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Jun 4, 2008 04:20 PM

Return to LA MILL

I visited LA MILL on its first day of paying business - work precluded my visiting on the freebie day - and I left with a less-than-favorable impression. The espresso drinks were miniscule, the pastries were boring, the breakfast options were paltry, and the whole affair seemed labored and over-the-top, especially at the exorbitant price tag. No one in my party (or the Yelpers at the table next to me) was particularly impressed. I planned to try it again later in the day to sample the lunch dishes, but I didn't plan on doing so anytime soon. Of course, the apoplectic fits of delight coming from local critics also make me wonder just what I missed, so I finally caved today and went for lunch at LA MILL.

Service seems more relaxed this time than the fussiness I previously encountered. No one is tediously arranging spoons just so, and, as I predicted, those silly wooden chargers for the coffee saucers have been dispensed with. The room just seems more relaxed. I ordered a siphon of the Ethiopian coffee from the daily selection. Unfortunately, my server at the bar wasn't too helpful with the choice as she said she'd only been there two weeks and wasn't too well versed in the coffee's characteristics. That was a huge strike against LA MILL in my book; I can't imagine ever getting that answer at Intelligentsia, even from someone who had only worked there a fortnight. Watching the siphon was fun, but the coffee itself was less-than-amazing. The Chemex coffee I have had at Intelligentsia and LA MILL is far superior. It was definitely not worth $16, nor is a Chemex worth $15; it starts at nearly a third the price at Intelligentsia. The flavor lacked the crispness of a Chemex; it struck me as muddier, like a French press. It was less-than-satisfying.

But the ABLT panini was amazing. I cannot think of a better sandwich in all of Los Angeles. The pork melted between the two crisp pieces of toasted bread. I have read some complaints of the dish's being oversalted by the black bean, but mine was perfectly balanced without too much black bean at all. The fat was at the perfect consistency, almost giving the impression of melted cheese. It tasted of the very best Chinese barbecue pork. The pickled onion and olives were great palate cleansers, and the Yukon gold chips were great. It was a complete meal, perfect in every respect. I would have a hard time ordering a different dish if I went back, really, because the ABLT is so tempting. The $16 price tag is entirely warranted, I think.

I was completely sated after the panini, but, not sure when I would return, I decided to try a dessert. I decided to go for the milk chocolate-coffee panna cotta. The Bailey's ice cream was rather bland, with only a hint of Bailey's, sitting atop a crumble of some sort of chocolate cookie. The coconut ravioli was a coconut liquid with a sort of skin on it - interesting, and a bit odd. But the main attraction, the panna cotta, was really boring. The texture was not much different than standard pudding, and the flavor wasn't far off, either. It was tasty enough, but the $9 price tag turns the small dessert from slightly interesting to slightly disappointing. I think the only way I would indulge in LA MILL's quirky but miniscule desserts again is in the dessert sampler, which delivers five desserts for $27 after 5:00 P.M.

There were lots of happy Silverlakistas chatting away over their bowls of soup and paninis; they clearly were into the vibe of the place. They get it. An older lady came in while I was having lunch, sat at the bar, ordered a cappuccino and asked for some sort of fruit tart. The server proffered the menu and mentioned they have a strawberry dessert that's good, so she said she'd take that. The tiny strawberry dessert came out to join her tiny cappuccino, and she finished it and paid the bill. She told the server, somewhat tersely, "I didn't realize it was this expensive," and left unceremoniously. I know a lot of people who would feel the same way, and I would never steer them toward LA MILL.

So my impression of LA MILL now? Well, the main dishes seem really good, better than the dry pastries and weird, tiny egg dishes on offer my first visit. The biggest weakness in my mind should be LA MILL's biggest strength: I just don't think they do coffee that well. I'm not sure that, on future visits, I'll need to order any coffee at LA MILL. I really do feel, as I did last time, that Intelligentsia does coffee better. The food really is the draw, and I think the main dishes are perfectly good deals. The desserts, well, they seem to be a few dollars too expensive for their petite size. The $5 or so price in the dessert tasting is more what I would want to pay. So it's a mixed bag. I see myself going back occasionally, but it don't see it ranking with my favorite places in the city. Would I recommend it to friends? Only conditionally, to people I was sure would be able to fit in with the restaurant's vibe and not be put off by the level of service or price points. On my first visit, I just thought LA MILL was really absurd and over-the-top. Now that the shock of the silly chandelier and the fussy service (which has been pulled back, thankfully) are gone, I feel I can judge LA MILL more fairly and decide how I feel. LA MILL is still over-the-top, and that is both a good thing and a bad thing. Unfortunately, sometimes the over-the-top is in places it doesn't need to be (prices), and sometimes it doesn't go over-the-top where it needs to (coffee quality).

As much part of me wants to, I can't bring myself to hate LA MILL. But as much as another part of me wants to, I can't bring myself to love LA MILL, either.

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  1. thanks Woolsey, I thought it was just me. I think they miss more than they should with all the fawning that has gone on and on about this place.
    And your comment regarding the egg dishes is spot on - two or three tablespoons for $12-$14!!! And if you cannot make a really good latte for those prices, bring in someone who can.
    Caveat emptor.

    3 Replies
    1. re: carter

      Well, my antipathy towards the egg dishes largely comes from the fact that I don't care for eggs. (However, the scrambled eggs with caramelized onions and nova at Barney Greengrass could almost convert me. But I digress...) When I went that first Saturday, I felt really limited, having no options but eggs and underwhelming, overpriced pastries.

      I know that at least the opening day baristas were trained by one of the Intelligentsia baristas, too.

      I'm not sure I would say "caveat emptor." But I would advise potential customers to do their research - beyond Jonathan Gold's ecstatic love letters to the place - and to do some introspection into what they really enjoy about their dining experiences. For some people, the high style of LA MILL will fit the bill. For some, it won't. And for some - like me - it will be hit-and-miss.

      Since the big miss is the coffee aspect, which is ostensibly the place's raison d'ĂȘtre, I sort of have to slide it closer to the negative column right now. I was really disappointed when I went into the boutique next door to buy my dad some coffee for Father's Day. The lady in the store was friendly and earnest, but she really couldn't give me any advice on the differences and nuances of the coffees on offer, something that baristas at Intelligentsia and even the average Peet's are able to do with vigor. I was directed to the descriptions printed in the restaurant's menu, which sort of nonplussed me. If a store is selling a premium product at premium prices, they need to really have passion behind it and be willing to spiel it to customers.

      1. re: Woolsey

        Hmmm, I thought the ABLT was just OK, but I had it when they first opened and it looks better now. The Chemex was worthless (considering the price,) but the clover is fantastic and I go just for that.
        Re service: I have found every server knowledgeable, however, there is a serious management problem having the servers do the complex coffee presentations which take as long as ten minutes when another customer is waiting for a check. I have waited the last two times for about twenty minutes for a check.

        1. re: cls

          I love the Chemex - at Intelligentsia. I don't esteem Clover coffee too highly, but it also comes out differently at every establishment due to the myriad ways the machines can be calibrated. But yes, it's way overpriced considering it starts at $6 at Intelligentsia.

          I think a coffee sommelier/steward to handle the coffee selection and preparation would take a load off with the siphons and Chemexes. Even at a relaxed Wednesday lunch, a perturbed-looking chef was having to come out onto the floor demanding runners rather often.

    2. Thank you for the update.

      I, too , was there for the first day's "one egg" flop but am looking forward to going back. I have yet to hear a rousing review of the breakfast offerings [my favorite] but would gladly check out the luncheon menu instead.

      I loved the toile, and the decor. But I can totally understand the pique of the older lady with the strawberry dessert. I remember my heart sinking with that one solitary egg.

      I'll go back ... on my terms with pleasure.

      3 Replies
      1. re: SilverlakeGirl

        The wallpaper and snakeskin chairs and the chandelier - I thought it all just so bizarre for a coffeehouse. I'm over the shock, and it's nice on the one hand, and a bit odd on the other. That's the whole thing about LA MILL for me - there's just something a bit askew and just plain wrong about the place, but that's also what's compelling about it. It does help that the service is more relaxed so it doesn't feel like one is sitting in Mlle. Fifi LePoof's Left Bank snotterie, either. I mean, they just fussed over the placement of those spoons so much that first day!

        There is a polenta dish with ricotta (?) and nuts that looks tempting on the breakfast menu, and there seems to be a French toast breakfast special posted outside the front door. Now that there is more on offer, breakfast holds more appeal for me at LA MILL.

        1. re: Woolsey

          that polenta thing is GREAT. sweet and comforting with salted pecans on top, if i remember right.

          1. re: Woolsey

            I agree that the service seems much more relaxed -- maybe even too relaxed if you're spending $100 or so on dinner, but fine otherwise. I want to try the polenta. The French toast thing is basically carmelized cinnamon toast -- tasty but very sweet, like a dessert, and no eggs involved. Good with a cappucino though.

        2. i went for the first time a couple of afternoons ago. i thought the vibe was very laid back and comfortable. (by the way, they were still using the wooden coasters when serving the coffee drinks.) i ordered a cold extracted iced coffee, which i've only seen at a couple of other coffee places and the salmon tartare. The salmon was very good and presented nicely. my only suggestion was that it be served with toast points rather than the two pieces of toasted brioche. i ended with a hot chai latte, which was delicious - a real steeped chai tea and spice blend with milk and sugar instead of the usual insipid chai syrup or powder at most coffee places. i thought the quality of the food and drinks warranted the price.

          1 Reply
          1. re: trishyb

            I saw small latticework wooden coasters used under cold drinks - iced teas, etc. - but the large square black wooden chargers used on my first visit underneath the saucers that sat under the coffee cups, making for a full three dishes required to serve a cup of hot coffee, were not used. (The overkill of using three dishes to serve one small cup of coffee really seemed to define LA MILL for me on that first visit.) They were all stowed on a shelf besides the men's room. Only one server was working the tables, and perhaps different servers are given latitude to use the cumbersome items as they see fit.

          2. Has anyone tried their chocolate chip cookies? They looked delicious but I didn't partake as I was stuffed.

            1. A third try on free coffee day - as I think the coffee is perhaps the weakest part of LA MILL's operation, it seems visiting when they are giving coffee away for free would be a good idea, right?

              I was a bit worried by the line stretching out of the door, but there was parking. The bar was devoid of stools as it was converting to a sugar-and-cream station, but the waiter offered to clear a recently vacated two-top at the back banquette for me. Just as soon as it was cleared, though, a local TV personality - I won't name names, but this individual is known for his California PBS travelogue shows and has been lampooned on "The Simpsons" - had taken the banquette to talk to the table next to me. It wasn't as egregious as, say, taking a bite of my food, but it was a bit annoying; I simply took the chair opposite as the room was full at the time. He mentioned he would be moving on soon, and he did. He left after a minute or two... to be replaced by another friend. Who sat there, nearly square across from me. For my entire meal. And the group, consisting of two-and-a-half tables (counting mine) were quite boisterous. I felt like a fifth wheel at my own table.

              As for the coffee, it's still not great. I think LA MILL has their Clover on the same "mud" setting Groundworks used to have theirs dialed to. There was a sharp bitterness that came out of the coffee I don't get at Intelligentsia. LA MILL roasts their beans a bit too long for a single varietal, and their brewing calibrations aren't to my tastes. LA MILL's style of coffee is -- indelicate. I did get other flavors besides the bitterness; LA MILL definitely isn't Starbucks. But they are far from serving the best cup of coffee in town.

              I also had the brown sugar polenta. Had I not been told it was polenta, I never would have guessed it. In flavor and texture, it was more like thick, slow-cooked farina. The pecans were in what seemed to be a chunks of nougat, while the mascarpone was served in a miniscule dollop that melted atop the polenta like butter. It really added no flavor in the small amount. It was a good dish, but not revolutionary - it really had a "I could make this at home" feel to it and felt overpriced at $9. However, it was very rich and filling.

              The server tried his best to accommodate everyone in the room. Like my last visit, there seemed to be one waiter for the tables until just before I left, and he seemed frazzled. The back server was very gracious, and I made sure to give a good tip for accommodating me: I heard him tell another table the free cups of coffee are supposed to be only for walk-up service only, but I wasn't charged.

              I think I am officially over LA MILL at this point. It's just not my scene. Clearly, some folks really dig it - the table next to me was having a fine time snapping photos of their coffee siphon as it gurgled away - but I can't raise the enthusiasm others have for the place.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Woolsey

                I would have to agree with this post. However I would have felt honored to be sitting across from such a California legend! He did a wonderful episode at LA MILL a couple months ago!

                1. re: love2eat

                  Well, he was only across from me for about two minutes, and he was gracious about it. He never planned on being there for an entire meal. It wasn't an oh-my-God-I-want-to-jam-my-fork-in-your-eye situation - this is a big city with cramped quarters in a lot of restaurants, after all. It was just odd, and it got a bit annoying when the siphon "show" began. It's one thing to have communal dining with discreet diners and another with such convivial, semitouristy types who are taking photos of their coffee service and talking in tones more suited to The Cheesecake Factory than LA MILL...