First of all, it's pronounced james beach, even though James has that apostrophe at the end. And what is it? The successor to West Beach Cafe, and very much in the tradition of that seminal L.A. restaurant, with its focus on American cooking. If you were to take a survey of L.A. restaurants, you'd find American cuisine giving way to French, Italian and Mediterranean, not to mention fusion, pan-Asian, Chinese, Japanese and Thai cooking. That's why it's a particular pleasure to find this restaurant, now in its fourth year, devoted to American cuisine.
Seven days a week, James' Beach turns out straightforward, delicious food as easily as a day at the beach. The chef is Shari Lynne Robins, who also runs the kitchen at Canal Club, the second restaurant of James' Beach owners James Evans and Daniel Samakow, who actually met at the bar at the old West Beach.
James' Beach has the feel of a neighborhood clubhouse run by sassy kids. Whatever its pretensions, it wears them lightly. The dining room looks somewhat barer than in West Beach days. Small paintings and art pieces on the walls seem dwarfed by the room. The crowd, as eclectic a mix as there is in L.A., is the real visual appeal here--Venice bohemians, old friends, first dates and unusually interesting faces. Happily, James' Beach is still a bona fide locals' place.
The stone bar, where movers and groovers once stood four or five deep, is now a quiet place to enjoy a glass of wine or an appetizer. The action has moved outside to the adjoining enclosed patio with its own lively bar, and to the tiny bungalow at the back of the patio that features a billiard table and, when used for private parties, a separate bar. Lighted by hanging lanterns made of colorful boxer shorts, the patio has an irreverent spirit. Heat lamps ensure that however small that slip of a dress, the wearer won't get goose bumps.
The menu is strong on appetizers. I go straight for the one-quarter head of iceberg lettuce with dreamy Maytag blue cheese dressing in all its crevices. The classic four-shrimp cocktail features a sauce with a big kick of horseradish. The Mykonos platter, triangles of puffy warm pita bread with three crocks of dips--a garlicky eggplant salad, taramosalata and a mild-mannered hummus--is large enough for the entire table. Next to that, the Venice antipasti of roasted peppers, grilled eggplant and marinated mushrooms seems subdued. But fried calamari are as crunchy as cuttlefish bones, deliciously paired with a chipotle mayonnaise.
Robins makes a soup of the day, too; one night it's a split pea (when's the last time you saw that on a menu?) updated with a flash of mint. But the best appetizer may be the tuna tartare, perfectly seasoned raw ahi tuna shaped into a fish and served with deep-fried wonton skins to scoop it up. Wellfleet oysters on the half shell, however, tasted metallic and watery.
James' Beach is not the kind of place to pretend to eat; go to the Ivy for that. Here, it's wise to go hungry. One night the "swimsuit special" (a low-calorie item) is one of the tastiest pieces of grilled salmon I've had recently, charred on the outside, moist within, and served with a loose polenta and steamed asparagus. Calves' liver with pancetta and beer-battered onion rings is nicely a point, rosy pink. Rack of lamb, sweet little lamb chops encircling chile-spiked mashed potatoes, is well-prepared, though it could be more flavorful. The same goes for the New York Angus steak--it's fine, but the beef isn't exceptional. The accompanying fries with skins on, however, are terrific.
Keep track of the daily specials so that you don't miss Robins' fried chicken (Thursday) or roast turkey (Sunday). Friday night's "beach style" lobster won't set any size records, but this steamed crustacean tasted closer to East Coast lobster than any I've had in a while. It comes with a tiny pitcher of drawn butter, baked potato and a three-inch length of corn on the cob. Wednesday's crayfish etouffee sounds great, but it is surprisingly tame for a Cajun stew.
With the exception of the salmon and the tuna tartare, fish is not the kitchen's strong suit, even though the ocean is only a block away. A monkfish special with Portobello mushroom sauce is overcooked one night. Ditto with the sand dabs, which also don't taste fresh.