It’s Love Italian-Style at
El Segundo’s New and Tasty
Restaurants are tough. Statistically, for every one restaurant that opens in the U.S., nearly two are shuttered. As any restaurateur can tell you, the margins are slim and the potential for disaster lurks with every rent hike, every worker’s comp claim and, more recently, with every mandated minimum wage increase for employees. So why do it?
The answer is twofold: love and adrenaline, both of which are on display and then some at El Segundo’s unexpected hot spot Jame Enoteca. “Ja + Me” is a reference to co-owners (Ja)ckson Kalb and (Me)lissa Saka, although it sounds a lot like “gimme gimme” in Mexican slang. Perhaps this unintended pun works, as diners queue up and wait for steaming plates of pasta in a city known for carb aversion. Gimme that plate of capellini, please, topped with an incredible “36-hour tomato sauce” that will make you cry the next time you guiltily buy a bottle of Rao’s at the grocery store. It’s that good.
Love is in the air at Jame, from the cheeky neon sign that entreats you to “feed me pasta & tell me I’m pretty” to the warm, try everything. Their enthusiasm is real, and it’s a pleasure to find this kind of authentic “food-is-our-passion” in an unassuming strip mall in El Segundo.
“We’re so glad you’re here with us tonight, and we’re so excited to share our food with you!”
We dined old-person style at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday and were lucky to score a table before the masses started lining up. Front-of-the-house star Melissa, a veteran of the Hillstone group, says, “We call it, like, The Walking Dead. About 15 minutes before we open, people start coming in droves.”
Formerly a BBQ joint, Jame accommodates only about 24 diners indoors with space for about 40 more outside in the not-exactly-a-patio space. I watched as Melissa and her team cheerfully and creatively moved patio furniture into neighboring businesses’ outdoor spaces as other shops closed up for the evening.
I hope they are bribing these neighbors with good wine, because they have it at Jame. I was sad to see how many folks brought in BYOB bottles like Rombauer chardonnay when delicious, off-the-beaten-path Italian wines made from indigenous grapes like vermentino or timorasso are literally made to go with Jame’s cuisine.
The corkage policy at Jame is very affordable, but unless it’s a special occasion bottle, I would implore South Bay diners to help keep this sweet spot afloat by buying the wines they offer. Beverage revenue is what keeps a restaurant’s lights on—no matter how good the pasta may be—and we all benefit as Jame approaches the critical one-year mark of staying in business.
So about that pasta. Chef Jackson has a pretty impressive resumé for someone under 30, that’s for sure, with brief stints at Alinea (Chicago), Robuchon (Vegas) and Union Square Café (NYC). As a preteen in the Palisades, Jackson had a catering company that morphed into a kitchen opportunity with Josiah Citrin at Mélisse—substantial experience banked even before college at Cornell’s prestigious hospitality program.
A trip to Italy and a stint at L.A.’s The Factory Kitchen seem to have swerved Chef Jackson away from the haute cuisine that Alinea particularly represents. But just because pasta is simple doesn’t mean it’s good—execution is everything, as is texture. Pasta highlights at Jame include the capellini, an arugula pappardelle with braised pork, and a squid ink bavette in which cheese makes an uncouth appearance.
Another blasphemy is avocado in the Bolognese, but hey, it’s California—not Italy. We also ordered the “Very Fresh Fish” of the day, which in this case was branzino, and it was perfect. This guy can do fish and proteins too, just for the record.
It’s the feeling at Jame that accounts for the crowds, to be honest. The pasta is worth the accolades it has won for this young chef, though I would point out gently that he does not yet have the textural mastery or plating expertise of someone like Evan Funke at Felix. Evan also has a killer resumé (disclosure: He was a sous chef at Spago when I was the sommelier there), but Evan has simply done more hard time in more hard places than Jackson. A “stage” (short, unpaid internship in the kitchen) doesn’t deliver the same intuitive expertise that only years of practice can render.
Thus, my spring pea agnolotti was ice cold and kind of gelatinous, with not so much as a pea tendril, a mint leaf or a crunchy pistachio to enliven the green of the plate. It was cheerfully re-fired and was better when served hot, but it was a misstep on texture and timing that was disappointing in an otherwise lovely meal. Practice makes perfect.
What was perfect was the spirit of “We’re so glad you’re here with us tonight, and we’re so excited to share our food with you!” I also worked for acclaimed restaurateur Danny Meyer back in the day, and his ethos was that you could always teach food but you could never teach warmth. Jame is that rare little restaurant that could—tiny, fun, welcoming and warm—and I can only wish that I had something as fabulous in my own neighborhood. I’d be there at least once a week, ready for some killer carbs and kindness.
241 Main Street in El Segundo | 310-648-8554 | eatjame.com