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Riding Another Wave

September 17, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

WITH ITS FABLED WAVES, LEGIONS OF SURFERS, buffed bodies, mansions and horse ranches, is it any wonder Malibu conjures up the Southern California coast at its most romantic? Or why Wolfgang Puck chose it as the setting for his splashiest restaurant back in 1991? Granita is named for Italy's refreshing ices, which melt on the tongue like snowflakes. The very word conjures up warm weather, balmy breezes and seaside pleasures.

Too bad that Granita, the restaurant, is housed in a mall, where the only sense of the sea is the salt tang in the air. That must be why designer Barbara Lazaroff, Puck's wife and collaborator, decided to evoke waves, tide pools and creatures of the sea in her elaborate design. Using American crafts--glass, ceramic, tiles, fabrics, mosaic--she also makes reference to Malibu's bohemian side. Every surface is patterned in a kaleidoscope of colors so dizzying that some people prefer to sit outside, where they can focus on the food.

When Lee Hefter, now chef at Puck's showcase Spago Beverly Hills, was cooking there, Granita was more of a destination restaurant. Now under Jennifer Naylor, it has reverted to a comfortable, laid-back restaurant that caters mostly to locals. In the three years Naylor has been chef, her cooking has evolved from over-the-top California cuisine to a more confident and infinitely more appealing simplicity.

In the best Spago tradition, thin-crusted pizzas baked in the wood-burning oven are inventive and delicious. I'm partial to the one topped with pancetta, tender bufala mozzarella and grilled treviso (the long burgundy and white-streaked radicchio), which plays the bitterness of the treviso against the milky bufala. There's also a wonderful pizza carpeted in smoked scamorza and four kinds of onions--David Geffen's favorite, the server points out, not so subtly making reference to the restaurant's star-studded clientele. Also lovely is the wild mushroom pizza embellished with crumbled Gorgonzola and slender sauteed asparagus.

Like Spago or Chinois on Main, two of Puck's top restaurants, Granita's kitchen gets to work with the best ingredients. Produce, for example, comes largely from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. And the chopped vegetable salad here is a model of the genre. Naylor's terrific antipasto plate is large enough to occupy two to four people. It includes prosciutto di San Daniele (a cured ham from Friuli prized for its sweet, mild taste), sliced bufala interleaved with heirloom tomatoes, marinated olives, grilled asparagus and a bowl of crudites along with a warm anchoiade for dipping.

A beautiful salad made with astonishingly flavorful heirloom tomatoes--butter yellow, red, orange, striped green--and bufala mozzarella with opal basil and toasted pumpkin seeds is a California take on Caprese salad. It's a shame most Italian restaurants don't take the time to search out such good tomatoes.

Before ordering your meal, listen to the specials. One night there were Portuguese sardines, charred and moist, fabulous with ribbons of fennel and sweet red onion, and a tall peeky toe crab salad layered with avocado and mango and brought into focus with a blast of wasabi-infused tobiko.

Pastas are generally heavy, which is surprising given that Naylor worked with Nadia Santini the at Michelin three-star dal Pescatore near Mantua. The filling of her four-cheese pansoti, stuffed with Tuscan pecorino, bufala ricotta, robiola and Parmigiano-Reggiano, is delicious, set off by a drizzle of butter and stock. But the dough is

less supple than the ideal, which is also the case for her pumpkin-stuffed tortelli. The 8-year-old at our table is delighted with the spaghetti and Sonoma lamb meatballs in a sauce made with ripe garden tomatoes, oregano and rosemary. It's a lovely update of a classic.

The seafood quality here is outstanding, though some of the preparations don't show off the fish and shellfish as well as they could. You can almost always find wonderful oysters on the half shell garnished with a tiny scoop of limoncello granita. The idea is smart, but this granita is so sweet that it masks the complexity of the oysters. No such qualms about the bouillabaisse, an engrossing seafood stew of gulf prawns, sea bass, mussels and clams in a saffron-tinted broth. Branzino (Mediterranean striped bass) is a gorgeous fish roasted whole, but it's too strongly permeated with rosemary. The grilled treviso that comes with it is greasy. And an unusual pan-roasted black grouper is done in by a tomato-eggplant fondue that tastes more like tomato paste with eggplant.

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