Steady Hand

Josie Le Balch’s restaurant isn’t new or trendy, and that’s only part of the reason its clientele is so devoted
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Some L.A. restaurants make you feel as if you’re in the moment. Their names seem to constantly come up. Asking a person’s opinion is a conversational gambit. It is all very exciting; it is also very fleeting. By next month, word of a new venture will be on everyone’s lips. Other L.A. restaurants make you feel as if you’re in the know. These are the ones that have managed the great accomplishment of enduring. I find them far more interesting because they contradict the most basic of clichés. Aren’t people in Los Angeles supposed to be a superficial bunch always searching for the next trend? Yet here we are, not just going to an establishment but repeatedly going back.

Josie in Santa Monica strikes me as being firmly rooted in the latter category. Though open for only 7 years, the restaurant feels like a well-maintained 20. Which isn’t to say it feels old; it’s just not a place that’s going to crown a dish with foam. Instead of fashionable, Josie is civilized, a strange but apt word. It has a cozy, moneyed interior, with an atmosphere that invites lingering. Most important, the mature cooking of Josie Le Balch, propelled by the twin engines of French and California food, radiates with the assurance of a chef who has settled matters of inspiration long ago. At Josie one sits back in a booth watching culinary trends pass like the traffic outside.

Such a restaurant, which is built on a mutual constancy, has a deeper relationship with its customers than most. The business is confident that it offers excellence; the clientele agrees. That’s a pact. When an outsider voices criticism, things get testy. This was evident in October, after the inaugural Los Angeles edition of the famed Michelin Guide took a swipe at the restaurant. “Josie enjoys a reputation it may not always live up to, but its patrons remain loyal.” The comment seemed tame enough, but my e-mail inbox was soon brimming. “It was the only catty comment in the guide,” wrote one person. “They’re trying to show they can criticize the French,” wrote another, alluding to Le Balch’s lineage. A third closed with a zinger: “No wonder the guide is dying.”

Perhaps I’d spent too much time thinking of hot lists and too many nights screaming to be heard in the next new spot, but such disproportionate protectiveness seemed noble. A place that could evoke this kind of loyalty exerted an undeniable pull. I decided to revisit Josie— six years after my initial review—not to counter the Michelin Guide but because the spirited defense from its customers illuminated something I’d always suspected about long-lived restaurants in L.A. As Angelenos, we often seem fixated on what’s in, but we clearly hunger for what’s not. So many new restaurants cater to our vanity; these older ones speak to a need.

Josie sits on Pico Boulevard west of the 405, on one of the duller stretches of Westside asphalt. The contrast between the interior and the exterior is dramatic. To the right of the entrance is an open kitchen where burnished copper pots hang over a stove and a mesquite grill. There are two dining rooms. I find the front one more achieved, but both are wonderfully pleasant. Booths are upholstered in fabric with an artichoke pattern; walls are adorned with framed botanical prints. Sconces cast a glow over the tables. In the back room, a fire burns.

Le Balch’s father was a French chef who worked in Los Angeles and the Valley; she is a Californian. She learned the European tradition as a towheaded assistant in her father’s Sherman Oaks cooking school and as a young commis at L’Ermitage. She eventually would spend time in the crucible of Ma Maison under Wolfgang Puck. Today Le Balch’s style has worked out all its tensions and integrated a heritage both personal and professional. She was one of the first chefs to name on her menu the farms that grow her vegetables. Indeed, the graceful way she treats produce fection with warm goat cheese, chestnuts, and pomegranate. In all, the flavors are defined though the ingredients are many. The seared East Coast scallops with vegetable hash and chanterelles also has the emphatic honesty of the best California cooking. What is rarer—and it didn’t strike me until my recent visits—is the understated French quality that unites the dishes, where half of what’s going on is not apparent. Le Balch’s food never seems fussed with. Yet it is put together with an internal logic and a rigor that leave nothing to chance. Flavors bolster seasoning; texture amplifies taste. The brilliance of the airy sliver of quiche that serves as an amuse-bouche begins with the flaky crust. Frog legs come pertly bowed in a breaststroke position, gently cooked and sharpened with a sauce of brown butter, capers, and toasted almonds. Brittany saltcrusted Jidori chicken breast is served over stone-ground polenta and roasted cippollini onions, but it is anchored by the magical thing that happens in French provincial food when a well-salted piece of poultry spends enough time flattened in a hot pan. can make it seem like she is extemporizing on a farmers’ market theme.

You can see this in any number of salads, such as the one with endive, Stilton, watercress, and pecans, or the one with persimmon, arugula, and shaved fennel, or the autumn harvest mix in which a variety of roasted vegetables are brought to salady perfection with warm goat cheese, chestnuts, and pomegranate. In all, the flavors are defined though the ingredients are many. The seared East Coast scallops with vegetable hash and chanterelles also has the emphatic honesty of the best California cooking.

What is rarer—and it didn’t strike me until my recent visits—is the understated French quality that unites the dishes, where half of what’s going on is not apparent. Le Balch’s food never seems fussed with. Yet it is put together with an internal logic and a rigor that leave nothing to chance. Flavors bolster seasoning; texture amplifies taste. The brilliance of the airy sliver of quiche that serves as an amuse-bouche begins with the flaky crust. Frog legs come pertly bowed in a breaststroke position, gently cooked and sharpened with a sauce of brown butter, capers, and toasted almonds. Brittany saltcrusted Jidori chicken breast is served over stone-ground polenta and roasted cippollini onions, but it is anchored by the magical thing that happens in French provincial food when a well-salted piece of poultry spends enough time flattened in a hot pan.

 

Photographs by Edmund Barr