There's excitement in Bella Vista

Posted: May 06, 2007

'The chef really captures some umami in this soup," our server, Collin Darrell, enthused.

He was describing the Soup Julienne, an exquisite golden consomme poured tableside at James onto a bundle of spring produce that had been meticulously slivered into matchsticks. Had Darrell been talking to us just a few blocks away in savvy Queen Village, nobody would have blinked at the mention of umami - the elusive fifth element of savory taste that many of the hippest fooderati can now readily identify.

You, too, can practice saying it (Ooo-MA-me), but you're more likely to get a pile of "Yo' Mommy's" meatballs than a whiff of umami at the red-gravy stalwarts of Bella Vista. Ask at your own risk.

The five-month-old James, however, all done up in sleek muted green, espresso-colored wood tables, and pale suede horseshoe banquettes, is much more than just an exercise in modern pretense for the old neighborhood.

James is one of the most exciting new restaurants I've encountered this year, with its palpable sense of personal style and fine-dining passion, and a crisp contemporary vision for how the best ingredients can be shaped by authentic Italian inspirations.

Seared tails of sweet langostinos perch against fresh dollops of warm ricotta cheese, then get scattered with grapefruit segments that add a ruby squirt of tart juice. A bowl of risotto alla Kristina, its naturally creamy gravy bright with sparkling prosecco, offers up a trove of whole oysters so tender they seem to be just a warm breath past raw.

And who could resist the sheer ribbons of handmade pappardelle that come beneath a soulful ragu of duck tinted with bittersweet chocolate? The pairing of cocoa and quack-quack is a brilliant surprise, and chef Jim Burke knows how to let it shine, swirling chunks of bittersweet into the warm, pure stew, then shaving more chocolate tableside like some heavenly dark cheese.

One might expect some impressive Italian moves from Burke, 34. He was Vetri's sous-chef before heading to work in northern Italy for two years with wife, Kristina, 33, also a cook, who co-owns James and runs the front of the house.

But their efforts in converting the former Michael's Ristorante on South Eighth Street are also a fine rebuttal to the critics who say our best young talents only want to open BYOBs. James is very much a complete restaurant, from its fine crystal stemware to a Eurocentric wine list and bar that offers some smart, unusual choices, including good craft beers, herb-infused New Age cocktails, and sparklers by the glass.

The servers can be a bit overly effusive regarding both the menu and the wines. But the extremely well-versed Darrell offered spot-on wine advice. He directed us to a delightfully crisp Macon chardonnay from Talmard ("green apple on the nose, and red apple in the mouth!"), and a pleasingly funky red from Priorat, the garnacha-based Gine Gine. Both were drink-to-the-last-drop keepers for $50.

James' modern style isn't for everyone. Some friends found the decor too austere in an Anthropologie-chic kind of way, from sleek green-and-brown leaf-patterned walls to the loud and moody groove music and the shiny bamboo floors. But I found the place warm, especially with a bustling weekend crowd, and as the scent of fireplace wood smoke and flickering votives wafted into the dining room from the lounge.

James is also not a good bet for anyone who needs whopping portions of hearty, inexpensive chow. Don't expect Italian Market heft in Burke's Italian cooking. What you will find, though, is superbly prepared and inventive, with quality ingredients that merit the price.

Not that portions here - best in the suggested tasting format - couldn't be a smidge bigger. One guest practically sulked as she swabbed her third and final day-boat scallop through a silky puree of curried cauliflower cream (actually, not a bad price at $18).

I had similar pangs as I savored the Alaskan halibut, a modest but pristine slice of fish that anchored a perfect seasonal tableau of fava beans and chanterelles. The roasted spring lamb brought four sublimely tender, herb-massaged morsels of meat carved from different parts of the animal (my favorite: the chard-stuffed roulade of neck). But it also was gone too soon.

Sometimes the ingredients dictate the portions, such as the side of precious baby carrots from Green Meadow Farms. No bigger than a handful of orange golf tees ("They just got big enough yesterday!" exclaimed Darrell), they were gently cooked with honeycap mushrooms and glazed with the gingered jus of roasted veal belly.

The crisply roasted poussin was another delicate treat, the partially boned leg and breast elegantly stuffed with the braised greens of tiny beets. A spectacular loin of veal was one of the heartier entrees, the grass-fed Pennsylvania meat served with creamy cannellini beans and a bagna cauda anchovy dip typical of Italy's Piedmont region.

Burke's risottos are also impressively authentic - soupy in the Venetian style, with a lightness that focuses delicate flavors.

The oyster-prosecco risotto is the essence of luxury in rice. But risi e bisi has garden soul, the sauce greened with pea-pod juice, then accented by a smoky quenelle of whipped-cream "gelato" infused with bacon.

It isn't the only savory flavor to be spun like dessert. A creamy whip of Delice de Bourgogne cheese, piped into a cone-shaped tuile and scattered with nuts, was one of the most clever composed cheese courses I've seen.

But then, James also has plenty of actual sweets worth tasting. There are splendid house-churned ice creams (cardamom with orange-glazed apricots; salted caramel with cocoa nibs), a warm almond cake topped with funky brown ale sabayon, and a molten torte that oozed frothy chestnut cream instead of the typical chocolate.

My favorite, though, was the "honeyed cream," an airy cloud of meringue infused with raw honey whose ethereal richness was cut by the sweet-tart spark of sliced rhubarb poached in ginger.

Call it dessert umami, or just plain yummy. James serves it with style.


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