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Sly, sensual and sophisticated

At Jar, chef-owner Suzanne Tracht thrives on the discipline of repetition. After two and a half years, she's hit her stride.

June 02, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

The change of ownership notice in the window looked ominous. Oh no, I thought, we're not going to lose Jar, are we? Not in a year when Nouveau Cafe Blanc, 5 Dudley and Chianti all shut their doors. Not this reliably excellent and very civilized Los Angeles chophouse. There goes that luscious pot roast, those baby turnips roasted with their greens on, the world's best fries and that demure banana cream pie! Say it's not so.

Not to worry, the hostess reassured me as she handed over the night's menus. Suzanne (that's Suzanne Tracht, Jar's chef-owner) is just getting new partners, Neal Rosenthal (producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond") and his wife, Monica Rosenthal.

I felt better. I already knew that Mark Peel, who had been Tracht's partner (but never behind the stoves) at Jar, had sold his part of the restaurant in order to focus his energies on Campanile, the restaurant he owns with Nancy Silverton. And I'd been a little worried that the 2 1/2-year-old Jar would go the way of the dodo just when it had matured into something interesting.

Now I could enjoy my dinner. And because I'd brought along a few friends who'd never been here, I had the excuse to revisit some of my favorites from the menu. It has the same user-friendly format, salads and appetizers listed on the left, broilers and roasts, braises and sautes, sides and sauces down the middle, with Jar's roster of excellent cocktails -- for instance, the Perfect Manhattan (and it is) -- and wines by the glass running down the right side.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant partner -- A review of the restaurant Jar in Wednesday's Food section incorrectly identified one of the restaurant's partners, Phil Rosenthal, as Neal Rosenthal.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 09, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant partner -- A review of the restaurant Jar in last week's Food section incorrectly identified one of the restaurant's partners as Neal Rosenthal. The partner is Phil Rosenthal.

The decor is simple, modern and a little stark (a makeover is planned for this summer). The exterior, though, isn't exactly inviting; it looks more like a bunker than anything else. The crowd is an eclectic mix drawn to Jar more for the cooking for any sizzling scene.

Of course, because of the Campanile connection, the bread is from La Brea, a big chunk of a chewy loaf with a thick, caramelized crust served with fresh sweet butter. That's enough to keep restive diners content until their first courses arrive.

For anybody from the East Coast, soft-bellied Ipswich clams are a siren call. They're expensive because they're so fragile to ship. Tracht doesn't do anything fancy: She just cooks them perfectly. Fried to a deep gold, they're crunchy little squiggles with a rich soft center. The deep funk of these clams is terrific with spunky cocktail and tartar sauces presented yin-yang style in a single dish. But the portion, with clams set on a thatch of piping hot shoestring potatoes, is arranged so as to appear larger than it is.

Tracht likes to take familiar retro dishes from the American repertoire and update them for a modern sensibility. I love her deviled eggs upgraded with fresh crab. I also love the fact you can order them by the half order. The same goes for her chopped salad. She thinks the cliche through again and makes it her own, with an improbable but delicious combination of fennel, red onion and cabbage against the salt tang of feta and green olives, embellished with chicken and, for garnish, a ribbon of Parma ham. Butter lettuce salad is showered with herbs -- chives, tarragon, chervil -- and delicate white-tipped breakfast radishes.

If she gets in Gulf shrimp, she might make a salad of the meaty shrimp with pink jewel grapefruit, ripe avocado and red onions in a perfectly balanced dressing. How good can a salad be? This good.

There are always fine oysters on the half shell, and this season there's a daring lobster cocktail served in a chilled bowl with slices of green mango in a fiery lime-drenched vinaigrette. It almost seems a riff on ceviche. Steamed black mussels become extraordinary when Tracht cooks them with fennel and serves them in their broth with emerald Chinese greens on top, and, on the side, a svelte lobster bearnaise and fennel salt.

Quite a few of the dishes have been on the menu from the beginning, but they've only gotten better. Many chefs fall asleep at the stove if they have to keep cooking the same things over and over again. Not Tracht. She seems to thrive on the discipline of repetition, honing each dish to the ideal, refining the timing until it is as perfect as it gets.

Order a steak and it's cooked exactly as you ask. The beef is prime and dry-aged. Kansas City (essentially a bone-in New York cut) is always a good bet, with your choice of a textbook bearnaise, a tangy tamarind or green peppercorn sauce, all of them excellent. The best steak I've had in a very long while was a recent special: a hefty porterhouse with exceptional flavor. Turned out to be $40-something when I got the bill, but it was almost worth it.

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