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September 23, 2009|S. Irene Virbila | RESTAURANT CRITIC

Josiah Citrin peers into the dining room, looking slightly rumpled and just a little anxious. Though he's been cooking in Santa Monica for almost two decades, first at JiRaffe (opened with longtime friend and collaborator Raphael Lunetta in 1996), and then at his own French-accented Melisse since 1999, this just isn't his usual crowd. Or at least not tonight. It's party time as guests lounge on the red sofas in the two-level patio lounge of this sprawling indoor-outdoor space and a social butterfly in a sparkly dress darts from group to group, Champagne glass in hand.

When the previous restaurant in the old Schatzi digs, Hidden, didn't catch on (maybe four cuisines coexisting in the same restaurant had something to do with it, you think?), the investors approached Citrin to see if he'd like to take on the restaurant. He did, and he promptly renamed it Cache, which means hidden in French.

For Citrin, this is the chance to do something more casual and less exacting than the French-California cuisine at Melisse that has earned him two Michelin stars -- and to serve more people. Creating a menu for Cache could be fun, a chance to put some of the dishes I suspect he likes to make at home on the menu.

Not that the veteran chef is going to be behind the stoves himself. As chef de cuisine, he's tapped Nyesha Harrington, a young cook who has worked with him at Melisse and Lemon Moon, an office workers' breakfast and lunch place in West L.A.

The combination seems to be working out quite nicely. He's got the experience and expertise. She's got the energy and attention to detail. Together they've created a restaurant that isn't going to set the world on fire creatively but delivers delicious food at an affordable price in a smart setting.


In the making

Admittedly, at first glance, the menu looks a little ho-hum -- been there, ate that, with familiar items like tuna tartare, various flatbreads, Mason jars, beet salad, halibut, etc. marching down the page, hitting all the sweet spots in the current lexicon of L.A.'s best-loved dishes. But it's the execution of the dishes that's telling, the way they go together, making the balance and finesse of these rustic preparations seem effortless.

I wonder, does Citrin stock his fridge with the petite French canning jars of foie gras and duck confit he serves here? And when he gets hungry, does he just slip a spoon into the silky foie gras parfait and slather a little on a section of baguette? Wish I had some in my fridge. It's very rich, though, and really needs a party of three or four to do it justice. The same thing goes for the duck confit in a jar, a less fatty version of duck rillettes in that the duck meat is shredded, the better to spread on the aforementioned baguette. Actually, the restaurant serves them with toasts and never enough.

The wood-burning oven inherited from the Italian side of Hidden's menu is used for flatbreads. These are oval, thin-crusted and irresistible. Carnivore types will zero in on the one embellished with nuggets of duck sausage, mozzarella and quartered artichokes. There's also a terrific version blanketed in four cheeses and sprigs of thyme. But my heart goes to the highly spiced sopressata flatbread that features thin slices of the spicy pepper-laced sausage with mozzarella, cremini mushrooms and whole sage leaves. These seem to disappear so quickly I'm thinking one may not be enough for a table of four.


A basic approach

In every dish here, Citrin respects simplicity. A prime example is the fire-roasted marrow bone, served with skinny toasts covered in richly flavored mushroom duxelles. You scoop the marrow out with a little spoon and spread it on top. Bliss.

Cache's glossy black mussels steamed in white wine with shallots and a touch of tomato are a lighter, fresher version of the classic. They come with fat French fries strewn on top. Wood oven-roasted calamari are served plain, the better to savor the taste of the squid.

And a special risotto turns out to be as perfect a rendition as I've had anywhere recently, each grain of rice al dente, bathed in stock. French-trained chefs tend to load up on the butter and make the risotto de trop. Not here. Inset with lovely bites of Maine lobster and garnished with a flurry of summer truffles from Umbria (and advertised as such), this should be on the menu -- permanently.

With its indoor-outdoor layout, Cache offers several options for dining: the indoor dining room (which can be loud), a handful of tables on the patio, plus more tables in a couple of cozy smaller rooms at the front of the restaurant. Outside, though, it's usually quiet enough to talk, a rare treat.

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