While those of us who pursue the latest diet trend with all the fervor we give to the pursuit of a perfect slab of toro over rice, the massive return of pasta comes as something of a shock to the system (as my mother would have put it).
While we were avoiding carbs on the Atkins, the South Beach and the paleo diets, carbs were plotting a return from the shadows. Which they’ve done, with some of the best pastas to ever grace the tables of Southern California, at pasta-intensive restaurants like Felix, Uovo (which serves nothing but!) … and most recently, the sublimely good El Segundo mini-mall pasta shop called Jame Enoteca — which, despite its name, doesn’t (as of this writing) serve wine. Soon, they say. They hope.
Jame is really grandiose in terms of its food. It’s a small space, just nine tables inside, three outside, where you can watch locals park, and skedaddle into The Donut, Chicken Dijon, Havana Sandwich and Waikiki Hawaiian Grill. They may eat well. But not nearly as well as they would in Jame, where the brief menu dazzles with every bite. To call the food “tasty” doesn’t do it justice. This is cooking that leaves you dreaming of eating more.
The staff here — young, cheerful, anxious to please — wear T-shirts that read, “Good With My Hands.” Which may, or may not, mean they help roll the several pastas, all of which are made by hand. (A hallmark of the new wave of pasta shops.) The menu is short, which I assume allows the small kitchen to do what it does as well as can be done.
There are seven pastas for lunch, eight for dinner, with plenty of overlap, though should you develop an obsession with the lasagna with a “Hollywood” ragu (which seems to mean extra meaty) it’s served at dinner only. As well lasagna should be — a proper lasagna will leave you in no shape at all to return to work for the afternoon.
But mostly, the pastas overlap — though they may be a bit simpler at lunch than at dinner.
The bavette — a ribbon pasta that’s like tagliatelle, only narrower — appears on the lunch menu with a rock shrimp ragu, and on the dinner menu with the same rock shrimp ragu, but also with a stretchy stracciatella cheese, which costs $4 extra at lunchtime. But the ricotta gnocchi, with its house-cured pastrami “lardons,” is at both meals. As is the scarpinocc, which looks a bit like candy bonbons, rolled in plastic, with a twist on either end. It’s stuffed with braised beef cheeks, and flavored with 12-year-old balsamic, brown butter and sage. It’s pure heaven.
Many of the dishes are a revelation, a joy to behold.
I had actually ordered the pappardelle with braised pork by mistake, intending to get the tagliatelle al ragu. When it arrived, I opted to keep it — bird in the hand and all that. And glad I was too, for my daughter declared it her favorite new food, and wanted to know when we could have it again. And bless her for that.
There are sandwiches for lunch, which aren’t served for dinner — The Gobble (roasted turkey), crispy chicken, The ‘Gundo (meatballs and mozzarella), and The Slammer, a kitchen sink of a dish. The salads are a marvel, especially the spicy Caesar, served only at lunch — peppery little gem lettuce, breadcrumbs, Calabrian chili Caesar dressing.
There’s much gawking and gangling when the crispy Brussels sprouts come out, for even in a world with Brussels sprouts are crazy ubiquitous, these are a marvel — so crispy, so rich, so worth eating, even if your relationship with sprouts is doubtful.
Or, you could just stick to the small dish of house meatballs, flavored with arugula and pecorino, nigh-on perfect, and not jumbled into a tangle of spaghetti.
At the bottom of the dinner menu, there’s a rib-eye and a braised pork shank. I have no doubt that they’re just wonderful, worth the trip and all that. But I come here for the pasta.
I don’t know how to reconcile the pasta with years of Atkins et al. And I’m not going to spend a lot of time obsessing. There’s tube-like paccheri rigati and the handkerchief pasta called mandilli to eat! We can always diet tomorrow.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at [email protected]
Rating: 3.5 stars
Address: 241 Main St., El Segundo
Information: 310-648-8554, www.eatjame.com
When: Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday
Details: No alcohol (yet); no reservations
Atmosphere: In the back of a mini-mall that’s home to a number of fast-food shops, this artisanal Italian is the best restaurant to open in the South Bay this year — a tiny space with a cheerful staff, and a manageable menu of sublime salads, and perfect pastas. It’s the sort of place you want to share with your friends soon as you can.
Prices: About $30 per person
Suggested dishes: 4 Sandwiches (lunch only) ($13-$15), 8 Small and Vegetable Dishes ($4-$18), 3 Salads ($11-$16), 8 Pastas ($15-$23), Grilled Eye of the Rib ($28), Braised Pork Shank ($32)
Cards: MC, V
What the stars mean: Ratings range from 4 stars to zero. 4 stars is world-class (worth a trip from anywhere). 3 stars is most excellent, even exceptional (worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California). 2 stars is a good place to go for a meal (visit if you’re in the neighborhood). 1 star is a place to go if you’re hungry and it’s nearby. Zero stars is not worth writing about.