The Cute Gardener and I enjoy seeking out and trying the food of Top Chef contestants whenever we get a chance. Not only are we avid fans of the show, we tend to come away each season with favorites like Paul Qui (whose food we have yet to taste) and Stefan Richter (whose food we tasted and liked but whose restaurant service was highly dissatisfactory). I liked CJ Jacobsen when he appeared on the show but not as much as others so when I saw us slated to dine at his Studio City restaurant Girasol recently, I was only mildly anticipating the meal. After all, the menu seemed rich with dishes I’ve seen an overabundance of lately on the California cuisine landscape. Was I wrong.
What I learned very swiftly after receiving our first dish was that CJ’s artistry comes not so much in orchestrating the wildly creative entree or the ground-breaking and new appetizer, but in treating common dishes with such whimsy and foraging fervor that you are introduced to delightful flavor combinations and gleeful mouthfuls that you were not expecting in the least. Each plate was articulated in what is clearly the chef’s own voice—an earthy and casual simplicity built through completely complex and extraordinary ingredients found in the Angeles National Forest and our own backyards.
Everyone who knows me knows how much I am fond of foragers. I constantly make the CG pull over whenever we encounter wild food along the road. It was very cool to see the fruits of Jacobsen’s own treks into the woods on our table such as a slight dusting of citrus yellow fennel pollen on succulent, light pork or the slivered, tart green almonds that spiked and livened our chunks of tender rabbit. A buckwheat tuile immediately had me wanting to think of other ways to use the slightly sweet ingredient in other applications back home like crepes, crusts and spreads. It didn’t surprise me to learn that CJ spent time working for one of my favorites—acclaimed Chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma Restaurant—a hero in the soulful, foraging department.
A highlight of the evening was the whole fried snapper, which arrived with a curved tail as if plucked mid-swish from the lake. Atop a pile of bitter fried greens and alongside a mild sweet sauce, it was a refreshing departure from my fried fish oeuvre of late at Asian restaurants that seem to favor too hot sauces and heavy oils, all of which typically compete with the flakiness of the fish. I would order this one again.
After dining at Girasol I spent a Saturday afternoon chomping on arugula flowers in our garden, suddenly seized with the propensity to look at every specimen as a potential ingredient. Much like the leaves, the flowers were peppery but had sweetness mingled with bitterness and smelled slightly like peanut butter.
That joyous discovery landed in our salad bowls later at dinnertime. CJ’s passion for finding in the field has definitely infected our household in the most positive of ways. It also made me realize that you can find new things constantly, even if you think you are looking in all of the same old places.