If you have spent much time in L.A.'s farmers markets, you have probably run into C.J., Chris Jacobson, an affable chef, tall enough to be an NBA power forward, who seems to know every farmer in town. He worked on the line for a while at the old Campanile, where everybody called him Stretch, and he ran the Yard, a small gastropub in Santa Monica known for its beer list and fish tacos but which he managed to nudge toward fine dining at the end.
As you might expect from a young Los Angeles chef, Jacobson did his time on TV, including "Top Chef," and he consulted for restaurant owners more interested in building a bar crowd than in nurturing cuisine. He did his share of pop-ups. He was well-liked, if not regarded as a star. And then in an odd, unprecedented move, he went to Copenhagen for a season or two to work for René Redzepi at Noma, whose kitchen is behind the current hyper-locavore movement and is often considered the best restaurant in the world. Jacobson already knew how to cook. At Noma, he learned how to forage, how to express subtle flavors and how to think about food; how to express his native Southern California on the plate.
Girasol, really Jacobson's first restaurant of his own, in many ways resembles a typical Studio City place, located on a fast avenue lined with more condos than cafes, occupying a building that has been more restaurants than I can remember, in a neighborhood where the sidewalk is empty but the parking spaces are full. The Tujunga Avenue cafe district is just around the corner but seems a dozen miles away.
But when you settle at a table, you will notice that the walls and ceiling of the dining room are covered with what the designer must have conceived as a sunflower motif — the sensation is close to what it must feel like to be on the inside of Audrey, the carnivorous blossom in "Little Shop of Horrors." The service is cheerful in a way that it rarely manages to be on the other side of the hill.
If you happen in on a Sunday morning, you will find most of the customers sipping mimosas and nibbling smoked salmon as they would almost everywhere on Ventura Boulevard, although the mimosas may be tricked out with fresh-squeezed cactus fruit, and the salmon has been smoked over a foraged herb called rabbit tobacco, which gives it an odd, almost whiskey-like edge. Girasol is that weird hybrid: a restaurant tame enough to host a baby shower brunch but advanced enough to offer at that brunch not just brioche French toast or ricotta pancakes with sautéed strawberries but also a vivid green grilled-octopus gazpacho garnished with pungent Vietnamese herbs, as well as steak and eggs with house-fermented local black walnuts that taste like spherical A.1. Steak Sauce with a crunch.
You could probably have dinner here without noticing the detail Jacobson puts into most of his dishes: the scattering of crisped lentils under the salad of chocolate persimmon and burrata; the tart pop of finger limes, the pomegranates of the citrus world, with the raw hamachi; or the charred pine needles that give fragrance to the Wagyu flat iron steak. The satay is made from pork marinated, sliced into thin ribbons and compressed into intricate patterns — it basically looks like chunks on the skewer, but the grilled meat is delicate, almost fragile. The pork chop is moistened with a reduction of juiced clover, the same stuff you may have rolled around in as a kid, and comes with charred nectarines that have collapsed in on themselves. It's not quite a gastropub.
Jacobson's talent may lie less in expressing L.A.'s cultural diversity — his less-than-spicy all-mussel version of the ceviche aguachile is dull — than in layering the sunny fragrances of California onto what might seem to be straightforward New American cooking: the branch of yarrow with the meatballs; the spark of acid from mandarin segments that enliven grilled cauliflower sauced with muskier puréed cauliflower; sliced fruit dusted with the piney tangerine scent of fir needles gathered in the local mountains at 4,000 feet; crisp-skinned sunchokes, roasted until their soft flesh becomes almost liquid, tossed with roasted local medjool dates.
He's even able to put a twist on the beet and goat cheese salad, an L.A. standard at least since Wolfgang Puck introduced it at Spago in the '80s, by arranging the tiny roasted vegetables into a kind of edible ikebana with flowers, sliced berries and an herbalist's manual's worth of leaves. The dish, like the restaurant, is never quite the same twice.
After "Top Chef" and Noma, Chris Jacobson finally gets a place of his own.
11334 Moorpark St., Studio City, (818) 924-2323.
Shared appetizers, $10-$24; main courses, $18-$42.
Dinner 6-10 p.m. Sundays to Wednesdays, 6-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Valet parking.
Grilled meatballs, beets and berries, pan-roasted cauliflower.
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