Jessica Largey knows something about high expectations. The 32-year-old spent most of her late 20’s as the chef de cuisine at Manresa in Los Gatos, where she was tasked with holding on to the three Michelin stars awarded to David Kinch’s vaunted farm-to-table destination. At her first solo project, Simone, which finally opened along an Arts District side street in September after three years of intermittent delays, it’s probably safe to say that the pressure hasn’t subsided much.
Housed in a cavernous former photo studio turned Art Deco temple downtown, Simone reveals its intricacies almost immediately: Visitors stroll past antique mirrors, an open kitchen, and a cocktail bar surrounded by leaded glass windows to access the 75-seat dining room, one that’s richly outfitted with tufted velvet banquettes and handmade brass chandeliers. Largey’s upscale New California cooking is similarly meticulous. A swipe of crème fraîche spiced with Urfa biber chile lurks beneath snappy pole beans wading in a tart purple tomatillo broth, the cream adding richness to the fresh beans without obscuring their vibrancy. Elsewhere, Largey’s gastronomic sleights of hand are less subtle—a dish of charred late-summer squash is blasted away by an overpoweringly hot macadamia-laced chili oil. Thankfully, the same can’t be said for her seasonal spin on burrata. The Ventura County native dresses the silky curds with plums cooked down to a delicate sauce and enough salt to keep it from wandering into dessert territory.
Largey’s ability to coax otherworldly flavors from impeccably sourced produce is unsurprising, given her Bay Area pedigree. More confounding, though, are creations that seem more exciting on paper than in practice: avocado toast with abalone is dull; Japanese cheesecake is dry. Black cod wrapped with licorice-y hoja santa leaves—perhaps the most precisely cooked piece of fish I’ve had all year—is dotted with a thick sauce made from burnt corn husks. It’s bold and jarring, a boggled array of flavors born from one too few revisions, or one too many. Either way, it’s not boring. Much like the early career of Nina Simone, the soulful singer for which the restaurant is named, Simone is still searching for a clear voice to match its ambition. So far, the notes offer reason for optimism.
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