Zax: Solid Gourmet Creativity
Posted by Jules Brenner on Nov 1, 2003 - 4:52:00 PM
11604 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood
Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: to 10:30 p.m.
Sunday: 5 to 9 p.m.
Cuisine: Contemporary American Parking: Valet, $4 Credit cards: All major cards Reservations: Highly recommended if not essential.
Average dinner cost (1 drink): $40 Drinks: Beer and wine
Taken by Astrid Delgado
Special dishes: Gazpacho, sweet pea ravioli, slow-roasted halibut in an orange-tomato sauce, maple leaf duck breast in a peppered beet-duck sauce, dry-aged prime NY steak in a red wine reduction. Service: Balanced professionalism and friendliness from a staff not likely to be looking for other jobs. Ambience and decor: Brick walls with wood accents including framed art create a solid zone of comfort conducive to exemplary dining.
After two examples of great food at modest prices (Zen Grill and Cafe Bizou) I've chosen a bistro in Brentwood where the emphasis is on casual comfort, high standards of food quality, and creative concepts. The prices might be more than "modest" but when you want excellence in the basic food and ingredients you need to be willing to spend a little more. Along with that, at Zax you get a chef and staff determined to make this a dependable adventure in varied, seasonally inspired cuisine, masterfully prepared.
My introductory dish, that is, the appetizer I chose, immediately established what I was in for with this palate-enticing fare. (The palate may not be the organ of taste but I know what I like). The gazpacho soup could only have been made with such intensity of flavor if a reduction was part of its preparation. I can easily say that I've never had a gazpacho with such a rich complexity of flavor. The only downside is that outside of these walls I might forever be disappointed. My standard of what a gazpacho can be has been raised to a new level.
No doubt it worked that way on me because of my love for spice, so be advised if your taste differs. If you can't take spicy intensity, steer clear; if you love spice you might also go for their spicy duck broth soup, which draws the heat from Serrano chiles. Chicken confit, Napa cabbage, radicchio and basil round out its symphonic undertones.
On the entree list I can't stop thinking about a dish whose name is as dull sounding as its taste and originality are inspiring. This is the sweet pea ravioli, one of the more revolutionary takes on the filled pasta pillows. This five-star dish (according to me) is no ordinary ravioli. First, its pasta is more along the Chinese crystal see-through style; second they're about an inch in their square dimensions; and lastly, the flavor of the contents are delicate and playful in a melt-in-your-mouth melody of spice and mint. It comes with sage brown butter and shaved truffles for a cost of $18. As it takes advantage of seasonal ingredients, it may have disappeared from the menu by the time you read this, but we get it that seasonal opportunities are taken creative advantage of here.
No one's perfect, however, and a dish that failed for me was the olive oil poached salmon that came across as minimally cooked and without the firm, meaty grip that poaching should provide. The slimy layers seemed more marinated than poached and was a bland disappointment.
Accompaniments are part of the style and appeal Zax offers. For example, the delicately flavored steamed Lake Superior whitefish includes a creatively balanced cauliflower puree, haricot vert-radish salad, salmon caviar, and a lemon-pea vinaigrette; a dimensional chum of flavors.
All of which is a clue to the creativity of 27-year-old chef Gavin Portsmouth who hails from Chichester, England through his cooking experiences in London and New York. His menu choices are inspired by many of his favorite family recipes, obviously adapting them with professional finesse for the tastes of Los Angeles diners.
The wine list is extensive with every varietal represented. A good number of reds and whites are available by the glass with prices ranging from $8 to $10. Especially appreciated is the inclusion of a real Alsatian
Gewurztraminer (2000), a wine I often find preferable as an accompaniment to light, spicy dishes. Corkage is $12.
Owner Chris Schaefer likes to emphasize his restaurant's neighborhood appeal. I'd have to say that its rightful neighborhood is the entire Westside. It should and probably does draw gastronomes from very diverse corners of our basin. The name Zax derives from Schaefer's son, Zacharie. He himself hasn't traveled far from his college years at UCLA. After a decade of managing, Zax is his first establishment as an owner, in the former home of Woodside.
Location: Strategic to the environs of Westwood, UCLA, the Getty, and at least one local fitness club. The Wadsworth Theatre is across the street.
Total experience: Any occasion that brings me to Westwood is very likely to become an opportunity for yet another adventure in culinary pleasure seeking at Zax.
Jules Brenner has published a cross-indexed guide to dining in Los Angeles County and posts a "Restaurant of the Month" on his website. Check out the current one at http://variagate.com/restbook.htm
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