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A Delicate Balance

March 09, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA

As soon as you're seated at jozu, a new california-pacific restaurant on Melrose Avenue, a waiter pours complimentary thimbles of sake from an iced carafe or bamboo pitcher--a small gesture, but a telling one. Jozu, which means "Excellent!" or "Well done!" in Japanese, is a serene haven for anyone more interested in having a pleasant evening over dinner than an A-list table at the restaurant of the moment.

Designer Margot Alofsin has transformed the former site of Itameshi-ya, and Tulipe before that, into a spare and lovely restaurant. Staves of bamboo shutter the windows, filtering out the rush of traffic and giving the room welcome intimacy. Wall sconces with shades that look like parchment origami cast a soft light reflected in simple wood-framed mirrors. Taupe fabric covers a long banquette and a handful of generously sized booths. Armchairs are curvy little bistro numbers of woven cane. Green palms, red-tipped bromeliads and white moth orchids lend the only spots of color.

In the brightly lit open kitchen, executive chef Suzanne Tracht, former sous-chef at Campanile, and sous-chef Crissy Fisher, an alumna of Postrio in San Francisco, work in flat white toques or baseball caps. Their menu is intelligently conceived and cooked with confidence. It's California cuisine with a Pacific Rim accent, which is usually better in theory than in practice. But Tracht and Fisher have struck the right balance. They turn out dishes that are neither too heavy nor too light, neither too boring nor too bold. And unlike so many cooks who set off down the fusion path, they combine ingredients and flavors that are truly appealing, not just different or startling.

Owner Andy Nakano grew up in his family's Japanese restaurant, Imperial Gardens on Sunset Boulevard (where the Roxbury is now). The former general manager of John Sedlar's now-defunct Bikini, he works the room with quiet assurance, stopping to chat at each table while keeping a watchful eye on the service and the plates coming from the kitchen.

And there are many beguiling dishes, especially among the appetizers. Golden, beautifully fried Ipswich clams with a spunky homemade cocktail sauce almost bring tears to the eyes of a homesick New Englander. The special of battered and fried Maine grass shrimp with their roe is crunchy and delicious with the sharp cilantro dipping sauce.

A tall mound of haricots verts with shiitake mushrooms and shallots in a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette is garnished with grated red radish and would be even better with just a bit less dressing. Another appetizer special that's fast becoming a signature dish here is a salad of tiny Japanese green chile peppers, sauteed whole and tossed with wilted pea shoots in a balsamic vinaigrette. The peppers' lazy heat contrasts nicely with the pea shoots' intensely sweet taste. And even people who normally won't touch the stuff reach with their chopsticks for bites of the smoking-hot cushions of Japanese eggplant, striped where some of the purple skin has been pared away, in a salty-sweet miso.

You can, if you like, make a meal of a couple of appetizers. Two likely candidates are quail in a graceful tangerine sauce paired with a cucumber salad dressed in sweet vinegar lit up with hot red pepper, and mussels in a light coconut milk broth swirled with saffron and cellophane noodles.

Main courses are on the hearty side. Who wouldn't appreciate the charred marinated pork chop, char siu-style in a sweet, shoyu-based glaze, sliced over soft, wrinkly nappa cabbage and served with steamed rice? Meltingly tender braised lamb shank is paired with velvety bright orange kabocha squash and wilted kale, all reassuring comfort foods. The rib eye in a Szechwan peppercorn teriyaki is a flavorful cut of beef that's perfectly grilled and served sliced over creamy horseradish potatoes that have real kick. But a double veal T-bone, though grilled absolutely a point, disappoints because it has so little intrinsic flavor. I can't remember when I last had a great veal chop, and, at $30, I won't be trying this one again soon.

The kitchen does a particularly good job with fish dishes, most of which are specials, so it pays to listen up before ordering. There might be a beautiful piece of crisped John Dory draped over wild rice tossed with bright, flavorful greens and ringed with a pulpy citrus sauce infused with fresh ginger. Or a slab of monkfish in a light lobster sauce surrounded by seared baby bok choy.

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