Sunday, November 23, 2008

Who Needs Stars in LA? Not Joe's in Venice

I've been tracking Joe's in Venice for some time now, but it took a $35 prix fixe dinner from Open Table's Appetite Stimulus program to bring me in the door. Part of the intrigue came just because of Joe's long-standing popularity in an industry that feeds on fads. The restaurant celebrated its seventeenth anniversary this year. There was renewed interest when it received a Michelin star last year, but lost it in the 2009 ratings. I wanted to see first-hand what it takes for a place to lose a star. What I realized was that Joe's never deserved a Michelin star in the first place.

Here's why...
When I say that Joe's does not deserve a star, I don't mean that it does not deserve high marks and recognition. I mean it in the sense that Joe's seem to fit in with the Michelin list. What I noticed most about the place, noting the blood red decor, exposed wood ceilings, colorful paintings and friendly staff, was this certainly wasn't a fine dining restaurant. Rightly or wrongly, Michelin has always been about high-end dining; therefore, most of Los Angeles' casual dining scene is left out every year. I'd say that Joe's captures LA but not Michelin, which is perfectly acceptable and even preferable in this Socal dining environment.

I usually hate to simply list the menu, but since this was a special case, I'll explain what Joe's had to offer for $35.

First Course
Mixed green salad with pumpkin souffle, roncal cheese, pomegranates, roasted shallots, pumpkin seed brittle and apple cider vinaigrette

Tuna tartare on smoked salmon with sliced cucumbers diced tomatoes and lemon oil

Both appetizers were expertly prepared, though the tartare lacked elegance in presentation. A mound of chopped tuna could have looked more appetizing. I enjoyed the lemon oil, which added the fruity flavors with barely a hint of tartness of the citrus. Smoked salmon played a compliment to the freshness of the tuna, giving me both flavors prepared and straight from the sea. The salad showcased many seasonal flavors of pumpkin and apple cider. It definitely tasted November, assuming Los Angeles had seasons.

First and a half Course
Honey-scented rabbit tenderloin with confit filled tortellini, shisito, chevre, pomegranate, brown butter apple vinaigrette

This course wasn't included in the prix fixe menu, but it was a component of the regular $75 tasting menu that sounded too good to pass up. Luckily, I didn't stick with just the Open Table menu; the tenderloin was my favorite dish of the night. The confit tortellini made me imagine potstickers; something about it, whether the texture or the taste felt oriental. The tenderloin itself didn't stand out, but the sauce made up for it nicely. Brown butter apple vinaigrette reduction certainly tasted as good as it sounds. Little bits of apple brought sweetness while the sharp vinegar cut through the luscious melted butter.

Second Course
Cavendish Farms roasted quail with wilted mustard greens, carmelized parsnip, wild rice, quince verjus, beet chips

Scottish salmon with spinach, maitake mushrooms, potato linguini, onion soubise, basil pistou

After that night, I don't think I will ever order quail at a nice restaurant ever again. There's just too little meat, however succulent, on those tiny bones. There doesn't seem to be a way to eat quail effectively and politely. Though the quail itself was not spectacular, the parsnip sauce and quince verjus made the poultry much more interesting. Quince is a sour fruit and the verjus is the sour juice squeezed from said fruit. I was underwhelmed by the salmon; I have yet to have a mind-blowing salmon at any restaurant that wasn't raw and wild. Soubise is a bechamel-based sauce. From what I understand, pistou is pesto without pinenuts.

Third Course
Autumn crumble of persimmons, quince and apple with almond topping, orange sherbet and candied ginger
Flourless chocolate cake with walnut ice cream
At this point my camera died after CUT and Ford's. But the desserts weren't pretty enough anyway. I've been seeing flourless cakes more and more recently; I wonder if it's another dessert trend. Since I'm not a baker, it boggles my mind making a cake without flour or any leavener. From my research, it seems that these ultra dense tortes are made purely out of eggs and butter. I guess the gluten-free diet doesn't coincide well with the low-fat, healthy diet.

Joe's is a nice restaurant, just not a fine one. But really, in Los Angeles, the best food isn't served on starched white tablecloths. Although I did see the buser at Joe's ironing the tablecloth before setting a new table. I also noticed that they still have their Michelin star placard above the bar. I'd say to Chef Joe Miller, banish Michelin, you don't need it! You may have lost your star, but LA has too many anyway.

1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd
Venice, 90291
(310) 399-5811
$35 for this menu, but usually $10-20 appetizer; $20-40 entree



Food, she thought. said...

It certainly doesn't look one-star worthy. I wonder if Joe's star was like the real estate bubble? If I had gone there when they had the star, I would have felt like it was worth it, but now that it is gone the food seems somehow deflated?

The food looked good though, and while that tartare looked awkward I love tuna and salmon mixed together.

Aaron said...

@Food She Thought That's a very apt analogy. Hype is definitely a large factor. Tuna and salmon do go well together in contrast

H. C. said...

the flourless chocolate cake has been around for a while (having somewhat taken over that molten-center chocolate lava cake) and I like it a lot since it has a much deeper, more intense cocoa flavor than the standard chocolate cake. But yea, wish restaurants would get a bit more creative with this standard dessert (when I made this at home I used almond extract and slices and a gianduja topping).

Aaron said...

@HC It definitely takes a baker to recognize qualities like that. I like the richness of the flourless cake too, but sometimes I feel like something both chocolatey and light, if that's not an oxymoron

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