A Night at Melisse (Long)
So, just got back from a trip to SoCal, during which we (me + my S.O.) had the opportunity to dine at Melisse, which I had heard much about, especially in the wake of its recent Michelin Star windfall. Here's a course-by-course rundown.
We were seated to a table in the quaint, quiet dining room. I wasn't sure about the dress code, so I wore a jacket and my date wore a summery dress. We may have been slightly overdressed, but not too much that it stuck out. Some people were wearing short-sleeve polo shirts and at least one young woman was wearing jeans. The room remained short of capacity all night, but it was a Thursday night after all. A footstool was supplied to my date for her purse, which she very much enjoyed. The service began very professional and remained so throughout the night.
First, an amuse of pistachio and goat cheese encrusted heirloom cherry tomatoes was placed on the table just before a selection of artisan breads was offered (we tried the brioche, the olive bread, and some other that were all very tasty). The server offered a glass of champagne "for the lady," which we enjoyed with the tomato-bite.
The menu was a little complicated, with several options (vegetarian tasting, a tasting option that let you pick out the courses, a "summer tomato tasting", a la carte, and a chef's "carte blanche" option). It should be noted that some of the menus had optional items at additional cost that created a dizzying amount of algorithms from which to choose. We opted for the "carte blanche," mostly to get out of all those choices, but also because we wanted to see what the chef really had to say.
Now, I'll try to do my best to recount the food, but it should be noted that we also got the wine pairings (and I'm sort of a light-weight), so things got a little hazy after a short while. Also, because of this, I won't be able to recount the types of wine that we were given, but suffice it to say that they were very well done.
Course 1: This was a cold fish dish, I believe it was mackerel that was either smoked or cerviche. It was chopped up small, almost into a paste, and served with two wedges of toast. It was two tasty bites that whetted our appetite.
Course 2: This arrived as a layered shot glass with the bottom being a citrus syrup made of kumquat, then a layer of fennel mousse, topped with a layer of walnut creme and a drizzle of olive oil. This was a very interesting mouth-feel both texturally and temperature-wise, as the citrus syrup was surprisingly warm. I wasn't sure how I felt about it at the time, and still don't. The taste was a strange mix of the bright citrus flavor, a savory-to-neutral fennel mousse, and then a sweetness from the walnut creme. I'll leave it at "interesting".
Course 3: This one was one of my favorites. It was a small Maryland crab cake with a cold veggie/crab mixture on top that, at the table, was surrounded by delicious Parmesan cream soup. The texture of the crispy cake and the creamy soup was really excellent.
Course 4: This was a chicken egg, served in the shell in layers, with the yolk at the bottom, followed by the white, then creme fraiche, then American osetra caviar. This was served with a biscotti (more savory than sweet) to, as the server said, "get all the bits from the bottom". The construct seemed to be a repeat of the layer motif in Course 2, but, from what I could gather, this is a signature dish for Melisse, and rightly so. Very smooth texture, very delicate tastes. The caviar complemented it very well. My only issue with the dish was that the biscotti was a tad unnecessary (although I did eat it without complaint).
Course 5: It's worth mentioning that before the food arrived for this course, the wine was poured... two glasses. One glass of white and then a smaller glass of a late harvest wine. The table was then set with a fork, a knife, and a spoon. We were thoroughly confused, but the sommelier tipped us off, "It's the foie gras course," he whispered. It was a four-part course, with foie gras prepared three ways. The fourth part was a shot glass of what tasted like raspberry and parsley sauce. The course, as a whole, was playful, entertaining, and very tasty. The shot of fruit/herb liquid really cleansed the palate after, and the wine pairings allowed us to try both with each bite and match up our favorites.
Course 6: This consisted of calamari and sliced clams served cold. We both thought it was a little too salty, although when eaten with the wine pairing, it was more balanced. Not a real impressive course, but a good idea to serve after such a rich course as the previous.
Course 7: This was skate with small prawns that was topped with a lobster reduction at the table. It was very good, but not a stand-out. My date isn't a big skate fan, but she ate a good portion of her plate.
Course 8: After our plates were cleared from the previous course, our server walked by and, with a smile, pronounced us "ready for the main course." And so came the other real stand-out of the meal for me. It was a piece of suckling pig served on a bed of lentils. The pig had a sweet glaze (maybe maple syrup?), and the lentils had some texture to them, not mushy like they tend to get. Absolutely delicious! I could have had a large portion of this for the whole meal and been absolutely satisfied. The wine pairing was an excellent shiraz (or syrah, I forget which he said... semantics, really) that balanced the sweetness of the pork. This was a real knock-out for me.
Course 9: The final course before dessert was veal, served two ways. First was a tenderloin (I think) that was well-prepared but a little under-seasoned. Second was veal shoulder that was perfectly done. This was served with a stuffed squash blossom and a piece of zucchini, both of which was excellent.
Course 10: The first dessert was a yogurt and strawberry dish that included strawberry syrup on the bottom and fresh strawberries on top. It was a light and yummy start to the desserts.
Course 11: This was a melon sorbet with lemongrass/tapioca pearls. A texturally interesting dish, which the clean taste of the sorbet and the sticky sensation of the pearls in the mouth. It was memorable mostly for the innovative nature of it. It was also a very appealing dish to the eyes.
Course 12: The final dessert course was the chocolate course, served four ways, in a similar fashion to Course 5. The four chocolate components were a crispy, chocolate bon-bon, a white chocolate covered white chocolate ice cream bite, a white chocolate mousse in a shot glass, and a chocolate souffle. This was paired with another late harvest wine, which matched quite well. Overall, another fun and delicious course.
We finished with Hawaiian coffee and an assortment of cookies before we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant, absolutely sated. The dinner took 3 and 1/2 hours, and the bill, for those of you that are curious (I know I always am when I read CH reviews) was 620ish, before tip. It was a pricey, but memorable dining experience. Overall, we were both very happy with Melisse and would certainly recommend it to any serious CHers out there looking for this kind of experience. Chef Citrin really does have a talent for tastes and textures that were showcased throughout the meal, and showed us a thoughtful and playful repetition of motifs in both food and presentation during the night. This was a real highlight to a West Coast visit for this East Coast CHer.