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RESTAURANTS : THE REVIEW

Fresh at its heart

Loyal Venice locals embrace the vegetable-centered menu at Axe.

January 23, 2008|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

"HAVE you had the nine-grain pancake?" my extravagantly fit friend asks me. "It's fantastic. About this big," she says, stretching her arms wide. "But the secret is, you can get a half order."

I nod and make evasive noises. I'm not unaware of the Venice cafe Axe (pronounced "ah-shay," not "ax"), but it's been years since I've been there. And let's just say I wasn't hankering to go back, remembering hard benches and lumpen vegetarian fare.

But when another friend, and another, began to sing Axe's praises, claiming the food is much more interesting now, that chorus -- and (let's be honest) the idea of a pancake with such a fanatical following -- nudged me into revisiting this popular Abbot Kinney spot.

Owner Joanna Moore founded the restaurant in 1990 in Santa Monica, but relocated to Venice in 1999.

I found something quite different from what I remembered. For one, there are now scads of cushions along the benches and banquettes, plus the occasional, very comfortable wicker armchair. I enjoyed the food too, especially the first courses and the sides.

I also found a restaurant that seems to run like a charm even though Moore and her sous chef Christopher Harbrant weren't in on a couple of my visits. Moore acts more as an executive chef, working with Harbrant, who has been here for six months or so, and the other cooks.

The staff is engaging and helpful. And the crowd is fiercely loyal. These are the Venice intelligentsia, folks in their late 20s and early 30s who have made this their neighborhood restaurant. Glitz is in short supply, but seriously good taste -- and understated style -- are not.

On nights when you don't want to spend big at Joe's or brave the noise and the chaos at Primitivo or Hal's, Axe is there waiting with its low-key, comfortable vibe -- and half a roast chicken for $24.

Axe keeps a low profile. The front of the restaurant is virtually hidden by two enormous palm trees, each framed in one of the big front windows. At the same time, it wears its colors up front: The menu, as well as a list of the farmers and suppliers of the top-notch ingredients the kitchen relies on, is posted on the front door.

Sit at the counter or at a table in the front dining room and you can see everything in the open kitchen. Wonder what the vegetable sides are today? And what the greens are? A cook pulls a heap of fresh, pristine Swiss chard onto his work table. There's your answer.

Where vegetables star

AXE is not a vegetarian restaurant (pork belly and braised beef short ribs are featured, after all), but vegetables are at the heart of the menu. The first item on the appetizer list, here called little dishes and salads, is the composed farmers market plate -- arugula with your choice of any four of the five vegetable sides each night. It's meant to be shared, but I noticed it going out to many a table as a main course.

Depending on the night, you might savor some of that tender, braised Swiss chard, delicious, dark, ruffled spigarello (an Italian leafing broccoli) and pan-roasted Yukon golds. Cut into big chunks, these potatoes are outstanding, crunchy on the outside, as light as a souffle on the inside.

Another great dish to share is something called "flatbreads and spreads," a platter of four spreads or dips. The selection varies and might include a rustic, house-made hummus, a marmalade of long-cooked greens, a sultry eggplant spread and muhammara, a sweet red pepper and almond dip.

A long tongue of flatbread with char marks from the grill is rolled up in a spiral: Just pull off pieces as needed.

Axe is a vegetarian heaven without being too ascetic. Olive oil is used with abandon; herbs and spices too.

Salads are fresh and appealing, like the simple shaved radicchio and arugula salad topped with Parmesan, or even better, the watercress, pear and blue cheese salad, garnished with toasted hazelnuts instead of the sweet, candied nuts similar salads get all over town. The cheese is a gentle blue called Hook's from Mineral Point, Wis.

The kitchen does a credible job with seafood. Pa-jeun, a Korean-style seafood pancake, arrives piping hot. Laced with shrimp, squid and lots of scallions and served with a spicy soy-based dipping sauce, it's so satisfying and filling, it could do double duty as someone's main course.

One night just as our waiter announces the fish special -- wild striped bass with various accompaniments -- someone from the kitchen rushes over to whisper something in his ear. "Change of fish," our waiter announces.

It's now New Zealand red snapper. But the kitchen doesn't just substitute a fish; this one has a different preparation, which shows somebody's thinking back there.

That braised crisp pork belly arrives as a single piece, in a bowl, surrounded by sharp, vinegary pickled vegetables and hot mustard, unctuous and delicious with that blast of heat.

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