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Worldly Pursuits

July 08, 2001|S.IRENE VIRBILA

In Los Angeles, restaurants come in and out of fashion as fast as the clothes at Maxfield or Fred Segal. There are some exceptions: 72 Market in Venice had a very long run, bolstered by celebrity owners--actor Dudley Moore and producer Tony Bill--and the Venice art crowd. But last year, despite the release of a glossy cookbook, the restaurant was in the throes of a lingering malaise. No one seemed to care about the food anymore and the restaurant's joie de vivre was long gone.

Now a new restaurant, a serious one, has moved into the ingenious Morphosis-designed space. It's called Globe Venice, and it's the Southern California outpost of San Francisco's Globe, a popular late-night chef's hangout in the financial district. No, we're not being colonized; there is a Los Angeles connection. Globe's chef/co-owner Joseph Manzare was a chef at Granita and head chef at Spago in Hollywood before moving up north, and he has long had a hankering for his own restaurant in the Los Angeles area.

Manzare and partner Mary Klingbeil couldn't have found a better space for their L.A. debut. A block from the beach, in an interesting building to boot, Globe moved in quietly three months ago. The partners have exposed the original brick on some walls and dabbed some buttercup yellow and lime-green paint on others, not much of a change, while installing some crayon-bright paintings. Yet the whole tone of the restaurant feels different, less cozy than before. And those towering Gaudi-inspired vases of broken tile seem ludicrously out of place in the room's bare-bones industrial cool.

Manzare's menu is exactly the opposite. It's soulful California cooking, about as far from the formulaic, the more-ingredients-the-merrier parody of California cuisine as you can get. The dishes make sense, and the flavors are bright and clear. You'll want to eat most of them again and again.

Globe's homemade mozzarella from Jersey cow milk is tender and addictive. The garnish? A sprinkle of fluffy fleur de sel, the mineral-laden sea salt from Brittany, a few leaves of arugula and some great olive oil. One night the special starter is minestrone, which rarely makes an appearance on Italian menus anymore. This minestrone isn't your typical Italian American version. It's light and flavorful, chunky with tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, green beans and other vegetables, an early summer medley.

That old French standby, salade aux lardons, is excellent, made with pale green wisps of frisee and a poached egg dressed in a warm pancetta vinaigrette strewn with crisp cubes of Italian bacon instead of the traditional lardons. Be sure to cut into the egg right away, so the yolk runs and mingles with the dressing, coating each bite of the frisee.

A baker's dozen of freshly shucked oysters is a steal at $19. The steamed mussels get a nice lift from Meyer lemon, that mildest and sweetest of citrus. Another week, the mussels are served with Yukon gold potatoes and a dab of fragrant pesto. Another ideal starter is the home-smoked salmon with rafts of grilled bread and a svelte dill creme fra'che.

Oh, I almost forgot the pizzas. There are just three of them, but they're all terrific. There's a version of pizza Margherita, the classic tomato, cheese and basil pizza, made not only with fresh mozzarella but also Parmigiano-Reggiano and fontina. Vegetarians and vegetable lovers alike should be pleased with the pizza covered with velvety eggplant and artichoke. But my favorite has to be the potato, arugula and pancetta pizza. The pancetta is cut thinly enough that it just begins to crisp at the edges in the oven, giving each bite of the pizza a smoky-sweet edge.

As for main courses, don't pass up the roast chicken for two, which will also feed three nicely. This is the real thing, crisp and juicy, served family-style on a big platter. Manzare changes the recipe from menu to menu. When I had it, he was serving it with verjus, unfermented grape juice that, swirled into the chicken's juices, adds an intriguingly tart note. It also came with aligot potatoes--whipped with butter and fontina cheese--the dish from the mountains of central France made famous by three-star chef Michel Bras in Laguiole (who uses Cantal cheese in his).

A mesquite-grilled double-cut T-bone for two comes out perfectly cooked, cut into slices and accompanied by grilled onions and a creamy potato gratin. Alaskan halibut is prepared en papillote, sealed in a parchment packet with porcini mushrooms, leeks, carrots and celery. When the waiter opens the packet at the table, the fragrance of the porcini envelops us. On the other hand, rotisserie leg of lamb, thin slices fanned on top of an artichoke puree, is done in by a sauce that overpowers the taste of the meat.

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