As Californians bid a fond farewell to my favorite indulgence, foie gras (no thanks to Sonoma Farms who had seven years to create more ethical practices), it seems befitting that I at least have one foie dish before it’s scarce.
This week I went to a few restaurants and the standout was JiRaffe Restaurant in Santa Monica – known for its foie gras topped with a pistachio coating and a very community-based chef, Raphael Lunetta.
When you enter off of Santa Monica Boulevard, you see an interior that has a very natural feel (and smell). When we first arrived I have to admit there was a very strange smell – musty-like – but it soon subsided. The restaurant is adorned with fresh cut flowers, earth tones, carved giraffes strategically placed about, chandeliers hanging by decorated rope, black and white framed photographs, and a sense of ease. It is upscale but in no way pretentious. Greeted by a smiling front-of-the-house, we decided to sit upstairs. Soon our server, Allison, arrived.
We started with a glass of Schamsburg bubbles. Pink, crisp, and slightly creamy, this is a flawless glass of bubbles. Moments later, Allison brought out two espresso-sized cups filled with soup: truffle mushroom with a butter foam – compliments of the sous chef, Emilio Cuyuch. The soup is light and it’s the butter foam that leaves the right finish. Next I decided to sample several things on – and off – the menu. Three starters: French onion soup with horseradish cream, wild mushroom salad with a lemon vinaigrette, and my guilty pleasure – foie gras with caramelized mango with truffle honey.
The soup is swimming in Gruyere, chives, caramelized onions, beef stock, and the surprising zest of what tastes like lemon. Pleasantly, the soup isn’t heavy and the citrus cuts the creaminess of the Gruyere. The salad consists of frise, an assortment of mushroom, tomato, shaved parmesan, and the subtlety of the lemon vinaigrette. It’s a perfect palate cleanser in spite of the strength of the mushrooms.
Now the foie gras. Foie gras is a delicacy that requires finesse and careful consideration. This foie is cooked just right: buttery undertones soothing my taste buds, with pistachio covering the delectable duck liver, giving it a memorable texture and flavor. The compote and caramelized mango with honey and truffle gives this dish the right amount of complexity. It is not quite the foie feast I would have loved to indulge in one last time but it satisfied my need for the newly banned feathered friend (as of July 1).
The next phase of dinner includes: pepper crusted Hawaiian ahi, seafood risotto, and pan roasted New Zealand rack of lamb. The ahi is by far my favorite dish of the evening – served with chilled soba noodles, baby bok choy, baby spinach, shiitake mushroom and a lemongrass ginger sauce. The ahi is so pink with color, the soba adding that slippery but chewy texture, and the lemongrass ginger sauce is honestly one of the best sauces I’ve had. The only thing I wasn’t crazy about were the mushrooms. They offset the perfection of the ahi a little too much for me.
The risotto is done well, al dente with strong flavors of crab, rock shrimp, and calamari in a lobster reduction. While rich, this wasn’t overpowering though I could only take a few bites. The final dish was the lamb. I know lamb is a very fickle meat and this one just fell a bit short for me. The curried vegetable moussaka would have been great on its own. The samosas were overly cooked and a bit on the dry side, and none of the components could save the lamb. In fact, on this night, they may have led to its demise.
The last course was indeed a strong finish to a wonderful flight of fare. Allison, quite possibly one of the most amazing servers I’ve ever had, brought us her favorite: sticky toffee pudding with candied walnuts, vanilla ice cream, and toffee sauce. I ordered the meyer lemon souffl/ with saut/ed blackberry sauce and blackberry sorbet.
The toffee pudding is reminiscent of the outer layer of a gourmet candied apple minus the apple. It is definitely for those with a sweet tooth, but my preference is the meyer lemon souffle. The tart lemon, the blackberry sorbet, coupled with the buttery souffle was paired harmoniously, especially when resting over the blackberry sauce reduced to just the right amount of sweet. The dessert came out looking beautiful and even had the gentle reminder of France with an Eiffel Tower shaped cookie crisp situated in the sorbet.
Few times in my life have I been just floored at service but tonight, JiRaffe went above and beyond. The cuisine was good and I hope to return when Lunetta, an award-winning chef, is in the kitchen (he was unable to be there the night I came in because he was attending a Heal the Bay event). It’s no wonder JiRaffe has been in Santa Monica 15 years but much of it is thanks to the integrity of Lunetta.
Active in the local community, he is not a chef that merely hides in the kitchen and creates. He believes in being an integral part of Santa Monica from working with Heal the Bay to sitting on a city board. His devotion to his craft and community are apparent in every facet of his life. Lunetta cooks with a clear love of fresh ingredients (he has been known to simmer sauces for four days until it reaches the perfect culmination of flavor).
While not every item was to my preference, the choices from truffle mushroom soup to foie gras took my palate on a journey. There is something for everyone at JiRaffe with a menu ranging from vegetarian to carnivorous and desserts that would please even the most finicky. I look forward to going back and trying the jidori chicken, filet of beef, and farmers market eggplant-spinach-ricotta ravioli.
JiRaffe Restaurant, 502 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. 310.917.6671