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A Place That's Not Your Average Joe's

July 26, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Once, after I had bemoaned southern California's lack of good fish houses, I heard from a man who wanted to remind me of the salmon at Joe's Restaurant in Venice. "I'm too old to drive anymore, and I don't go out at night, but I'll take two buses each way to go to lunch at Joe's a couple of times a week," he told me. "It's my little treat to myself." All restaurateurs should have such loyal customers. The truth of the matter is that Joe's has dozens of them. Some will corner me at social occasions to insist that Joe's is the best restaurant in L.A.

It definitely stands out in the crowd of corporate, concept-driven restaurants that dominate the scene. Instead of a slick, high-powered PR campaign, Joe's sporadically sends out a newsletter produced in-house. And if you go there for dinner, it's rare not to see chef-owner Joe Miller behind the stoves or chatting with longtime customers. In a world of cloned restaurants and absentee chefs, Joe's is a place run by someone who is, above all else, a cook.

Miller's namesake is also one of L.A.'s most underappreciated restaurants. Joe's opened in 1991. The chef hasn't changed. The menu and format have remained pretty much the same, too. Which is to say the cuisine hasn't morphed from French-California to Caribbean or Russian to pique the public's interest or give the critics something new to write about. Joe's simply turns out consistently good food at moderate prices in a congenial atmosphere--and that's cause for celebration.

The "been there, done that" crowd, however, has moved on. Fortunately, Joe's doesn't have to rely on the trendy set, and faithful customers are happy to keep it that way. It's hard enough getting a seat on a Friday or Saturday night. Still, I'd like to see Joe's get more respect.

Miller inherited the cramped restaurant space Hans Rockenwagner left behind for more stylish digs in Santa Monica. He remodeled, turning the rickety hallway into something more substantial and adding a small patio with a canvas roof. But the layout is still odd, and it's difficult to tame the noise level. And the kitchen! Glimpsed through a slot of window behind the small bar, Miller works shoulder to shoulder with two or three other cooks. The work space looks big enough to produce a short-order breakfast and lunch menu, but sophisticated California-French cooking? No way. Yet Miller manages night after night.

I can always count on many of the same dishes I enjoyed the last visit. Recently, though, Miller has been able to bust out of his budget French food formula and occasionally offer dishes with more expensive ingredients, such as foie gras. But his cooking remains very much in the same rich, saucy vein. The menu also includes, in the French style, two four-course prix fixe menus at either $30 or $40; you choose one of two appetizers, a first course and a main course. (If you spot something on the prix fixe menu that appeals, you can order it a la carte.)

What's good here? Just about everything.

Appetizers are always a sure bet, especially a special of fat, sweet shrimp in orange "powder." Likewise, a stack of asparagus strewn with lump crab meat, encircled by tiny crayfish tails and dabs of saffron aioli. And I love the flaky mascarpone tartlet garnished with shavings of blue cheese crinkled like a Fortuny dress. It's harder to appreciate the grilled rare tuna with seared foie gras on rosti potatoes. It's a fashionable combination of ingredients, but I've never found a version that works.

It took me a while, but I've come to like Miller's eccentric ravioli. They're more like pelmeni than ravioli, flying saucers of dough with a duxelles stuffing and an equally intense creamy sauce loaded with sliced shiitake and wild mushrooms.

If you like fish, consider the slow-roasted salmon, cooked so that it has an almost custardy texture, served in a gorgeous sweet pea emulsion and decorated with a single baby carrot and some caramelized onions. An overly enthusiastic dose of truffle oil overrides the salmon's delicacy, though. Seared opah is interesting, plated with a fluffy quinoa pilaf and a shrimp and mango salsa. One night, crispy chicken isn't exactly crispy, but the meat and its juices are delicious with ribbons of fettuccine, asparagus and earthy morel mushrooms. Roasted beef, served rare and in slices over sumptuous mashed potatoes with slivers of deep-fried artichokes scattered over the top, is satisfying. And a new dish, a pot au feu that's more like a stew of unctuous short rib and beef tenderloin in a dark gravy instead of broth, is another rewarding choice.

Joe's wine list has matured in the last few years. The California selections are wide-ranging and interesting, and now some older bottles add depth to the list. It also offers a number of half bottles and dessert wines by the glass.

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