There are 7,087 restaurants in the San Fernando Valley, according to yellowpages.com. That's some 2,000 more than in the entire state of Iowa. But to those who never emerge from their burrows, the Valley is a “wasteland.” It reminds me of a lady who once called me on the radio, to proclaim that there wasn't a single decent restaurant in Los Angeles. I went through a laundry list of eminently decent restaurants — none of which she had heard of. (Like I said, people who live in burrows.)
Which brings me to Girasol, a more than fine reason to emerge from the shadows. The Studio City restaurant is on the freeway-adjacent corner of Moorpark Street just down the block from Tujunga Avenue and, for a year now, has been the destination restaurant of choice for those in Valley Village and the surrounding area. It may be the single most “worth a detour” (in the words of Michelin) restaurant in the Valley.
Girasol is the creation of Chris “C.J.” Jacobson, a finalist on Bravo's “Top Chef” season three, who's notable for being the tallest person in the room. (For the record, he's 6-foot-8 and played volleyball for Pepperdine University and professionally. He's also a cancer survivor.) He's easy to recognize, dashing in and out of the kitchen to check on tables, and carrying dishes to waiting diners; a funny thing to do, since his staff is quite excellent.
But, I guess the chef likes to feel involved in the whole process. For C.J., it's a process that includes a seasonal menu that “reflects our support of California farmers, featuring produce hand-selected by Chef C.J. Jacobson at local farmers markets ... with locally foraged ingredients ... based on availability at the market.” Thus, the current menu is rich with references to what's local, from Weiser Farm melons, California bay leaves, California olive oil, Coastal Farms cherry tomatoes, Soledad goat cheese, Tamai Farms cauliflower — the list goes on.
At Girasol, you can sit in one of two dining rooms, arranged at a dogleg from each other; on an outdoor patio; or at the bar. And the place fills up fast. I like the idea of showing up without a reservation and grabbing a seat at the bar, but as at any of the hot spots around town, that's not always possible.
The menu offers the sort of California eclecticism that we recognize without having to puzzle much over what it all means. Well, at least not too much. Certainly, we understand fennel pollen, housemade chorizo and Little Gem lettuce. But some questions to the servers may be in order to understand the meaning of rosemary ash oil, white fir and wild sorrel broth or Prosecco mignonette. I had to quickly look up lovage on my smartphone. At Girasol, it comes toasted with the octopus salad and flavors the butter served with the house-baked bread. It tastes kind of like celery mixed with fennel. (The tall chef likes his tall herbs.)
But most of the menu has items Californians can understand. There's a properly soft burrata cheese (mozzarella's creamy cousin) served with market peaches, flavored with shiso and basil. The beets and berries with whipped goat cheese are pure sweet indulgence; a dish I'd happily have for dessert. There's also a whole soft-shell crab that comes rubbed with wild black mustard seeds, crispy as a crabby potato chip, with a puddle of aioli on the side.
And though there are many complexities to be found on the menu, is there a pleasure greater than the sublime arugula from Flora Bella Farms? It has leaves that are smaller than most and are more tender and more pungent. Here they are topped with lemon and local olive oil as well as a handful of grated Sonoma dry jack cheese that's so good, I forgot I was eating greens.
The summer menu is a mix of seafood dishes (fennel crusted grilled salmon or whole fried red snapper), poultry (pan-roasted Mary's citrus chicken or crispy duck confit), and meaty stuff (a grilled New York prime steak or a roast pork loin). There's a whole roasted maitake mushroom for the meatless. There are seasonal stone fruits with goat cheese panna cotta for dessert, or for those craving something more decadent, there are also fresh strawberries with buttermilk donuts and creme fraiche ice cream.
I'm telling you, we eat pretty darned well up here in the wasteland. And this is just the proverbial tip.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rating: 3 stars.
Address: 11334 Moorpark St., Studio City.
Cuisine: Bravo’s “Top Chef” season three contestant Chris “C.J.” Jacobson finds a home in a Studio City space that’s been waiting for a reason to exist. The restaurant has a distinctive swirly design style that’s a bit like sitting inside a postmodern artwork, with a cheerful bar and an outdoor patio. The dishes verge on molecular cooking, with lots of local ingredients.
Hours: Dinner, every day; brunch, Sunday.
Details: Full bar. Reservations essential.
Prices: About $60 per person.
Cards: MC, V.