I order the Mexican sea bass with succotash, the waitress thinks to come back and tell me that the kitchen usually prepares it medium rare--is that all right? Yes, that's more than all right.

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