Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Josie and the FD Cats

Josie Restaurant
(310) 581-9888
2424 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90405
$80 for my appetizer, entree and dessert

When writing reviews for restaurants, I always run into the question of objectivity. Not in the sense that I might be receiving gifts or special service because I am reporting on these restaurants, but in the sense that I always try to judge a place regardless of my present company. It is much too easy to dismiss a great restaurant when my companions are less than cordial or to trumpet a mediocre restaurant because of the good company. Luckily, in the case of Josie Restaurant in Santa Monica, I'm happy to report both the company and the food made the night.

We booked Monday night because of their relaxed corkage policy. With a twelve person party, we'd be giving them plenty of business anyway. The exterior is unassuming, actually difficult to spot from the street. Even with the combined intellects of my friend and I, plus our arsenal of iPhone, GPS and other smart devices, we still had to call to find the place. Inside, the lighting was low and the waiters genial, all the amenities you expect to find in fine dining establishments. We took full advantage of the Monday BYOB with a Bordeaux, California cabernet, white rioja, champagne and a rather alcoholic petite syrah. We would be making our own wine pairings. (For pairing suggestions, consult me for the FD Tip/Pairing chart)

Each of us received a slice of wild mushroom and gruyere quiche to start the night as an amuse bouche. This French term, translates into mouth amuser, is a a chef selected bonus. While the quiche may not be a true amuse bouche because it consisted of more than a few bites, it certainly amused my taste buds. The firm crust held in a rich mix of cream and cheese with the flavors of mushrooms peaking over the top. The little slice I had was the perfect amount, but it may have been too rich to start the meal. I was amused, but it could've been more playful.

My end of the table split four appetizers and two entrees, so I got a wide variety of tastes. We were all slightly disappointed that they didn't have the advertised Elk steak special that night, but that didn't deter us from getting a solid selection of dishes. I tried out my new iPhone camera, which could not get very good pictures in the low light. To compensate, I will of course describe to the best of my ability the layers of flavors I experienced. The white sea bass salad was an unlisted special for the night. I've always considered sea bass one of my favorite fish, and this simple salad highlighted its flavors. The tender white flesh of the fish was smoked to give it much more complexity and balance. Also, the fish matched well with the bitterness of the arugula salad. My crispy Berkshire pork belly with accompanying watermelon, cilantro and red onion salad was decadent. I've heard that pork belly is the new "it" dish and I'm not surprised. Good pork is so flavorful that it really puts American commercial hogs to shame. By itself, it was a little salty, but paired with the watermelon, the sweetness cuts right through the meat. I used to be skeptical about sweet and savory pairings, but not anymore.

California white sea bass salad

Berkshire pork belly with watermelon salad

The other two appetizers I tried were the sauteed frog legs with over a celery root puree and bacon-wrapped grilled quail. Now I've had frog before in Chinese cuisine, but never with a Gallic slant. They failed to impress me. The flavor of frog always seems to be the same, that bland protein flavor of white meat chicken. However, what the frog legs failed to be, the quail stepped up. Though the meat may be scarce on that little bird, what was present was rich and satisfying. Barding, the process of bacon-wrapping, makes a huge difference in delicate meat that tends to dry out.

Halfway into our dinner, Jono figured out a better way to take pictures. We combined the flash from his camera phone with my iPhone camera to get some much nicer photos of our entrees and desserts. Him and I shared the dry-aged farmed venison chop and the special cap steak. Now although we came hoping for the elk, which I've heard is the best kind of deer meat, I was not disappointed by the venison. The meat had the qualities of a good steak, rare and tender on the inside and seared on the outside. A poached pear paired with the chop to cut through the gaminess. Now when I heard Josie served wild game, I was expecting wild game. This venison was unfortunately farm-raised, thereby lacking much of the leaner flavor I expected from a truly wild animal. It definitely had a more complex flavor than beef, but it was not as unique as I had hoped. The cap steak on the other hand, elevated beef to another level. Granted, Josie is not a steakhouse, but I'd put money on that steak against some of the other chain steak places. Cap steak is taken from the same area as the rib-eye, which is my favorite cut of beef. It surrounds the "eye" next to the fatty tissue. The crust conveyed so much flavor deep into the meat that I would've been perfectly happy to sit there all night chewing on it. Luckily for me, the meat was tender enough that hardly any chewing was necessarily, and unluckily, it was soon gone.

Venison chops with wild rice

Cap steak

Discovering our cool new trick to photo dining, we eagerly took pictures of three of the desserts that arrived. My flourless chocolate hazelnut cake with a cookie crust and chocolate ganache filling was so dense that I could stick a heavy fork in it. Makes me wonder if the missing flour would have made it any lighter. But I was soon dwelling on the sinfully delicious cake instead. The pots de creme brulee, a collection of chocolate, orange and espresso creme brulees was a cute idea and tastefully presented. I only tried the orange one, and it was indeed robustly flavored. Finally the lemon sabayon cake resembled more of a strawberry short cake than a light custard as the name implies. The summer berries were refreshing.

Chocolate hazelnut cake

Three flavor creme brulee

Lemon sabayon cake

As our three hour meal came to an end, our group had scared everyone else out of the restaurant. The food may have been the draw, but the company was the focus. We had all worked hard to get our site up and running, and how else can foodies celebrate but by indulging in some quality cuisine. On our site, you can rate restaurants based on "food, service and vibe," but those three small words come way too late; I know now that a true rating is about the experience and that will always trump those three apart.

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