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Country Charm for City Sophisticates Country Charm for City Sophisticates

May 11, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA

After a week of dining in restaurants so noisy that I got a sore thoat from shouting across the table to be heard, dinner at 3 1/2-year-old Jackson's in West Hollywood came as a welcome relief. I'd almost forgotten there are still restaurateurs who value serenity, who expect that their customers might actually like to have a conversation over dinner. At Jackson's, such things are understood.

The room itself is relaxing, with soft lighting created by wagon-wheel chandeliers inset with candles and wall sconces cut from old galvanized tubs. In the background, a recording of vintage Caruso or something equally soothing plays softly. The decor is attractive and understated: brown leather banquettes, bucolic paintings and pretty bouquets stuck into old-fashioned canning jars. Jackson's has the requisite California-style open kitchen, but its rumble and heat are relegated to the back of the room, up a slight incline, so diners feel the presence of cooks without the distractions. Except for hallway photos of farm scenes and the prewar West, which give the restaurant an artificial nostalgia, the conceit of country in the city is well done.

More unusual is Jackson's devotion to the quiet pleasures of the table. Food is less flashy than it was under the team of chefs Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta. (They left just over a year ago to open their own place, JiRaffe in Santa Monica.) The menu, which changes every month or so, is filled with light and delicious food. Breads are baked on the premises. The one-page wine list is fairly priced. And service is attentive and correct.

A restaurant on the Westside can hardly survive without salads. Jackson's excels at both first- and main-course compositions. Juicy julienned red pears star in a tall salad with baby arugula, crumbled Cabrales cheese (a distinctive creamy blue from the Asturias region of Spain) and sugared black walnuts. Tossed in a sparkling sherry vinaigrette, it's a wonderful combination of flavors. So is the salad of butter lettuce, matchsticks of green apples and celery root crowned with crystalline dried apple chips. Even when you order rock shrimp and crab cakes, you get a huge pile of fluffy greens, with two rather limp crab cakes on the side.

The kitchen pays attention to soups, too. One night it's a smooth celery root puree; on another, an onion soup without the melted cheese covering that makes French onion soup so heavy and cloying. The light, graceful version served here is a flavorful brown broth laced with lots of sweet onions.

Even the pasta is pretty decent. The one I like best is supple ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and celery root that's slightly sweet, like a California version of Mantua's famous tortelli di zucca (only without the crushed amaretti cookies that usually go into the filling), sauced simply in brown butter and a scattering of diced fresh tomatoes.

I'm thrilled to find a restaurant that makes an effort to serve interesting vegetables. Like salsify. And celery root or artichoke puree. A roasted chicken breast might be served with a ragout of fresh white corn, new peas and diced potato or a lovely mix of whatever's in season. These are all signs that somebody is at home in the kitchen, somebody who truly enjoys cooking and likes to eat, too.

I'd give a slight edge to the fish dishes on the menus I've sampled recently. There's an astonishingly good salmon with crisped golden skin, beautifully flaky and moist underneath, set on a seductively earthy artichoke puree and accompanied by fennel that's been roasted to a caramelized tenderness. The counterpoint of flavors is superb. I'm also taken with the sea bass served with a three-bean hash, tiny, halved artichokes and a velvety fava bean puree. Horseradish-crusted halibut packs a wallop of the sinus-clearing root and is presented on diced beets.

Meats are good as well: roasted rack of lamb in its juices sweetened with a drop of honey and infused with the sharp tang of tarragon, a prime rib topped with smashed foie gras and a juicy pork loin roast on the bone, served with balsamic-glazed Brussels sprouts, charred chile peppers and mashed potatoes with caramelized onions. Spring's menu offers a nicely browned braised veal shank, its meat fork-tender. I am prepared to love the sweetbreads with spaetzle (or any dish that comes with the eggy squiggles); too bad everything on the plate is drowned in a dull brown reduction. And a huge Porterhouse special is ruined one night by pungent and very bitter mashed garlic paste--one of the few lapses here.

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