Jiraffe-a class act in Santa Monica

502 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica, California 90401

Jiraffe restaurant in Santa Monica has gained an excellent reputation which we found well deserved, judging by a recent visit to the trendy and upscale eatery. Chef/owner Raphael Lunetta opened up in April 1996 with friend Josiah Citrin who left in 1999 to open the wildly successful Melisse, also in Santa Monica. Lunetta is a chef who takes risks, and he is also known as "the surfing chef" who can always be found at Zuma Beach locally or on the North Shore of Oahu, when he is not concocting magic in the kitchens at Jiraffe. The sophisticated upscale clientele are treated to signature dishes, well presented and delivered by people who know food and who strive continually to improve. Celebrities like Al Pacino, Cindy Crawford, Oliver Stone, John Travolta, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Robert Redford are just a few of the celebrities who have been spotted at Jiraffe.

Jiraffe Restaurant Logo Although he was born and raised in Santa Monica, Raphael visited his aunt with the family in the South of France most summers, and it was here that he fell in love with the French style of light and simple cooking using items such as olive oil, fresh herbs, dried grapevines, fresh mackerel and local vegetables of the region. After learning in Paris, under chef Georges Venotte, Lunetta had local stints at restaurants like Jackson's in West Hollywood. At Patina, his career really started to roll, and he has recently picked up numerous awards, traveling extensively as a celebrity chef and appearing on many television cooking shows. His appearance with partner Josiah Citrin at the James Beard Foundation in New York in 1998 must still be the highlight of Jiraffe's brief but meteoric rise to the culinary heights.

The night I went he was unfortunately absent, but clearly runs such an organized kitchen that his sous chef Emlio Cuyuch can turn out the food as good as his boss. Signature dishes include roasted beet salad with caramelized walnuts, dried bing cherries, and goat cheese cream in Banyules vinaigrette. I tried that and. Other specialties include crispy salmon with parsnip puree, braised fennel and balsamic nage; dry aged New York Steak; Santa Barbara Channel Island spiny lobster, and Maine day boat scallops, called that because they are caught and brought back to port on the same day.

The best way to try a restaurant like this is without a doubt the tasting menu (Vancouver style), which ranges from four to eight courses. Smaller portions of the food, but more choice and certainly enough to fill even the hungriest of eaters. With most of the produce being supplied from the Santa Monica farmers market just up the road, it is no surprise that Jiraffe is one of the most popular restaurants in the area. Our waiter, who has been with the restaurant since opening knows his stuff, was personable and is clearly a valuable member of the team.

The space that Jiraffe occupies used to be an opulent Indian restaurant named "Shanta", and it was particularly satisfying to come back and see that the space has evolved into a restaurant that is certain to be around a long time, barring any major catastrophe. Now it epitomizes Santa Monica cool with a giant chandelier dominating a room that is enhanced by antique lighting. To start the tasting menu we tried a Cappuccino Truffle w/chives with two types of bread (a bit on the hard side for my guest), but things picked up quite a bit with the slow Roasted Beef Salad, with shallots, chives, walnuts, tomatoes and goat cheese. Even better was the above mentioned signature Roasted Beet Salad, nicely chilled and quite tangy, although my guest preferred the pan-seared jumbo scallops with honey, thyme, chives, basil and tomato puree. Selected wine for the scallops was the 1997 Chateau Roumieu Sauternes, a luscious sweet wine with quite a rich style.

I of course adored the foie gras, one of the star dishes on the menu, seared in a pistachio crust, caramelized on the outside and juicy on the inside, and paired with tiny baked apples. Hudson Valley foie gras remains pretty much the best around, and this particular version is a must selection when visiting Jiraffe. The crispy potato and pancetta wrapped Monkfish with a forest mushroom duxelle, braised savoy cabbage and aged sherry-sweet garlic sauce had a lovely savory taste, reminding me yet again as to how good monkfish can be. The combination of flavors and spices was just right, and a decent Chateauneufe du Pape was the wine of choice.

A classic Roasted Venison chop with carrots, raspberries, red wine and a thick chocolate sauce rounded up a meal to remember. The meat was so plump and juicy but also rare enough for my European trained taste buds, and incredibly tasty, but the story here also concerns some of the dishes to try on the next visit, which hopefully will be very soon. Although I adored the roasted beet appetizer, maybe next time the Purple Peruvian Gnocchi with fresh Florida rock shrimp, roasted purple pearl onions, mandarin cross tomato concasse and a herb infused tomato nage broth-an item that has remained on the menu since opening day. For main courses, the Caramelized Pork Chop with wild rice, smoked bacon, apple chutney and cider sauce sounds great, as does the New Zealand Rack of Lamb with lamb and yellow fin potato samosas, curried vegetable moussaka in thyme scented juice. The fish dishes each day change depending on the local catch

For a dessert we ended up with Lemon Soufflé with blackberry sauce prepared by pastry chef Artemio Sanchez that was just light enough after the main courses and appetizers. If we are forced to put a tag on Jiraffe, then I suppose "Modern rustic French with a California/Pacific Rim twist" will suffice.

Here's a little tip - Wednesday, which is market day in Santa Monica is the best day to try out Jiraffe for lunch or dinner.

Tel: 310 917 6671
Fax: 310 917 6677
email Jiraffe

Jiraffe on the web

Opening Hours:
LunchTuesday - Friday 12-2.00 p.m.
DinnerMonday - Thursday 6 to 10 p.m.
Friday - Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.
Sunday 6 to 9 p.m.

Dress: California casual
Parking: Valet $4.50 and street parking.
Cost: Dinner for two with wine, $102

Mike Hepworth, January 2002

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