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(photo by John Blanchette)

We’re so lucky in Santa Monica to have a number of extraordinary chefs trained in France by the greatest of the great. Michael McCarty has been around the longest I guess, and has maintained a top quality restaurant for years. Josiah Citrin at Melisse has raised the reputation of his restaurant so that it is now among the best in the country. Alain Giraud is opening a new restaurant in Pacific Palisades. And Joe Miller, while having operated a bit lower on the radar, is right up there with the best — and has been for 20 years.

I recently learned that Joe trained with one of my favorite chefs in France, Michel Guérard — the creator of “cuisine minceur,” a reduced-fat fad a few years ago that started at Guérard’s famous spa “Eugenie Les Bain” where we’ve spent some wonderful weekends with the family (in the Southwest of France, near the Basque country). We always got a kick out of the fact that while the spa visitors started out with the “spa menu” they soon switched to the traditional cuisine prepared by chef Guérard.

Joe’s restaurant looks like a small house, with comfortable small rooms with high ceilings, which makes the air fresh and reduces the noise I so dislike in so many restaurants. The placement of the bar near the front entrance is unfortunate, creating a traffic jam during busy periods, but the advantage is that you often meet people sitting at the bar, by necessity, while waiting for a table.

The menu, although small, features well chosen selections which frequently change. There seems to be two different groups frequenting the restaurant, a young crowd having a really good time, and an older group of regulars seriously focused on the food.

I hadn’t realized until the last few times I ate at Joe’s how superb his kitchen is. At a few recent lunches I had a pheasant pate appetizer, a white bean soup, and Albacore ceviche, all of which were delicious. Among a number of main courses, I particularly loved the grilled Fijian Escolar in citrus vinaigrette. I couldn’t resist a few bites of dessert, and I was blown away by the coffee crunch ice cream and the salted caramel panna cotta.

On another occasion we had a rich, buttery butternut squash soup — as good as any I’ve ever tasted. An octopus appetizer, so hard to find on local menus, was perfect. A tuna and salmon tartare had just the right texture (in other words, texture, not mush), a lot of flavor, and nice little toasts with it — just like in France.

As my wife says, I’m never completely satisfied. A dish described on the menu as accompanied with trumpet mushrooms arrived with shitake mushrooms instead, and my companion promptly returned it to the kitchen with a few words of advice to the unhappy waiter. A roast pork was perhaps a touch too dry.

On the other hand, lobster with black noodles was one of the best presentations of that dish I’ve had anywhere, poached just right so that it was tender and cooked through but not overcooked so that it becomes tough. And the noodles were still al dente. And a Jidori chicken was described by a companion as the best in town, with a delicious sauce and raviolis stuffed with fois gras and ricotta cheese on the side. Incredible for the price.

And the prices are pretty high, as you would expect, but not unreasonable. One recent option: a three course special for $44, with a wine flight for $18. But of course we didn’t do that, and we spent about $65 a person plus drinks.

And speaking of drinks, there’s an interesting wine list with some nice selections. Joe has another small restaurant serving Spanish tapas, so there is always some interesting Spanish wine on the list. And I found a Rhone blend from Nimes that was very pleasant. As is true everywhere in town, there are also a lot of wines that are overpriced on the list, so some attention is required. But, on the other hand, there is an adequate selection of wine by the glass.

Joe’s is a busy place, with a dedicated clientele. Make a reservation. And say hello to Joe — he’s usually there, checking the tables and saying hello to the clientele.

If You Go

Joe’s Restaurant

1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd.

Venice, Calif.

90291

(310) 399-5811

joesrestaurant.com

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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