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Mar 10, 2009 02:12 AM

Carte Blanche @ Mélisse, or, Not Quite a 3-Star (Sorry Russ!)

Mélisse had been on my culinary radar for what seemed like forever, but for whatever reason, I'd never got around to going, until now. I had the 13-course Carte Blanche menu [$210], along with a couple of supplements. The food:

Amuse Bouche: Grape, Goat Cheese, Pistachio
Sort of Mélisse's signature amuse, we have here a single grape, covered in goat cheese, and coated with pistachio bits. The cheese was the first thing to hit me, with its creamy, slightly sour flavor. This was followed up by the sweet, juicy flesh of the grape, which subsequently gave way to a lingering finish of salty pistachio--an interesting way to kick things off.

1: Ahi Tuna
Yuzu Emulsion. This was a very straightforward looking presentation of ahi, but surprised both of us in terms of flavor. The initial taste was light, clean and fruity, quickly leading to a salty zest. However, the tuna left a surprisingly strong lingering fishiness, which was rather unexpected for the normally mild ahi.

2: Fennel Flan
Orange Gelée, Cashew Mousse, Vanilla Essence. We were instructed to eat this from bottom up, in order to properly embrace all the elements at play here, to experience the transitions from sweet to savory, from warm too cool. The result was quite satisfying: a multi-layered, multi-faceted study in temperature, texture, and taste.

3: Artichoke Soup
Confit Roma Tomatoes, Parmesan Reggiano Croquette, Lemon Essence, Shaved Black Truffle. The croquette here reminded me of a Tater Tot(!) and really complemented the hearty artichoke soup, while the freshly shaved truffle provided an overarching, earthy aroma that tied everything together. The tomato confit, meanwhile, added a marked tartness to the dish to counteract all the richness. Very nice.

4: American Osetra
Arctic Char, Potato Blinis, Lemon Crème Fraîche. The Arctic char is closely related to salmon, and thus unsurprisingly, worked beautifully here. The amalgam of the blini and char formed a delicious combination that was further accentuated first by the tartness of the crème fraîche, then by the salty tang of the caviar. A classic combination, perfectly executed.

Supplement: True Japanese Wagyu Beef "Kobe" Tartare "Potato Millefeuille" [$45.00]
Traditional Garnishes. This was a superb tartare; I loved the contrast between the crunchy potato chip and the soft Wagyu, and how the richness of the beef was further heightened by the creaminess of the egg yolk. The only problem was that the beef wasn't uniquely Wagyu; it really could've been any quality cut of beef--that is, the superior marbling and texture of Wagyu wasn't apparent here.

Supplement: Truffle Egg [$55.00]
Melting Organic Egg, Shaved Black Truffles, Truffle Sauce, Jus de Rôti. An absolutely fascinating dish; I've never had anything quite like it before. The first thing that hits you is the intense, earthy aroma of the freshly shaven black truffle. The truffle then takes a back seat as you taste the egg. The egg "white" had a positively unique texture; it was light, airy, fluffy, ethereal, with a very subtle egg flavor. Inside was the runny yolk, which contrary to the egg white, was a rich, creamy base that integrated the various aspects of the dish, moderating the truffle, egg white, and jus. My dining companion even stated that it was "like eating breakfast."

5: Duo of Mélisse Foie Gras
Pink Lady Apple, Broccoli, Truffle Essence, Tarragon-Sauternes Gastrique. Regular readers will know that when it comes to foie gras, I'm definitely a terrine guy. So imagine my surprise when I actually preferred the seared presentation here. My usual complaints are attributable to either an overly strong flavor of the liver, or to the overt sweetness of the foie's accoutrements. Neither case was present here; instead, the flavor was delicate and subtle, with the essence of foie gras coming to the fore in just the right amount. The lentils, meanwhile, proved to be a superb contrast to cut the richness of the foie. Simply one of the best seared presentations I've had in recently memory. The terrine, on the other hand, fell a bit short, as the foie's natural flavor was somewhat subdued, instead replaced by a salty finish. The pâté was also served warmer than I prefer, with a consistency that was slightly too mushy.

6: Maine Diver Scallop
Arugula, Endives, Fumet d'Oursin. The scallop itself was just about perfectly cooked, with a lovely charred, flavorful exterior surrounding a cool, delicate, sweet interior replete with the essence of scallop. Meanwhile, the fumet d'oursin, basically a sea urchin roe sauce, lent a rich creaminess to the dish that nicely accented the mollusk. A very nice presentation of scallop, though a bit boring according to my dining companion.

7: French Turbot
Sweet Pea, Morels, White Wine Mousseline, Pea Shoot Purée. Turbot is an interesting fish. The example here had a firm, flaky texture that was somewhat dry. The fish can be very delicate, but the morels and mousseline gave the turbot a creamy, buttery, rich flavor that was a bit surprising. The use of peas here was a wonderful and necessary contrast to the gravity of the fish.

8: Trio of Berkshire Pork
Meyer Lemon Stuffed Dates, Braised Cabbage, Sauce Aigre Doux. The trio consisted of pork belly, leg, and loin, as pictured above. The belly was what you'd expect from pork belly--sweet, smoky, fatty, and rich as it should be; it was my dining companion's favorite, though it was perhaps a bit blunt for me. I preferred the leg, which had a much more pleasing herbal and spicy flavor to go along with the sweetness from the agrodolce, while the flesh was noticeably less fatty; it was my favorite of the troika. Finally, the loin was sort of a like a cross between the two, tasty but a bit nondescript. I found the date unnecessary, though I enjoyed the braised cabbage, which was reminiscent of sauerkraut.

9: Prime Beef Filet Wellington
Potato Pavé, Swiss Chard, Perigordine Sauce. Interestingly, the last beef Wellington I had was also prepared under the auspices of Chef Citrin (at the 5x5 Chef's Collaborative dinner at Providence). In any case, this version had a layer of braised short rib between the tenderloin and puff pastry surround. The end result was quite pleasing, with the short rib lending a richer flavor to the subtle flavor of the filet. This was further heightened by the heady Périgueux sauce. My dining companion described the taste as "familiar."

10: Fromage
We had a selection of nine cheeses (chosen by our server on our request), paired with walnuts, red wine candied pears and kumquats, and nut bread:
• Nevat: A medium-flavored, soft-ripened, pasteurized goat's milk cheese from Catalonia. The name means "snowy" in Catalan and is a reference to the cheese's white mold rind; the rind results in a differential ripening, which means variations in texture within the cheese. Subtly sweet, mild, a bit earthy--nice but not particularly distinctive.
• Selles-sur-Cher: A French goat's milk cheese named after the commune of Selles-sur-Cher, where it was first made in the 19th century. It was one of the stronger goat cheeses, with an ashy, tangy, salty flavor that lingers.
• Sainte Maure: A goat's milk cheese traditionally from Touraine, France. The log-shaped cheese had an interesting, dual-faceted texture (young cheeses are soft, but as the mold develops, the cheese hardens), along with mild, nutty flavor.
• Époisses de Bourgogne: A favorite of the Mélisse staff, Époisses is a soft, unpasteurized cow's milk cheese made in the village of Époisses in the Côte-d'Or. Called the "king of all cheeses" by famed gastronome Brillat-Savarin (whose eponymous cheese is one of my favorites), Époisses has a rather strong, funky odor that belies its creamy, sweet flavor.
• Les Delice de Cremiers: A triple creme cow's milk cheese from Burgundy, France. One of my favorites, this had a luxurious, rich, buttery, soft consistency along with a mild initial tang that got stronger with time.
• Old Amsterdam Gouda: Gouda is a yellow cheese made from pasteurized cow's milk, named after the city of Gouda, Netherlands where it was invented (though the name is not protected). The Old Amsterdam here is a gouda that has been matured for 18 months. It had a hard, brittle, gritty texture with a sharp, nutty flavor.
• Pérail de Brebis: A raw sheep's milk cheese from the Aveyron department of France (in the Midi-Pyrénées region). Our server compared it to softer version of Manchego. I thought it had a mild flavor initially, which then increased in saltiness and intensity with time.
• Queijo de Azeitão: Named after a small town in Setúbal, Portugal, this was a sheep's milk cheese with a semi-soft consistency. Lovely, with a mild, creamy flavor with just a hint of tanginess and herbaceousness.
• Saint Agur Blue: Described as the "ice cream of blue cheese" by our server (due to its butterfat content), the Saint Agur is a blue cheese made from pasteurized cow's milk in the Auvergne region of France. It had a great, moist, smooth texture and a strong, spicy flavor. Its intensity rises as the cheese ages.

11: Vanilla Yogurt
Strawberry Sorbet. Yogurt and strawberry--a winning combination. The sweetness of the strawberry is tempered by the mild tanginess of the yogurt. The overall effect was somewhat like eating a strawberry yogurt.

12: Frozen Passion Fruit Parfait
Coconut Sorbet, Lemongrass Tapioca. Very nice; I loved the interplay between the flavors of the passion fruit and sorbet, as well as the interaction between their different textures and temperatures. The use of lemon grass here definitely gave the dessert a Thai-like flavor, reminding me of dessert at Providence.

13: Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate
The presentation here was reminiscent of the themed desserts at Jean Georges. The theme here would obviously be "Chocolate." From top-left, we have: Mascarpone, Coffee (think caffè macchiato), Peanut Butter Crunch, and Soufflé. Overall, the dessert was enjoyable, but really nothing that I hadn't seen before.

I came into Mélisse with pretty high expectations, and much to my surprise, they were met, perhaps even exceeded--it was certainly one of the top meals I've had in Southern California.

I recently came across a post by russkar, from about a year ago:

In it, Russ predicted Mélisse's garnering of a third Michelin star in the next few years. This premonition was met with requisite incredulity from Chowhounders, so I'm wondering if that sentiments still persists, a year down the line.

Based on this experience, Mélisse is a solid two-star establishment, but to gain that one more coveted étoile, the restaurant needs to step it up a notch. I cannot fault the quality of ingredients, or the precision of the preparation. However, what I want to see is a little more innovation, creativity, and risk-taking (especially with regard to dessert). I get a feeling of complacency, of settling into routine. I know Citrin and company are up to the challenge, but how bad do they really want it?

Full review with photos:

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  1. Kevin h, once again your review was spot on! Melisse is one of LA's treasures and has every desire to achieve it's 3rd Star according to Joshia. It's hard to compare cutting edge Seafood from Providence to anything found at Melisse with the Classical French Style with a twist. Glad you liked it. Melisse is our go-to place for serious celebrations besides just for fun. They are also offering a $65- tasting menu during the week which begins today. Carte Blanche is the way to go though.

    5 Replies
    1. re: russkar

      Russ, you mentioned in your post that Citrin was "going to make the upgrades to get Michelin's attention." Do you feel that this has happened in the past year?

      I notice in your menu that the desserts were exactly the same as what I had, over a year later. This is part of the reason I feel that the restaurant is getting a bit too "comfortable."

      1. re: kevin h

        The upgrades discussed were making a more intimate setting (more 2 or 4 tops) instead of the larger tables. I don't know if the upgrades are complete but judging by your review of the food it seems the kitchen is pretty strong night after night.

        1. re: russkar

          Indeed, they've upgraded the ambiance, but have they upgraded the menu?

          It looks like more of the same types of dishes, albeit superbly executed ones.

        2. re: kevin h

          I'm confused. You said

          "Mélisse had been on my culinary radar for what seemed like forever, but for whatever reason, I'd never got around to going, until now."

          But then you say "the desserts were exactly the same as what I had, over a year later"

          1. re: foodiemahoodie

            He was referring to "Russkar's" visit to Melisse a year earlier and that he (kevin h) found the desserts on his (kevin h's) visit to Melisse a year later to be the same ones as those Russkar had posted about a year before.

      2. One of the best meals I've had at Melisse was the rotisserie chicken (for two).

        To be able to elevate a common bird to such stature ...

        8 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          I'm usually wary of ordering chicken in restaurants, so it's good to hear that Citrin and company were able to work wonders with the bird. But did you feel that Melisse was worthy of three stars, or even two?

          1. re: kevin h


            It's hard for me to say whether Melisse is worthy of 2 or 3 stars, or even 1 for that matter.

            I consider the Michelin Red Guide star rating authoritative and accurate only for French restaurants (not for other Euro restaurants, and definitely not for those State side, or in Japan), and having never dined in such an establishment it's hard for me to compare Melisse's star-worthiness.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              Fair enough. How would you say it compares to other 2-stars here in the US?

              1. re: kevin h

                Urasawa is clearly a cut above.

                Melisse is probably better than Spago (and even more so if you are only ordering a la carte)

                For food, in terms of quality and execution, I think it's on par with Providence -- although Providence has an edge over Melisse in terms of creativity.

                As an aside, I am often baffled on how Zagat does some of their ratings. Without regurgitating alot of what's already been said about their antiquated and opaqe rating system, I just don't see any type of consistency. For example, Daniel in NYC got 2 stars last I checked and I think it is clearly better than Melisse at just about every single level you can think of: food, execution, inventiveness, quality, presentation, etc. If Daniel is a 2, then Melisse should be a 1 (or, if Melisse is a 2, then Daniel should be a 3).

                And without getting even more sidetracked on my little rant, if Momofuku Ko is a 2, then Melisse should be a 3. As much as I love David Chang (esp. the Noodle Bar), Ko is in no way a 2 star restaurant ... as good as it is.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  "I am often baffled on how Zagat does some of their ratings." -- I'm sure you meant Michelin, not Zagat (though perhaps you think Zagat has its own share of problems!).

                  You hit the nail on the head regarding the other 2-stars in LA, echoing my sentiments exactly.

                  I'm not sure about Momofuku Ko, but I definitely see your point about Daniel being at the level of Jean Georges/Le Bernardin.

                  1. re: kevin h

                    Sorry, my bad, Kevin.

                    Yes, I did mean Michelin, no Zagat.

          2. re: ipsedixit

            Same here! Those truffles stuffed under the skin are amazing not to mention the "bird" itself which is not your "basic" bird. I don't remember the exact cost but somewhere between $60-80 comes to mind. Seemed like a lot of $$ for a Chicken till you take the first bite then realize that it's a bargain.

            1. re: russkar

              The table-side presentation by itself is worth the price of admission ...

          3. I get a feeling of complacency, of settling into routine.

            How did you get a feeling of complacency - this being your first time?

            I've been going for years - and to be honest with you, they never backslide. (the first time was very good, but the second time was better - and that was a couple years - but that was really kicking, and subsequent visits got better). I don't see a course of radical invention (which often is accompanied by shocking occasional failure), but more of an evolution. (evolution vs revolution). Which is fine by me. But there are changes, sometimes to dishes I've had, some change, and there's always a few new things.

            As far as the fishiness on the tuna - I haven't tried that (I will be going soon however) yet. I had a great tasting meal at Manresa in Los Gatos and there was one course that involved a "tuna broth" - I didn't like it. My date (stunningly beautiful I might add, impossibly sexy too, but not a true connoisseur) did like it. There was a fishiness to it I didn't like. Maybe this is an acquired taste, but I haven't acquired it yet.

            I notice that you didn't mention the egg caviar at Melisse. There are variations of this at many restaurants (Jean George, French Laundry, Manresa, the late L'Orangerie and more). I like Melisse's the best (Manresa's was terrific too) Jean George was only very good.

            Speaking of complacency, I've had one meal at Jean Georges - not enough to be fair. And I had the traditional/classic tasting menu. And it was merely very good. I will go back, but with lowered expectations. Maybe I'll have a stellar experience. A lot of people I trust have had sent over the moon. I only reached a stratospheric orbit.

            And I had a weird experience with their sommelier - we had the wine pairings with the meal and he couldn't tell me kind of grape it was. Nor did he come back and tell me. It's a minor thing, but kind of unacceptable.

            2 Replies
            1. re: foodiemahoodie

              I'd actually been tracking the place for years prior to this visit. Though the food at Melisse is superb, I did not experience a strong sense of evolution, of progression, a feeling that the kitchen really wanted to take things to the next level. That being said, I certainly don't think that the place is backsliding, and I will continue to dine there and recommend the place in the future.

              As for the tuna, though the strong flavor was unexpected and a bit jarring, it wasn't unenjoyable.

              You're right, I did not try the egg caviar at Melisse. I have had it Jean Georges and similar dishes at French Laundry and Manresa though; I've enjoyed all variations I've tried so far. Though not a particularly exciting dish, it always pleases. I'll try to order it at Melisse on my next visit.

              I definitely see your point about Jean Georges. The classic menu doesn't change much sadly, but I suppose that's the point of it (to be able to try JG's "signature" dishes). Fortunately, the other menu options are much more seasonal in nature. As you said though, it wasn't stellar.

              1. re: kevin h

                Kev, The best dish at Melisse is the Uni Caviar Egg, don't miss it!!

            2. This sounded fantastic. I'm actually going there tomorrow night for an exciting evening. The carte blanche seems like the way to go, but is it quite a bit of food? Is it easy to share with my date? Or could that be interpreted as tacky? We want to sample alot, but also can't really stuff ourselves. Thanks!

              1 Reply
              1. re: bucktown

                It was quite fantastic! I have a large appetite so I wasn't terribly full afterwards, but I'd imagine that the carte blanche would sate an average person. Thus, I think that if you were to split the carte blanche, both parties would not leave completely satiated. An option might be to get a carte blanche to split, then order additional courses to augment.

              2. Great report, Kevin. More or less my feelings about Melisse.