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Interesting Dinner with the Top Chef: Stefan's at LA Farm

OK, I admit it, I never really watched Top Chef. All I knew about Stefan Richter was that he was the bald, cocky, European guy who was arguably the best cook on the show. Despite his skills though, Richter ended up, along with Carla Hall, as a mere runner-up to eventual winner Hosea Rosenberg.

Stefan's menu is split by small plates, appetizers, and mains. The most interesting items are found in the small plates selection--I mean, who can resist something called "Like a Big Mac?" A word of warning though, small plates really does mean small in this case.

Now the food:

Sweetbread Schnitzel with Potato Salad [$3.00]
When most Americans hear the term schnitzel, we tend to think of the infamous hot dogs of fast food chain Wienerschnitzel (which, ironically, doesn't actually serve its eponymous dish). A schnitzel is, in reality, a breaded and fried meat cutlet, and Richter's version substitutes sweetbreads for the traditional fillings of veal, pork, or chicken. The sweetbread was firm, dense, with a mild initial flavor leading to a richer, gamier finish. The tart, tangy potato salad, thus, was a superb complement, effectively cutting the considerable gravity of the schnitzel. My favorite item of the night.

Truffle Arancini with Lemon Aioli [$3.00]
A dish of Italian origins, an arancino is a rice ball, typically filled with a meat ragù and mozzarella cheese, that's been breaded and fried. Richter's take adds shaved truffle into the mix. The result is a delicious cube of creamy, cheesy rice, though the truffle essence could've been more pronounced. Texture-wise, the crisp, crunchy exterior was a fitting foil to the creamy insides, and I enjoyed the tartness of the lemon in tempering the arancino's weight.

Kumamoto Oyster with Absinthe Jello and Fennel Vinaigrette [$3.00]
Kumamotos are my favorite variety of oyster, and here again, I loved its crisp, clean, briny sweetness and snappy consistency. The use of absinthe and fennel added an extremely subtle anise tinge to the bivalve, but I wish that flavor would've been more manifest.

Sonoma Foie Gras with Cracked White Pepper, Smoked Salt and Griddled Brioche [$3.00]
The foie actually turned out much nicer than I'd expected, with the salt and pepper proving to be a great accent to the flavor of the liver. Meanwhile, the brioche really tempered the foie, mitigating its intensity while giving the dish a bready finish and lovely complexion. Very good.

Like a Big Mac [$3.00]
With such a provocative nomenclature (and being a fan of the ubiquitous sandwich), how could I not order this? This was like a mini-mini-burger, a half-slider, a one-bite wonder. It was filled with a beef patty, a Swiss-like cheese, red onion, caramelized onion, and some sort of green vegetable (lettuce? arugula?). At first, I thought that the burger was tasty, though not particularly similar to a Big Mac; it was only on the finish that the resemblance made itself known to me. I would say that the beef could've been done rarer though.

Tater Tots with Hidden Valley Ranch [$3.00]
Tater Tots were a favorite of mine during my adolescence, when I would fare them regularly at the school cafeteria. The Tots here, done extra crunchy, thus made for a somewhat nostalgic eating experience. As for the rationale behind the sauce, Richter mentioned that Hidden Valley Ranch was a staple of his when he first came to the US. Amazing, the dipping sauce actually uses real Hidden Valley Ranch (notice that the phrase is not quoted)! A simple but satisfying dish, with the tanginess of the ranch offsetting the monolithal potato nicely.

Beef Tartare with Poached Quail Egg and Breadstick [$5.00]
Our final taste of the small plates spread was this tartare (I have a hard time not ordering tartare if it's on the menu). This was certainly a nice example--lightly flavored meat, a tinge of mustard, a bit of creaminess from the egg, bracing greens, and a subtly acerbic finish. I would've liked to have seen a different breadstick though, as it was identical to the ones in our bread basket.

Sliced Pigs Head with Champagne Chive Vinaigrette, Radishes and Frisée [$12.00]
Think of this as head cheese, basically a cold cut made with pork cheek and other ingredients in an aspic-like gelatin. It had a marked saltiness, with a pleasing tanginess thanks in part to the vinaigrette, and the radishes and frisée worked well in balancing the meat. However, I would've preferred thicker slices, to better appreciate the texture and flavor of the head, though Richter later advised against this, saying that the resulting dish would be too rubbery.

Lobster and Scallop Risotto with English Peas, Dill, Champagne and Dandelions [$20.00]
As I've mentioned before, if risotto's on offer, then I pretty much have to order it. This was a solid example, with rice that was near al dente--creamy, yet still with some bite--it was slightly too soupy however. Flavor-wise, the initial attack was quite rich, cheesy in fact, while the peas came into the fore on the midpalate, balancing things out with their vegetal tang. The seafood, meanwhile, gave the risotto an enjoyable, briny finish.

Braised Pork Cheek and Caraway Sausage with Sauerkraut, Pretzel Dumplings and Beer Sauce [$19.00]
An unabashed nod to Richter's Germanic heritage, this next dish is also among the most oft ordered, at least according to our Kurdistani server Furkat. The pork itself was braised to a tender, but still somewhat firm texture. My dining companion thought it overly tough and dry, but I appreciated the bit of bite that it still had. My favorite element here, though, was the housemade sausage. I'm a big fan of cased meat, and this was a particularly fine example, with a fantastic sweet-spicy interplay and rich flavor. The dumplings, made from pretzel bread, were also quite enjoyable. Finally, the acidic sauerkraut went a long way in balancing the heft of all the other elements here, though I would've liked the cabbage a bit crisper.

Nutmeg Crusted California Halibut, Braised Baby Fennel, Sunchokes and Lobster Broth [$24.00]
We were pretty much ready for dessert at this point, but decided to order this last savory for the hell of it (deciding between it and the veal chop, actually). The main issue we had with this dish was that the nutmeg crust was too thick, too tough, thus taking attention away from the actual flesh of the halibut, which was indeed quite delicious. I would've also appreciated a thinner broth, with a more delicate application of lobster essence. Though my dining companion would disagree with me on this point, I enjoyed the use of fennel here, which provided a lightening vegetal foil to an otherwise hearty dish.

Red Wine Ice Cream Lollipop [$3.00]
Though these lollipops recalled those from Providence in appearance, they were a completely different animal. Rather than getting an explosive burst of liquid upon mastication, you first get a tart, creamy exterior imbued with the essence of red wine, which then leads to a crunchy, chocolatey center. Great fun.

Nutella Crème Brûlée [$3.00]
Nutella and crème brûlée--it'd be pretty hard to go wrong with this combination. And indeed, this was a tasty little morsel, nutty, yet chocolatey; think crème brûlée, but one that tastes like Ferrero Rocher. The whole presentation is reminiscent of a cigarette and ash tray, no? Richter is a smoker after all.

Mousse au Chocolat with Baumkuchen [$8.00]
A baumkuchen ("tree cake") is a kind of layered cake traditionally made by brushing layers of batter on a cake rotating on a spit. Since LA Farm lacks such a contraption, the version here is made by layering horizontal strata of batter in a baking pan. In any case, it came sliced very thin and topped with chocolate mousse. The mousse itself was quite appetizing, and the cake provided a nice moderating contrast to the sugariness of the cream. However, I would've preferred a more substantial portion of the baumkuchen.

It seems like Richter has done a fine job in revamping the old LA Farm. His cuisine certainly draws upon his Continental roots, but is intentionally eclectic, and still influenced by the Farm's Californian roots to be sure. The menu is bold, brash, reflecting the Chef's somewhat larger-than-life persona; Richter's still tweaking it, adding and dropping items, hopefully refining things based on early feedback, so it might be fun to revisit the place once things have settled down. Stefan's is a welcome addition to the Westside, and though Richter didn't prevail on Top Chef, perhaps he may just have an even bigger prize here on the Farm.

Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/08/stef...

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  1. I think we roughly have the same taste. The braised pork was next on my list of dishes to order:

    http://foiegrasandfrenchfries.blogspo...

    3 Replies
    1. re: albatruffles

      I find it fascinating that kevineats and albatruffles had virtually the same dinner yet had completely different impressions.

      Mine was closer to Albatruffles: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/643291

      1. re: wasabica

        Andrea, I thought that that was interesting as well. Alba went on opening night, so perhaps things have been tweaked for the better? I do agree with you about coming back once things have settled a bit.

      2. re: albatruffles

        I think you might be right, though your aversion to certain aspects of the meal seems to run deeper than mine. How do we line up for other places?

      3. Mmmm. Everything sounds great. I'm a sucker for steak tar tar. The last one I had was at Church and State, and I wasn't too impressed.

        3 Replies
        1. re: schrutefarms

          Suzanne Goin's Tavern has the best Steak tar tar I have ever had, just FYI, if you want to give it a try:

          http://www.tavernla.com/

          1. re: Tom P

            DANG....Just looked at the menu, all my faves are on it. Comfort food at it's best. Rarely go to the westside, just might have to now....Thanks!

            1. re: schrutefarms

              Indeed. The food is terrific and the pork burger? Wow.

        2. Wow!
          What a well written and thorough review - thanks for that!!

          I was a HUGE Stefan fan wheile he was on TC!! Sure he was cocky, but he ended up showing a very warm and lovable side to himself....o he is actually very lovely- i'm so glad to hear your positive review.

          I love the idea of small bites that are affordable - it lets you try so many more things off the menu.....
          I wish I lived closer that's for sure!

          1. Thanks so much for another great review! I love the idea of inexpensive, very small plates...a sampler's dream come true. This will be next on my list of places to try.