Weekends may bustle, but James’ Beach is a welcoming and peaceful workweek oasis
By Richard Foss
The hottest neighborhoods always have a chill spot, a hideaway where people kick back in order to appreciate the energy of the surrounding scene when they emerge. Peaks are hard to appreciate without valleys around them, and such is the case with nightlife.
James’ Beach is a only few blocks away from the club action on Windward Avenue, but if you haven’t noticed it you’re not alone. There isn’t nearly as much foot or auto traffic, so some who live outside the neighborhood have gone 20 years before realizing it’s there.
The low-key exterior would lead you to expect a lounge vibe, and part of the interior fits that description. One room is decorated in a casual modern style with painted lanterns and strings of colored lights, while the other is old-school cool. The volume on both sides is moderate midweek, though I’ve heard the place roars when the bar is packed three deep on weekends.
Most of the tables were open during a recent Wednesday visit, so our server had plenty of time to explain the menu. Not that it calls for much explanation: James Beach serves updated American comfort food — and fish tacos, which count as comfort food if you grew up near the beach.
We began our meal with crudités of radish and jicama with dressing and continued with fried calamari we had ordered to stave off starvation while deciding what else to order. The portion was enough for three or four to split, which was good because it was also $17. The prices here are eccentric, with not much daylight between appetizers and full meals. You are at a nice restaurant that is mere footsteps from the beach, so things are a bit more spendy than they would be a mile inland.
I have to say that the calamari was quite good, though. The thyme-buttermilk crust added crunch and a dash of herbal scent, and the chipotle aioli was good enough that I wished I had bread to finish it.
We continued with salmon and sand dabs from the regular menu, and a hangar steak with fries and filet mignon from the Wednesday steak and martini specials. I ordered the filet even though that isn’t my favorite cut because it came with green peppercorn sauce, a condiment that was once popular but is now rarely offered. The traditional preparation is to reduce beef stock with shallots, cream, brandy and more green peppercorns than looks sensible. This yields a spicy, rich and probably unhealthy sauce that is also delicious.
The kitchen here omits the cream and dials back the peppercorns so that it’s lighter and less assertive, which is probably for the best because the traditional version is rather heavy. The filet medallions were very tender and exactly the medium rare that I requested, and with the mashed potatoes and sautéed garlic spinach were quite a meal for $30.
The hanger steak topped with chimichurri sauce (amped up Argentine pesto) was a nicely done piece of meat and came with enough crisp fries to make a very full meal, though a dab of spinach or some salad would have made a prettier plate. No matter how much you love meat and potatoes, variety counts for something.
Both fish entrees came with two sides, spinach and either tomato couscous or mashed potatoes, and in both cases the portions were generous. There were three sand dab filets in a brown butter sauce with liberal amounts of capers, a good flavor pairing for this delicate fish. Sand dabs don’t appear on many menus because they’re thin and notoriously easy to overcook — a minute too long in the pan and they fall apart. These still had the proper texture, so somebody was keeping an eye on them.
Salmon is more forgiving in that regard, but this was also cooked by a pro – the top had been sprinkled with a dash of seasoning and garlic and roasted to a perfect crust, while the inside was so moist it was almost liquid.
We had a birthday at the table (mine), and our server offered a chocolate soufflé to celebrate. Like all real soufflés, this has to be ordered at least 20 minutes in advance, but it’s worth the wait to get that incredibly light confection halfway between a custard and a cake. The chocolate was bittersweet and contrasted nicely with the powdered sugar topping, and if soufflés weren’t so hard to make I’d probably be crafting them at home. Then again, that would take away the special joy of having one at a restaurant.
Our meal for four people (including five cocktails) ran $210, which is reasonable for this standard of food and service in this area. I’ll keep James’ Beach in mind when I want a stylish, mellow evening, which probably means I’ll never show up on weekends when the place is rocking. I want to keep the illusion that it’s always a peaceful place with an unhurried server and a bartender who has time to offer a sample of some strange whiskey I haven’t tried before.
James’ Beach, 60 N. Venice Blvd., Venice (310) 823-5396 jamesbeach.com