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Whole fried red snapper

In Full Bloom

by Lesley Balla | Photography by Anais & Dax | Angeleno magazine | August 28, 2013

There’s nothing like a whole fried fish to get an entire dining room’s attention. When you see Girasol’s red snapper (or the sea bream, in my case), the crispy, crosshatched body sitting upright and arched on a plate of fried greens is indeed a showstopper. When it hits our table, it’s not the prettiest thing to look at. (Our waiter confesses some diners have asked that the kitchen debone the fish for them; a request politely refused.) After all, half the fun, really, is ripping into it on your own, flaking off big chunks and drizzling it with some spicy-sweet kumquat sauce. It’s as delicious as it is showy.

This dish is one of the early standouts at the recently opened Studio City bistro, a place that neighborhood locals are excited about, for good reason. After a rotating list of failed concepts, and with a splashy new design, the space provides a permanent home for CJ Jacobson, a Top Chef alum and fan favorite, memorable for both his height and humor, who was more of a caterer and private chef before he hit the small screen.

Jacobson did a good job milking his TV exposure—it landed him mostly consulting gigs at gastropubs and wine bars, but also an apprenticeship at the highly lauded Noma, often called the world’s best restaurant, in Copenhagen. A lot of what he’s doing at Girasol is a culmination of that experience—some flash and flair, but no foams (thank goodness), and a nod to global flavors and California seasonality. I don’t think there’s really anything like it in the Valley, which is why it’s packed almost nightly.

And it’s not like it’s on the main drag of Ventura Boulevard, either. The small corner restaurant is near an elementary school, across from a 7-11 and a Subway—not exactly the environs where you’d expect to find a chic and intimate dining room with a ceiling fully covered in a sweeping floral motif featuring big white petals (girasol means “sunflower” in Spanish). The vibe feels more West Hollywood than anything, which isn’t shocking since the same interior designer, Gulla Jonsdottir of G+ Designs, also helmed the sexy decor at Red O. There’s also a nice little lounge area for sipping wine (a full liquor license will be instated in the coming months), with a few couches near the sliding doors that open to the patio. It’s comfortable, with just enough panache to make it special.

Most of Jacobson’s menu is focused on small plates and meant for sharing, so you can get a few dishes. On this particular night the kitchen delivers ribbons of raw zucchini and yellow squash tossed with bright green garbanzos and light lemon vinaigrette; and super creamy burrata and seasonal stone fruit. Meanwhile, the dried fava bean puree with piquant housemade chorizo is offset by beautifully juicy little cherry tomatoes. The leftover flatbread from the dish, of which there is plenty, is perfect for drudging through the sweet onion puree under the skewers of grilled pork satay.

Jacobson continues to play with the menu, depending on product availability and seasonal shifts. He’ll even serve nightly variants if a product doesn’t arrive to his exact liking. The whole fried fish is a great example. On the night we dine, sea bream replaces snapper (an experiment conducted from necessity that totally works, at least for my table). And, if he’s not happy with the beef that comes in from one Central Coast source, for instance, he’ll swap in something else, like wagyu. The entrees, like the braised leg of lamb delicately dotted with dill flowers and crispy Brussels sprout leaves, can be sharable plates, too. This is when you’ll want to get into the side dishes, and you can do no wrong with the chunky smashed potatoes with Parmesan cream sauce, crispy garlic and chive.

Desserts are simple but plated beautifully: a square of olive oil cake with slices of peaches, stone fruit and braised fennel, or a garden of small round doughnuts with strawberries and creme fraiche gelato. Light and fresh, the flavor is all there.

Early hiccups, like a very good server exiting in the middle of our meal and leaving us in the hands of a less capable compadre, will hopefully smooth themselves out, and once they do, I can see Girasol as a destination in its own right. And Jacobson is a pretty affable fellow—you’ll see him work the room, shaking hands and posing for photos when he has time to get out of the kitchen. While he takes his food extremely seriously, the chef and his staff are quick to put you at ease. It’s a wonderful neighborhood restaurant that sets the bar a bit higher for all others in the same category.

11334 Moorpark St., Studio City, 818.924.2323, girasolrestaurant.‌com

Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 6-10pm; Thu.-Sat., 6-11pm

Firsts: $10-$19; entrees: $16-$38;
sides: $3-$14; dessert: $8

What to Wear
This place gives Valley denizens reason to dress up. Keep it simple and casual, but chic.

What to Drink
You’ll find a few hits from California, Spain, Washington and France. Our table enjoyed Listel rosé from Languedoc, France, and a Murrieta’s Well white blend from Livermore.

Where to Sit
The patio has its charm, but is on a very busy street. The main dining room is your best bet.

Bar Menu, Brunch and Cocktails
The first option is available daily from 4 to 6pm; the latter will be added later this year.