uhockey's thoughts on the Los Angeles Area: 11/11/11-11/15/11 including ink, Red Medicine, AOC, Providence, LQ@SK, Jitlada, Animal, and more.
Thanks to all the great LA hounds who not only directed me where to check out, but to the many who actually dined with me - half a dozen great folks at 9 of my total stops. Places visited will be listed here and reviews will come along as I write them; life is busy with the holidays, work, etc.
As it stands I'm soon to be living MUCH closer to LA and given my love of the Kings it is certain to be a frequent destination on weekends beginning with the 2012-2013 season.
Joan’s on Third
Providence (Kitchen Table)
Gjelina and GTA
LQ at SK (White Truffle Menu)
8022 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048
5233 1/2 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027
8400 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291
235 N Canon Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Great report ! I read every word with much interest. The funny thing is that one of the items which stood out was your description of the french toast at A.O.C. My husband is always on a quest to find the perfect french toast and invariably is somewhat disappointed. The A.O.C. version sounds as if it would work. His most recent french toast experience was at Farmshop and although it looked pretty, it was lacking in taste and that all-important custardy center. He likes Tavern's French toast but it isn't always on the menu.
Full review with pictures in the blog, text as below:
For my final meal on this trip to Los Angeles I decided to finally accept the hype and make a reservation at Animal. As I’ve not been living under a rock for the last three years I was obviously aware of the restaurant, present since 2008, and its substantial acclaim but all things being equal I just couldn’t bring myself to eat there on previous visits to the City of Angels because it seemed like just another one of those places taking every piece of offal, gussying it up, and serving it to hipsters – a formula I’ve seen and whose food I’ve enjoyed, but a “formula” none the less. “What changed your mind?” one might ask and to that I think the answer is three-fold – first of all the most recently posted online menu looked great, second of all it was Sunday and my plane was leaving at 11:00pm, and finally my dinner at Avec only a week prior where I rekindled my love for both the food and atmosphere Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook have reportedly been serving up since day one at the unmarked restaurant on Fairfax.
With reservations made for 6:00pm and confirmed the day prior by the hostess via phone I was fortunate to find free street parking only perhaps 200 yards from the restaurant and despite my lunch at Jitlada I was actually quite hungry after spending nearly four hours wandering the LACMA when I arrived at Animal just moments before they opened the doors. Standing and chatting for a bit with a local couple who referred to themselves as “regulars” it would not be long before the front door was unlocked and held open for us and on stating my reservation I was greeted with a smile from the hostess before being led to my table; a sturdy two-top with a good view of the bar and more than half of the long and narrow room.
Having read a bit of Dotolo and Shook’s story in the past, a rather fortuitous meeting in culinary school followed by restaurant work, catering, TV stints, and finally the opening of Animal (followed by the recently opened Son of a Gun) I was glad to see both chefs present on my arrival - Shook in the kitchen and visible through the cut-away while Dotolo stood at the bar chatting with the two regulars and bartender before himself returning to the back. With the restaurant soon to fill – literally at capacity perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes after I was seated – I would first be greeted by a young woman who would server largely as a runner throughout the evening and with water filled and a menu delivered it would not be long before I would next meet James, my server for the evening.
With the menu explained as “sort of small plates, but some actually quite substantial” James suggested that two-to-four plates would suffice most appetites and that they generally recommended anywhere from 4-5 for a table of two. Asked if I had any questions I inquired about portion size of the poutine as well as for James personal recommendations and telling him I’d take a bit to decide I perused the options while surveying the space; as mentioned quite narrow and deep with concrete floors, taupe walls, lots of wood, a bit of metal, and retro lighting – kind of an amalgam (or perhaps inspiration for) the design at ink, Red Medicine, and Gjelina. With tables closely spaced and the room loud but not deafening James would return shortly and placing my order for four plates he commended my choices stating “Nice – I hope you’re hungry.”
Leaving the Chef’s at liberty to send out the dishes in whatever order they deemed best I was a bit surprised when my first course arrived twenty or so minutes after ordering as it was certainly the heaviest dish and actually the one I expected last, the famous Foie Gras, Biscuit, Maple Sausage Gravy. Certainly not subtle or dainty in flavor or portion this dish was actually one of the reasons I came to Animal and considering the ample praise it has received over time the dish really did turn out to be a stunner; the Foie Gras itself seared flawlessly with a caramelized exterior and butter soft center juxtaposed against the pillowy buttermilk biscuit and all soaked in thick smoky gravy with just a hint of syrup. Sweet but not too sweet, large but not too large, and all-in-all quite like biscuits and gravy anywhere else with the foie gras as a lovely bonus justifying the cult status and price tag.
For the second course of the night I opted for one that I was told was “something new the chef’s have been working on” in the form of Coconut Sweetbreads, Raita, Mango, Tamarind and with the influence clearly coming from Indian cuisine I really liked what this dish had to offer. Beginning first with the sweetbreads, a large gland cut into nine bite-sized pieces and fried golden with a sweet exterior giving way to the expected creamy tones within the crunchy bites were then paired with sliced and cooked cucumbers and mangos providing a nice vegetal interplay while the use of cumin scented yogurt added a touch of sour. Already delicious a final topping with edible flowers and a smear of rich tamarind reduction added yet another layer to the dish further impressing me by making a generally dense ingredient seem quite light.
Having considered also ordering the foie terrine James talked me out of it suggesting instead the bone marrow or the pig’s ear and while I probably could have ordered and enjoyed all three I eventually settled on the ear when I found out it came with an egg. Another signature dish that has been on Animal’s menu since day one, “Pig Ear, Chili, Lime, Fried Egg” would prove to be a nice follow-up to the hefty liver and dense sweetbreads and packing quite a punch in the spice department I also understood why the kitchen opted to send it later in the meal. Light and tasty despite the pork and egg constituents this dish felt a lot like breakfast with the crispy ears quite like well done bacon and the creamy egg doing a nice job to help mellow the spice. A great balance, particularly with the mild citrus tones this reminded me a lot of Chicago’s Purple Pig though I still think the one in the Windy City remains the best porcine ear dish I’ve yet encountered.
Still not getting close to full and having seen the table next to me order both the terrine (plate envy!) and another dish that immediately became a must try I flagged James down and asked to add another savory course to which raised his eyebrows and said “sure thing, but it will take a bit of time to prepare” before heading back to the kitchen to place the order and to pick up my next dish of “Pig’s Tails Buffalo Style, Celery, Ranch.” Probably the least successful dish of the night for me, this plate arrived precisely as billed with the fatty tails nicely cooked and falling off the bone while paired with celery leaves, radish, a bit of carrot, and plenty of hot sauce. Using the ranch as a bit of a balance but still quite hot from all the cayenne I must say I did enjoy the texture of this dish, but overall I just found the taste a bit too one dimensional – especially after the complexities of those prior.
Having thankfully opted to add on one more course as I’d have not wanted the Pig’s Tails to be my last taste of Dotolo and Shook’s food my final savory of the evening was Melted Petit Basque, Chorizo, and Grilled Bread – a simply delightful porcelain dish of the mildly-pungent sheep’s milk cheese still bubbling hot and layered atop crisp and savory chorizo. Still in its molten state on arrival and paired with crunchy bread lightly brushed with oil this course was nearly a spoonable fondue with each bite full of savory notes and a touch of spice over the cheese’s unmistakable nutty tones; a perfect cheese course before dessert.
With James returning and asking if I’d “like a coffee or dessert” I told him both sounded good and as a matter of fact to make it a double – two desserts (refills of the coffee, as it turned out, were complimentary) – and with that he returned to the kitchen to place the order and returned moments later with my first of three cups of coffee, a relatively standard blend with a smooth body and clean finish but nothing to write home about (and hence, probably, the free refills.)
Moving on to the sweets I’ll admit I’d only planned to order the restaurant’s signature chocolate bar on entering but the moment I saw the words sticky pudding I knew two desserts would find their way to my table by the end of the night and sure enough the first to arrive would be “Sticky Toffee Pudding, Mascarpone, Orange,” a dense steamed pudding in the traditional fashion with plenty of dates and butter plus ample notes of brown sugar and cinnamon within. Small but intense and topped with a sort of orange marmalade infused toffee adding a citrus tone to the otherwise buttery and creamy sauce I particularly enjoyed the use of mascarpone as a base not only for the light cloudy texture, but also for helping to balance the overall sweetness.
For my final dish of the evening, and my final bites of Los Angeles for 2011 actually, Animal’s famous “Bacon Chocolate Bar, S&P Ice Cream” would arrive along with my third mug of coffee and every bit as decadent as one would figure it to be given its ingredients this dish did not fail to impress. Reportedly inspired by the Kit-Kat, much like Michel Richard’s signature dessert, this triple layer slice consisted first of a layer of thick ganache sprinkled with and infuse with bacon resting atop a layer of dark chocolate riddled with nuts and finally a crunchy chocolate cookie base. With a dehydrated milk powder decorating one half of the plate and a ball of creamy salt and pepper ice cream balancing the other I really enjoyed the various flavors, textures, and contrasts of this dessert but in the end it was the quality and nuance of the chocolate that stole the show even if the bacon gets all the headlines.
With a small line awaiting at the hostess podium and on the street James stopped by after my plates were bussed and after joking about how he wasn’t sure “where I put all that food” he asked if I would like anything else – another coffee refill perhaps – and declining as the hour was just after 8:00 I requested the check, nearly $100 after tax and tip. Thanking my servers and taking a quick look at the signed copies of “Two Dudes, One Pan” before making my way to the door and subsequently to my car I will simply conclude my thoughts on Animal by saying that yes, it does indeed fit a formula but taking into account all things from the design to the service to the food to the food it does the formula very right and I’d not hesitate to return...at least after I pick up the cookbook and visit Son of A Gun.
435 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Full review in blog with pictures, text as below:
I’m from the Midwest. More so than that I am from Northwest Ohio and have spent the better part of the last 12 years in the center of “average America” where Taco Bell, McDonalds, and Pepsi test market their newest items/travesties. To the Midwestern palate, “Thai food” is vegetables that I like along with rice and spice – two things I certainly don’t go out of my way for, yet given the fascination with this particular type of cuisine (and its varying forms from North to Central to South) it has always been something I wanted to explore…just not in Ohio…and having heard that Jitlada, one of the most revered Thai restaurants in the United States was a mere 2-miles from where I’d be staying in Los Angeles I decided there would be no better time than now to see what the fuss was all about.
Taking into account my limited knowledge of the cuisine and customs but knowing that if I was going to try Thai food I wanted to do it somewhere that did it “right” I attempted to gather a group of local “foodies” (hate that word,) gourmands, or chowhounds through the appropriate channels and while this did indeed lead to a lot of responses most of them wanted to go elsewhere – ink, Red Medicine, Providence, or Gjelina – while only one (who also had never been) showed interest in Jitlada. Finding this a tad strange given the substantial praise but largely undeterred and happy for the company a reservation was made for noon yet having actually jogged right past the restaurant earlier that day I still managed to arrive 15 minutes late due to LA traffic.
With a single parking space left in the small lot and my dining buddy waiting at the door we exchanged hellos and entering the small restaurant were greeted by a young Asian woman who would act as hostess, server, and busser throughout the meal. Although her name was never given and her English was not strong she proved to be extremely courteous throughout the meal and likewise very efficient considering at least ten tables were occupied and she seemed to be the only server currently on duty. With waters filled and kept full throughout the afternoon the menus were next presented – an array of 200 or so numbered dishes with both traditional Thai and English names, some a bit cryptic and others a thorough list of ingredients.
Having done due diligence and read through the menu prior to my visit and additionally consulting a number of websites regarding “can’t miss” items both for beginners and those looking for a blistering hot experience my friend and I weighed our options while discussing dining in general – both in LA and abroad – and after realizing that both of us were relatively new at this we settled on mostly mild choices, 5 in total, along with a $2 surcharge bowl of white rice. With the restaurant apologizing in advance by way of signs on the wall for slow service as everything is prepared fresh I personally did not feel the wait was excessive and dishes came out as they were prepared, always one at a time, and essentially at ten to fifteen minute intervals.
Beginning first with the only dish I’d not previously targeted, a suggestion of my dining companion, “Khao Yam Songkhla rice salad in the style of Songkhla Province, with assorted vegetables and a sweet sauce” would prove to be by far the most mild of our selections but at the same time also quite delicious. Featuring an ample amount of nicely fried jasmine rice with good texture and a bit of crunch here and there I will have to admit my ignorance as to what all was in this dish but I definitely detected zucchini, purple cabbage, mango, green beans, lime juice, and coconut mixed in with the rice while the sauce was undoubtedly a sweetened fish sauce with little dried bits mixed in – fish or perhaps a crustacean I cannot really be sure – but tasty with just a bit of funk that melded well with the sweeter components of the salad.
As a second salad, this one my choice, would be perhaps the restaurant’s “signature” dish in the form of “Crispy Morning Glory Salad: Deep-Fried Chinese Watercress w/ Shrimp & Spicy House Dressing” and as good as the rice salad was this one was preferable if only for one reason – the deep fried morning glories. Less complex in terms of ingredients but more-so in terms of texture these crunchy little bites would prove surprisingly light and delicate while their pairing with dried shrimp, fresh shrimp, carrots, cabbage, red onions, and a slightly sweet sauce with a bit of heat on the finish was a perfect match. With portions ample I was happy that although each salad rested on the table throughout our meal both proved quite delicious even as they cooled and also provided a nice refresher between the upcoming spicier courses.
Moving next to the Plaa Pear, or fried red snapper fish fillets with dried coconut and curry sauce topped with crispy basil, my appreciation for Thai food increased approximately ten fold; why on earth is no other culture that I’ve experienced routinely breading and frying basil? I mean, sure the fish was good – light, moist, and flaky as snapper should be with just a touch of smooth sweetness from the coconut, but the savory basil was absolutely where it was at in this dish. Literally swooning with each bite of my favorite spice rediscovered in a whole new light as an herbaceous near-liquid filling inside the crispy breading I did try a bit of the curry sauce at first, but finding this complex blend quite hot I opted to save it for the fish while enjoying the basil separately and found a good ratio to be a bite of fish with a bit of curry followed by two bites of basil.
As we were enjoying the snapper (or basil, your choice) the next dish to arrive would be ordered both out of personal preference/necessity and because it was listed as one of the chef’s specials – the Crispy Honey Duck. Admittedly pricey at $24 for what was essentially half a duck served with only some garnishing vegetables, curry sauce, and plum sauce with a bit of a kick I have to say that overall I felt this dish was a bit of a disappointment considering the cost and “special” status, but with the skin lacquered and crisp while the meat remained tender and moist it was a respectable and tasty preparation – just not something I’d order again as I’ve had duck that was both cheaper (and much more expensive) that was better.
With the table now getting cluttered until we finished off the two salads the final two plates to arrive would be a large mound of white rice accompanied by “Kaeng Khaew Wan Khai Mang-Kon," or ‘Dragon Eggs’ with green curry with zucchini, bamboo, and salted egg-yolk-stuffed fish balls. Additionally sporting chopped peas, beans, carrots, peppers, and lemongrass this yellow-green preparation smelled wonderful with notes of garlic, basil, coriander, and cumin all notable along with what I can only imagine to be many others and with the salted duck eggs stuffed with moist fish meat each bite provided an entirely new experience with flavors sometimes briny, sometimes creamy, sometimes fishy, and other times simply heated and vegetal all with just a bit of sweetness and the smoothness of coconut. Avoiding the rice and focusing on the broth I will note I went through a couple glasses of water with this even though it really wasn’t THAT hot, and when it was all said and done the bowl was clean – as was every other plate on the table save for the rice.
With the meal having taken longer than expected and my friend unfortunately having to return to work it was with some regret that we declined dessert, instead opting for admittedly tasty take out options from Bhan Kanom and with the check delivered we opted to split the bill down the middle – an admittedly pricey sum of nearly $45/pp after tax and tip before making it to the streets. With the price point of Jitlada having been the primary reason that many people cited for not wanting to meet up for lunch there I have to say that all things being equal I certainly had not intended to spend that much walking in the door, but at the same time for a premium Thai experience with excellent ingredients I cannot say the price-point was that far off from what I’d spent at Gjelina or AOC in days prior. Still no expert on great versus good versus bad Thai all I can really do is compare Jitlada to any other “restaurant experience” and using that criteria I really enjoyed it and found the food, company, and afternoon well spent – I’d definitely go back or be happy to have someone show me someplace producing the same quality at a lower price.
LQ @ SK 18-Course White Truffle Dinner:
Full review in blog with pictures, text (long) as below:
During my last visit to Los Angeles I took the advice of some “foodie” friends and visited Bistro LQ, the then-home of Chef Laurent Quenioux and his utterly fearless brand of cuisine; it was a meal that resonated a long time for a number of reasons, the best of which were the complex tastes and textures plus Chef Quenioux himself while the worst was the exasperatingly sub-par service throughout the night. Having heard that the restaurant had unfortunately shuttered its doors shortly after our meal but keeping an eye on Laurent’s exploits by way of the message boards and his facebook account I was well aware of his “fooding around” at Starry Kitchen and also familiar with his 18-Course white truffle menu from the previous year...but up until just over a week before I left for Los Angeles did I know that the two would just so happen to coincide with one of the five days while I was in town.
Having watched Quenioux’s menu updates over time and having contacted the chef to ask if any of the LQ@SK nights would be happening during my visit approximately a month before I departed for the City of Angels I was originally told by the chef that he was not yet sure (but to “Stay tuned”) and surprisingly asked not only if I’d be seeing a Kings game while in town, but also how my mother was doing – two facts he somehow remembered about me after a short conversation following my last visit. Clearly impressed by his memory and attention to detail it was around this time that I decided to sign up for the Starry Kitchen Newsletter and perhaps 2 weeks later was when the announcement of the truffle menu arrived – dates still not confirmed but eventually confirmed by Starry Kitchen owner Nguyen Tran to be $350 for 18 courses on both Monday and Tuesday night; pricey for sure, but a tab I was more than willing to pay not only for the Tuber magnatum but because Chef Quenioux had already made quite the impression.
Having managed to contact my dining buddy from ink (well before meeting him at ink) who also talked his brother into the evening at Starry Kitchen our dining time was set to be 7:00pm and despite getting caught up in the mess that was the Twilight Premier at the Nokia Theater when simply trying to shop at Staples Center I managed to find the location as well as parking at 350 South Grand Avenue an arrive to the restaurant just minutes prior to our reservation. With my name delivered to the young hosts as Soft Cell’s Tainted Love played overhead I was quickly led to a table, the first of my party to arrive, where I was subsequently greeted by Laurent as well as Nguyen, both all smiles and thanks promising a night of outstanding food and fun.
With my dining partners arriving moments later and bringing with them three bottles of wine (Starry Kitchen, a sandwich shop, clearly lacks a liquor license) including a 1978 Barolo, 2000 Kistler Cuvee Catherine, and 2006 Ulysse Collin Blanc de Blanc Champagne the alcohol was chilled and decanted with impressive care considering the locale and noting my lack of knowledge regarding wine I will say here that while the Barolo was largely DOA tasting more like prune juice than wine the other two were quite good and I drank more than I usually would, though considering the fact that we sat down at 7:00pm on 11/14 and left at 01:05am on 11/15 I really didn’t feel it at all. With pleasantries exchanged and Nguyen stopping by to say hello to my friends – who he incidentally remembered from a previous LQ@SK event – it was now just after 7:15, Genesis’ Invisible Touch was playing overhead, and it was time to get started.
Bearing in mind the location of Starry Kitchen, generally a takeout shop for Asian influenced wraps and sandwiches located in a rather business oriented sector of LA, I have to admit that unless they brought in special tables and chairs for the event I was actually quite impressed by the appearance of the place. Sure there was a Coke machine, chalkboards, and clever phrases around the room and the ceiling was largely exposed with bare concrete floors but the service ware was respectable and all things being equal the service was better than much of Los Angeles, fine dining or not. With the kitchen small and cramped but open to watch the team work it would be a short while before our first bites would arrive and as we waited we munched on a basket of bread provided by the nearby bread lounge – a relatively standard French baguette with mildly fruity olive oil whose duty was mostly sopping up sauces, a job it performed admirably.
With conversation flowing and the kitchen working quickly but under great control our first course would arrive as a duo of boozed up spoons entitled “Truffle Gel 2-ways: Vodka and Gin.” Apparently joined by a third (Tequila) the following night these modernist spherifications included the noted alcohols plus fruit – huckleberry with the vodka and mandarin orange with the gin – and shavings of white truffle that came through in abundance moments after the finish. A clever amuse and although a bit similar to that at Providence the night before a nice way to start.
For course two, “Cucumber Ice Cream, Blis Salmon Roe, Blinis, Truffles” would arrive and as a sort of Greek tzatziki spin on the classical caviar presentation with the cool cucumber and tangy yogurt supplying a nice backdrop to the brine of the eggs. With the buckwheat blini a bit toothsome and plenty buttery I particularly appreciated the way the Sherry Vinegar highlighted the eggs but unfortunately this was one of a couple dishes during the evening where the flavor of the truffles got lost in the otherwise lovely presentation.
With 17 more courses to go, dish three would prove to be perhaps THE dish of the evening and certainly the first “wow” moment of the night. Titled “Cold Poached Quail Egg Mold in Oxtail Aspic with Sunchoke, Fresh Truffles” and aromatic with shaved white truffle on the outside and a slice of truffle inside as well what truly set this dish off was actually the jellied egg laced with sunchoke puree and how it balanced lightly with the gamey gelatin. Deep and heady on its own and certainly enhanced by the truffles a touch of maple jus and micro orchids lent just a touch of sweetness and the slightest bit of levity to this otherwise powerful composition.
Getting a bit more aggressive with both the portion and preparation of the truffles as he progressed “Truffle Pana cotta, Sea Urchin Emulsion, Tosaka Seaweed” would prove to be another favorite for the evening with the panna cotta a veritable cloud of truffle essence and acting to support surprisingly thick slices of the truffle resting atop a tongue of fresh Santa Barbara Sea Urchin. Not shy to focus on the semi-sweet brine of the urchin the base of the plate was further filled with a creamy uni emulsion mixed with snappy seaweed – a nice vegetal note largely serving to add texture to the otherwise light and creamy dish.
Course five was definitely a new one; let’s just say that you don’t see raw rabbit on too many menus here in the states but there it was in the form of “Rabbit Tartar with Truffle, Celery Root Truffle Remoulade, Argan Oil Vinaigrette.” Velvety and lean like quality sashimi yet with just a slight nutty tone the rabbit itself would prove quite tasty, but what put this course on the map was its crust, one of pure white truffles and just a touch of black pepper. Aromatic and splendid – one of the dishes you could smell before it even hit the table – and paired nicely with a touch of acid and the slightest note of bitter from the vinaigrette and remoulade this would be another of the most memorable courses of the evening.
Course six would be the weakest of the evening for me largely because not only could I not detect the truffles (aside from visually) at all, but also because it was the only dish of the evening that felt really unidimensional. Titled “Green Daikon and Dungeness Crab, Serrano Ham Pico De Gallo” this course featured delicate crab meat rolled inside a daikon ‘Cannoli’ over a base of saline ham, tomato, and maybe a bit of pepper. With the ham clearly well sourced but perhaps allowed to meld just too long with the rest of the salsa it simply became the dominant tone of the plate leaving everything else a bit lost on the palate.
Course seven, “Scottish Hare Truffle Consommé - Boudin Blanc, Hare Shu-Mai” would arrive next and aside from the consommé being a bit tepid (something that we mentioned and was instantly remedied for the next service) it was quite stunning – another one of those dishes where the aromatics hit you from ten feet away. Beginning first with the consommé, clearly imbued with both truffle and stock from the Hare, it was deep and complex while still clear and clean – a brilliant balance. Moving next to shu-mai, deep and rich with just a bit of game, and then to the Sweetbread Boudin Blanc which was probably the smoothest white sausage I’ve ever tasted this was the sort of dish that reminded me of something I would have found in Paris from the likes of Gagnaire or Robuchon.
Another very “Robuchon-esque” dish would arrive next in the form of “Truffle Lobster Tapioca Pudding, Diver Scallops, Green Tea Sabayon” and having experienced Laurent’s use of tapioca as a textural component in savories during my meal at Bistro LQ I was again impressed as the light pearls danced with the aromatics of the white truffle and sweetness of lobster while the scallop was nicely prepared to crisp on the exterior with the inside still jiggly and tinged by the slight bitter of the sabayon and just a touch of clove flavor imparted from micro red shiso leafs.
Sticking with a progression from soup to pudding to something a bit more substantial the next dish, “Truffle Congee - Spiny Lobster, 24 months Comte Cheese” came with great expectation after the previous congees on this trip but also just a touch of trepidation as spiny lobster has managed to disappoint me even in the hands of stellar chefs (Boulud for one) in the past; Thankfully any worry dissipated as soon as I took a bite. Essentially showing exactly what happens when you put exquisite ingredients in the hands of an great chef and don’t try to over think it this dish was simple but breathtaking – the rice tender with a bit of toothsomeness and heady with the notes of truffle and aged cheese while the lobster was crisp, snappy, and intensely sweet. If only the portion size were as big as that at Red Medicine I think I could have probably just ended the meal right here and left a very happy man.
Passing the halfway point around 10pm “Monkfish Cheek, Hazelnut Butter Vinaigrette, Leeks, Truffles” would start our progression into some heavier protein dishes with a bang – at least for two of us. Serving up some of the largest fish cheeks I’ve ever seen it took a lot of guts in my opinion for LQ to present such a fibrous protein whole but cooked till tender I found mine to be quit lean, muscular, and with just a bit of brine perfectly balanced by the slight sweetness of the hazelnut butter which carrying the truffle essence to the palate. A rather simple presentation and lightly topped with a bit of opal basil it was unfortunate that one of my dining partners received a less than forgiving piece of cheek with far too much fiber making it chewy. Pointing this out to Nguyen when he came around it should be noted that the owner agreed and returned the cheek to the kitchen only to be told by Laurent that it was indeed appropriately cooked – an assessment I still don’t agree with, especially when compared to mine.
For course eleven Chef Quenioux treated us to something classic but done up in a whole new way with “Scrambled Eggs, Truffles, Nopales, Truffle Mole.” Beginning first with the classic pairing of French style scrambled eggs (IE soft, runny, cream and butter) plus ample white truffles this was another aromatic masterpiece but instead of stopping the dish there the chef added in the lightly cooked cactus which added a rich vegetal component like that of a pepper without the heat and the mole – a deep and complex reduction of spices and pan jus that added just a mild bit of earthy funk.
After taking a walk to the restroom (outside, across the pavilion, and requiring a key) only to realize on returning that even the air on opening the door to Starry Kitchen was heavy with the smell of truffles the next course to arrive would be one I hadn’t been so sure about when I read the description but a course that would again prove Laurent’s skill; Oxtail and Truffle Grilled Cheese. Assuming that there was no way the truffles could shine through such a hefty protein the presentation of this dish made such worries inconsequential by separating the issues – on one hand there was the delightfully collagenous and supple oxtail served in a truffled broth along with radish and sea beans and on the other was the aromatic and buttery pan de mie sandwich laden with molten Saint Nectare tinged with chopped truffles.
Using one of his preferred cuts of beef, the sirloin cap, Chef would next present Beef Bone Marrow Toast, Beef Culotte, Truffles, Huckleberries and as I’m not much for beef all I can say is that this 2oz slice was nicely prepared and textured but really done no benefit by the truffles which could not be tasted at all when eaten with the culotte. Moving past the beef and onto the other constituents of the plate I will say that I enjoyed to textural contrast of the crisp toast and creamy marrow while the huckleberries did a nice job of blunting the beefiness of the dish but still did no flavors to the truffles.
Served up for our 14th plate of the evening another sparkling dish with an impressively large protein component would arrive as “Wood Pigeon from Scotland, Fresh Fig, Green Lentils, Parsnip, Miso, Nameko” and with my tablemates receiving leg and thigh my portion included breast, neck, and head of the gamy bird, nicely cooked and quite lean resting in a truffled miso soup laden with lentil, parsnip, and earthy mushrooms. A heavy dish but with the hot (Nguyen joking that it was “boiling hot” forcing them to carry the silver pitchers with pot-holders) broth carrying the aromatics high and wide the fig was a much needed bit of sweetness particularly as I dissected the bird and the soup became red with the retained juices.
For our final savory, course fifteen would present Veal Sweetbreads, Duck Foie Gras Soft Taco, Chanterelles – talk about gilding the lily. Small but dense this dish began with a pillowy tortilla resting atop chanterelle mushrooms cooked down with butter and a touch of truffles and then proceeded to pack the tortilla with two of my favorite ingredients, each prepared with the utmost care and nicely balanced despite their characteristic individual hefts. While I cannot say I really tasted the truffles sprinkled atop the taco I could most assuredly smell them and as a simple exercise in excess at the end of an excessive meal I really liked this dish.
In traditional French fashion we were given a small salad prior to cheeses and desserts and while “Purslane Salad, curdle yolk, Truffles” is not going to be the dish that most remember most fondly from this extravaganza I quite liked it as a sort of palate cleanser considering the power of the previous courses. With the purslane something akin to spinach in texture but with a bit of acid and the “curdle yolk” tasting something like mayonnaise meets yogurt the heady truffles were rendered quite notable here once again.
Billed as an 18-course truffle dinner it was good fortune that the meal would actually turn out to be nineteen courses with the seventeenth consisting of LQ’s famous cheese cart; a bit of a sore point on my visit to Bistro LQ as the quality and quantity were there but our server’s knowledge of the selections was downright appalling. This time with the cheeses all labeled and our server much more diligent we were allowed five selections from the 40+ present and with truffled options brought in specifically for the evening we chose a 24-month Comte, Cancoillotte, Brillat savarin, Banon de Chalais, and Tourmalet plus a variety of accoutrements including braised rhubarb, poached cranberry, blueberry vanilla compote, pumpkin ginger puree, kumquats, fennel, truffled honey, toasted hazelnuts, and walnut bread. With the cheeses all nicely aged and myself opting for selections I’d not yet experienced I personally enjoyed both the Banon and the Tourmalet a great deal while the Compte was a very generous slice with great flavor as well.
Moving on to desserts the first would be an interesting Mexican inspired dish from the French Chef entitled “Truffle Tamale “Elote” and Truffle Steamed Milk” and with ample slices of truffle both atop the edible cake and within its creamy sweet corn filling this dish would prove a lovely setup for what followed but also a delicious course its own right as the tamale shaped cake was as light as a Twinkie and the steamed milk so intensely fragrant with white truffles that I probably drank the single mouthful in ten sips in order savor the aroma.
For the last dish of the evening we were warned, needlessly, that this would be the most “intense” course of the evening – I say needlessly because you could literally smell this dish from a table-length away as the group next to us ate theirs. Entiled “Beer taffy, Truffle and Barley Ice Cream, ‘Hop Caramel Fleur de sel Cremeux,’ Beer Truffle Varnish and topped, stuffed, imbued, and lacquered with white truffles this was astonishing. Generally not a fan of beer as I find its flavor a bit overwhelming and bitter this dish negated that not only with the potency of the truffles but also by balancing everything with a substantial degree of sweetness and mild salinity. With the cremeux akin to a savory panna cotta and exploding with hops while barley ice cream acted to lend some balance the true stunner of this dish was the varnish and taffy components, each strong in the hops department but dramatically more so in the truffles which were almost (and I stress almost) too potent when taken on their own but marvelous along with the dish’s other components.
Plenty full of both wine and food and with the new day already an hour old we sat and talked for a bit while the kitchen engaged in their cleaning ritual and with Kansas’ “Carry on the Wayward Son” playing overhead we settled the bill and made way to our feet. As one of the last few tables still occupied we stopped to chat with Nguyen who himself still looked awake and upbeat and we then made our way towards the back to chat with Chef Quenioux himself – ever pleasant and gracious but clearly worn out after a long night and with plans to start preparation for act two in less than twelve hours.
An epic meal both in concept, length, and quality I left Starry Kitchen that night impressed as ever by Laurent’s talents and although I cannot say every dish was superlative the vast majority were and while I cannot say every single dish benefited from the truffles, they certainly never hurt. As it is always difficult to place a “price” on an experience or on exotic ingredients I can say that even without the truffles I would have preferred the vast majority of our 19 courses that evening more than the vast majority I had at a couple of Michelin ** and *** star restaurants in Paris and in Napa earlier this year and as such the $350/pp tab inclusive of tax and tip was well deserved, particularly to such a great chef and host. While in the future I think it may behoove LQ to consider overloading some dishes with truffles while simply leaving them off others I certainly would not hesitate to visit him, no matter what kitchen he is in, for a dozen or more courses of his uncompromised and beautiful cooking again.
350 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90071
For course two, “Cucumber Ice Cream, Blis Salmon Roe, Blinis, Truffles, I moved the truffles off the cucumber ice cream and onto the salmon roe. I found that let the truffle taste shine though more and compliment the roe nicely.
Regarding the Bone Marrow Toast, Beef Culotte, Truffles, Huckleberries. I found that the bone marrow fat nicely carried the truffle taste. It was much more apparent if you ate it without the huckleberries. I liked the dish because it was a unique fat vehicle used to carry the truffle taste (as opposed to the standard butter or cream).
Going back next Sunday for my LQ fix. As fun and delicious as the truffle dinner was, I enjoy the amazingly priced 4 course prix fixe dinners just as much. Can't argue with the corkage policy and that amazing cheese cart either.
I've actually had truffles on marrow in the past - black not white though. It seems a logical carrier given the fat content but for me the beef just dominated.
That cheese cart has got to be amongst the most impressive in the US, no doubt. If I remember correctly they said you can sample every single cheese on it for $125 which then also makes it the best deal in the US.
Did they happen to mention it was a success and not too taxing so that they would entertain the idea of holding the white truffle dinner next year?
i wish they could have a cheapey, and shorter, white truffle dinner at say 8 courses, also, so us hounds with gourmet tastes but less dough, can maybe give it a shot.
They've done it 2 years in a row and they filled every seat, so I'm not sure how you could define it as unsuccessful - especially as I know the opinions of at least 6 people who went and all enjoyed it. Considering the cost of truffles this year and the other exotic ingredients he used I find it hard to believe they made much money on it, even at $350 a head considering what Alinea and places of that ilk charge for a single white truffle supplement dish (Per Se Risotto +$175 onto the already $290 meal.)
As for the "shorter and cheaper" - skip a few other outings during the year and save up. A meal like this is about extravagance. If you just want white truffles for ~$100 go over to Melisse and get the Truffled Egg. Best dish in town, by far, and $95.
You have your wish. Next week's 5 course dinner includes the truffle crusted rabbit tartare for $45. Personally, I'm greedily eyeing the oxtail shepard pie.
Dec 18th - 20th menu:
Amuse: Sweetbread Corn Dog, Chanterelle Soup, Chestnuts
Rabbit Tartar, Truffle Crust, Celery Root
Halibut "spanakopita style", Honeycomb Tripe
Foie Gras Tostada, Pomegranate Salsa
Oxtail Spepherd Pie, Veal Feet Taragone Xeres Vinegar Jam
Dinner was amazing. The oxtail shepard pie was every bit as delicious as it sounded. The surprise hit was the halibut and chorizo wrapped in phylo over a tripe stew. Absolutely stellar.
There were a lot of new additions to the cheese cart. As good as I've ever seen it.
I'll do a full write up tomorrow...way too stuffed now to think straight
I agree. With ingredients like that in the amuse, you basically have to count it as a 6 course meal. That's $7.50 per course. You can't even get a burger or mac and cheese these days for that much. Here you're getting chanterelle, halibut, foie gras, and truffles!?
Gjelina and GTA:
Full review in the blog with pictures, text as below:
I’d admittedly heard some mixed things about Gjelina in the year since my last visit to Los Angeles – most of them describing a restaurant that is pretty much jam packed from noon till midnight serving good, sometimes even great, California inspired cuisine but some suggesting that the chef was a bit sold on himself and that so too were the clients and servers. Having heard similar about a handful of Los Angeles restaurants in the past I certainly took these critiques into consideration in deciding whether or not to visit the Venice eatery but in the end the final decision came down to two things; a lunch menu that I personally think is the most interesting in the city and the fact that a fellow diner reached out to me and offered to accompany me to lunch.
With my co-diner, a pescetarian and frequent patron of Chef Travis Lett’s 2008 establishment, explaining to me that lineups could be quite long at any time of the day and with reservations not accepted save for large parties it was eventually decided that a 12:30 meet-up would be most logical and being an early bird with plans that would lead late into the evening the timing sounded perfect, even giving me time to walk on the beach and visit some of the unique shops on Abbott-Kinney Blvd before allocating parking and scoping out the location just after 11:00am.
With the area quite unique and featuring a number of stores most certainly not seen in Ohio I spent my time browsing after finding the restaurant but given my early arrival I couldn’t help but walk into Gjelina Take Away (GTA) next door and with a menu largely written in black magic marker and chalk I spent some time examining the selections, pizzas, and sandwiches before a young woman asked if I needed any help. At first deferring but then finding myself drawn in by some of the smaller pastries I weighed my appetite, timing, and plans and eventually decided “why not,” selecting two of the five options that I’d take with me while roaming the streets.
Beginning first with what would be my second of four scones on the trip, the still-warm Cornmeal Strawberry Scone would prove to be a very unique and delicious take on the pastry as the team at GTA opted to use a very rough cut cornmeal as opposed to its smoother counterpart thus providing a bit of grit and a lot of toothsomeness to the scone. With the strawberries plentiful and pockets of butter juxtaposed against areas of sweet this was definitely preferable to the drier biscuit like scones and not as muffin-esque as others I’ve tried. A bit pricey compared to the fantastic versions at Almandine and Intelligentsia but not as much so as the subpar selection at AOC I’d definitely order it again.
Moving next to the Chocolate Sticky Bun, this one not served warm and perhaps suffering from its exposure to the warm California air, I will simply say that where the scone flourished in its use of a more toothsome grain the sticky bun unfortunately did not. Appropriately “sticky” and laden with a flavor something akin to Mexican Hot Chocolate (think cinnamon and black pepper, but not quite as spicy) the texture here just did not do much for me as the exterior was nice, golden, and palatable while the interior was simply doughy with a rather dense crumb and not much flavor on its own.
Receiving a call and then a text from my friend stating she’d be a few moments late I continued to browse the $300 jeans and $12,000 sofas before making my way back to Gjelina where I found my dining partner waiting in the short line and within moments we were lead right in – no wait, though the line would increase to approximately twenty within twenty minutes of our seating and would never reach less until they closed the doors at 2:30. Seated at the communal bar, myself thankfully on the end so as not to fight for elbow room in the tight space, we spent a few moments chatting before we would be greeted by Kiva, a pleasant young woman befitting the overall feel of the restaurant who offered us water and cocktails plus the menu – an extensive list divided into sections titled oysters/charcuterie/salad/small/sandwich/plates/pizza/vegetables – before leaving us to make our decisions.
With the restaurant expectedly loud and full of what I can only describe as hipsters on a level even trumping Brooklyn we spent quite some time weighing our options and deciding how best to balance pescetarianism with someone with eyes for fowl and pork and after coming to our conclusions we spent some time chatting while I browsed the space – a large but cramped room with lots of reclaimed brick and wood quite similar to Red Medicine and communal tables abound. With the patio, a fire pit, and a wall of wines in back plus a center service bar where a young woman was meticulously cutting charcuterie dominating the front of the house I have to admit I kind of liked the tavern-like approach, but all things being equal I was also glad that we’d come at lunch as the space was bathed with natural light from the open doors and some of the sound was free to infiltrate the outside world.
With Kiva returning moments later and answering a few questions (mostly whether we had to order all at once or if we could order in sections) it was confirmed that we could order as we chose, though alterations to menu items were not allowed, and with that we placed a part of our order with the rest to follow later. A good server though clearly working more tables than she should have been (and through her own admission suffering from a head cold) l will note that while the comment about alterations was unnecessary I understand the policy and save for the rapid pacing of delivery that often left too many things on the table at once I found the mood, personnel, and service all well within what would be expected of a restaurant of this price point and caliber – and as a matter of fact, if it hadn’t been for some camera issues (my fault, not theirs) the pacing may not have even been an issue.
Having heard good things about Lett’s skills, particularly as it relates to his use of Southern California’s bounty of produce and his predilection for Italian cuisine, our meal would start off rather quickly after our orders were placed with the first of two selections from the Vegetables portion of the menu arriving as “Marinated Beets, Burrata, Arugula, Walnuts, Balsamic.” As straight forward as it gets and as good as the market could provide there really isn’t much to say about this dish that isn’t detailed by its ingredients – each a marvelous example and with just a bit of honey and olive oil used in the marinade to add a touch of sweetness.
With a lull in the action and in the noise as a particularly rambunctious group got up to leave our next three dishes would all arrive within moments of one another – two pizzas and the second vegetable. Beginning first with the Margherita Pizza – the standard bearer for how well a restaurant makes a pie in my opinion – this version would prove to be quite good, though not great largely because of the cheese. Beginning first with the crust, thin but with some chew and nicely blistered, and moving on to the pristine tomatoes and basil the pizza started out great, but with the pockets of mozzarella applied somewhat haphazardly and lacking the slight funk I’ve come to expect from well sourced artisan or imported versions the entirety of the pizza just came off a little too sweet.
Moving next to the second pizza something a little more unique would be presented and with less focus placed on the cheese the results would be much more impressive. Left on my lonesome due to my partner’s dietary restrictions the “Duck Sausage, Nameko Mushrooms, Mozzarella, Garlic” would be all mine to enjoy and enjoy it I did. Beginning first with the crust – identical to that of the Margherita though this time featuring a bit more bubble and char – I particularly liked it in the context of this dish not only because the mild rigidity did an admirable job of supporting the hefty sausage but also because without the tomatoes it remained a bit more crisp. Moving on to the ingredients, the same benign mozzarella was again present but this time when combined with the hefty notes of garlic and mild funkiness from the well seasoned duck the mildness actually played to its advantage in helping to tame the meat and also allow the mushrooms their time in the spotlight. Really a great pizza, but still not quite as striking as the shaved mushroom at Stella Rossa two days prior.
For our second vegetable dish, my dining partner’s favorite of the meal, “Wood Roasted Parsnips with Pistachio Gremolata” would arrive tender and fragrant with notes of butter, parsley, and lemon all lightly accented a mild sweetness strangely reminiscent (at least to me) of baklava. Cooked and sliced largely like one would prepare redskin potatoes I cannot say that this was my favorite dish of the afternoon, but unless my memory is flawed it is certainly the best preparation of parsnips I’ve yet encountered.
For our final savory, clearly the one requiring the most preparation time of the kitchen, “Potato Gnocchi with Smoked Trout, Shitake Mushrooms, White Wine” would arrive just as I was finishing up the duck pizza and topped lightly with breadcrumbs and shredded basil I can say without a doubt that this was the highlight of the savories for myself and one of the better preparations of my favorite type of pasta in all of 2011. Beginning first with the pillow like dumplings, perhaps twenty in total, each was light and flavorful on its own but all the more so with the lightly smoked trout, aromatic mushrooms, and buttery sauce with the faintest notes of citrus and lime. Generally not a fan of trout as I tend to find it a bit fishy unless sourced and prepared exquisitely I was pleasantly surprised by Lett’s treatment of the fish here using both the wood fired oven and the wine to help smooth it out and allow it to balance nicely with the mushrooms.
With a few slices of Margherita left over and boxed up Kiva asked if there was anything else we would like and although the volume of the restaurant originally led to the check being dropped off here a wave of the hand produced both an apology and the previously requested dessert menu - a dessert menu where six out of seven options sounded delectable but the realization that I was to eat 18+ courses of dinner in less than 5 hours led me to only select two, the first probably Gjelina’s most raved item – the “Butterscotch Pot De Crème with Salted Caramel and Crème Fraiche.” Having already had the fabled budino at Mozza and any number of Pot du crème elsewhere I honestly didn’t know what to expect going into this dish but when it arrived in a small porcelain cup it somehow seemed exactly right in landing right between the two; the flavor pure butterscotch and the texture a faultless pot de crème. Intensely sweet as you might expect but nicely balanced by flakes of crunchy salt and the slightly sour whipped crème fraiche it would be hard for me to say this was better or worse than the Mozza budino, it was just different and really quite delicious.
Moving on to the second dessert, a must order just like the gnocchi, “Pumpkin Chocolate Bread Pudding with Fresh Cream and Caramel” would arrive looking like a hot mess, but tasting oh so much better. While my dining buddy personally felt that this dessert was much too salty an I still can’t figure out why they opted to serve it in such a sloppy manner all I can say is that I loved it and honestly only felt a little bit bad that my friend did not as I ate each steaming hot bite of the four moist slices imbued with flavors somewhere between pumpkin pie and a Twix bar all swimming in vanilla and cinnamon whipped cream.
With the check now delivered appropriately and the bill split down the middle (a nice gesture from my new friend as I clearly ate more) we walked for a bit and agreed to future dining endeavors before going our separate ways – her to her car and me back to shopping. With the day still young and the streets abuzz with activity as people in Santa Monica and Venice seem to be on permanent vacation (which clearly helps explain the never ending line at a spot now nearly four years old) I must say that I came away from Gjelina pleasantly surprised and eager to go back with a larger group in order to sample more things. Sure the place is loud, cramped, and certainly not for those who detest communal dining but for those of us who will tolerate some mild annoyances and the occasional service glitch the menu and the food are really quite impressive for the price, especially during lunch hours.
Providence - Kitchen Table/Chef's Tasting:
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
While I certainly wasn’t raised with a silver spoon in my mouth I was blessed with a good head on my shoulders and a strong worth ethic that has afforded me some great opportunities, not the least of which has been the opportunity to travel to some great places, meet some great people, and dine at some great restaurants. Admitting here that in some ways I certainly do lead a fortunate life I also have to confess that recently a lot of the experiences have started to blend together, a bourgeois tragedy no doubt but just the same a situation that has rendered Michelin ** and *** star meals at times limp, disappointing, and simply “been-there-done-that” at all too high a price. Having started to correct this trend by seeking out some more eclectic and even ethnic cuisine another part of my problem seemed to be that I always went out looking for something bigger and better rather than occasionally revisiting a spot that was tried, true, and fantastic the first time and it was this in mind that I decided to check back in with the folks at Providence, the site of one of the ten best meals of my life, during this recent trip to Los Angeles.
Having visited Michael Cimarusti’s well regarded Michelin ** establishment first in March of 2009 and with the restaurant having since installed a Chef’s table that does not exactly sit “in” the kitchen but rather adjacent to it with a limited view of the action I had contacted the restaurant in advance to inquire about this seat and after being informed that the seat was generally not allowed to a solo diner unless previously unbooked I was fortunate to find two others who wished to enjoy the Chef’s tasting at the Chef’s table before my arrival and with that the table was booked. Informed that unfortunately Chef Cimarusti would not be in that evening but reassured that the kitchen would be “firing on all cylinders” neither of my dining partners seemed to mind this detail and with arrival times confirmed it was decided we would find each other at the bar just prior to our 7:00pm seating.
Having now visited Los Angeles enough to plan an extra thirty minutes into all trips in order to account for traffic and (as expected) getting hung up by some event at The Grove en route I again managed to find free parking just up the street from Providence and entering the low lit foyer I was greeted by the hostess who informed me that one of my dining partners was already at the bar and within moments of joining him we would have our trio all present and accounted for just shy of 7:00. Having met with Steven, my server from the last visit, as I arrived I motioned to him that we were ready and with that we were led through a small door adjacent to the hostess stand to our table – a rounded alcove big enough for six, bathed in fluorescent light from the kitchen, and although limited in its vantage a great spot isolated from the rest of the restaurant (a pro and a con as it was good for talking but limited me from enjoying the great soundtrack from prior.)
With the Chef’s Tasting Menu the only option at the Chef’s table and any likes, dislikes, requests, or allergies discussed it was here that the strangest part of the evening would occur as Steven informed us that “the menu generally lasts 3-4 hours and the chef’s would like to get started right away” as if putting us on the clock and with that he slipped away only to be replaced by our primary server for the evening, Hoang, a pleasant fellow who along with the rest of the service team would make sure bread and water remained plentiful throughout the evening while plate descriptions were quite thorough. Having noted Steven’s comment I will say here that although nothing felt “rushed” per se, there was a definite timeline on our three hour meal and the flow was slightly more expedited than I’d have preferred especially as the meal went on and the chefs began to clean.
With cocktails and wine ordered, for myself a stiff Asian Pear Martini with Stoli vanilla, sake, passion fruit, licor 43, and pear juice the evening would begin just as my previous visit at Providence – first with their impressive warm bread lineup of Seaweed Focaccia, Bacon Brioche, and Sourdough along with locally sourced butter and sea salt and then with a pair of amuses (it used to be a trio) in the form of a mojito gelee and a Screwdriver ‘ravioli.’ With the bread continuing to impress while the cocktails – both in a glass and on the slate – were tasty but certainly not transcendent it was good to be in the company of friends as our conversation flowed and the kitchen worked quietly in the background.
For the second course of the night a trio of flavors arrived – a trio that would have seemed much more interesting had I not had almost exactly the same thing performed to much better effect eight days prior at the best restaurant in North America. Titled “Salt Pond Oyster with Jalapeno, Cilantro, Lime/Oyster Plant/Cucumber, Horseradish, Lime” this troika arrived as just that – on a bed of ice with half the divided bivalve still harboring its briny oyster tinged with a bit of heat and a bit more sour while the other half contained a refreshing shot quite similar but lacking the mollusk. To finish the trio – a harvested Oyster Leaf full of brine and the essence of the sea, an interesting trick of nature to be sure, but not nearly as intense as that at Alinea.
For our final amuses six “lollipops” would arrive standing in a pseudo-sand sculpture of kitchen ingredients – two each with one featuring poached Abalone with white miso glaze and the other Sword Squid and Chorizo, again both tasty and particularly the squid/pig combo a delightful balance of sea and earth that I would have enjoyed a whole lot more of.
Beginning the menu proper our first taste of team Chef Cimarusti’s seasonal tasting as executed by his sous chefs would be “Japanese Kanpachi, Compressed Cucumber, Black Sesame, Shallot, Lemon Vinaigrette,” a tasty and light opening volley with the sashimi quality fish bright and snappy resting atop cool cucumber and umami-laden black sesame paste. Topping the dish with the aforementioned crispy scallions, plus shaved radish and toasted white sesame plus a light touch on lemon this three bite course would prove right off the bat that the chef’s team could execute a very delicate fish in his absence and reassured me that we were in capable hands (even if it wasn’t quite as astounding as course #1, also Kanpachi, during my first meal at Providence.)
Moving next to a Providence signature that I experienced on my previous visit “Uni in a farm fresh egg, Santa Barbara Sea Urchin, Herbes Fines, Brioche” would prove every bit as luxurious as its ingredients would indicate and finished with champagne beurre blanc and American caviar we were instructed to spoon deep in order to experience all the layers together and doing as we were told I can now say that of all the cut egg dishes I’ve experienced – from L’Arpege and Manresa to The French Laundry and Le Bernardin – Providence’s remains my favorite if for no other reason than the beurre blanc/uni/yolk amalgram; a taste too decadent to describe and perfectly offset by the brine of the caviar.
Having specifically requested a foie gras course (a course that replaced the live spot prawn preparation as it turns out) the third plate of the evening would deliver a house made terrine of Rougie foie gras glazed with white wine and served with candied walnuts, roasted grapes, port gelee, and hearts of palm plus a side dish of grilled brioche. Dense and well made with the liver’s characteristic sapor nicely balanced by the sweetened wine glaze I particularly liked the rustic aspects of this preparation with the yellow rim of fat still attached and although the accoutrements were relatively standard the flavors were all on point with the grapes particularly wowing and the brioche every bit on par with the rest of the restaurant’s top notch breads.
Course four would be presented in an interesting manner by one of the female captains stating that it “might take a little work” and as it had just been alive mere moments before and still remained adherent to its shell “Live Scallop, Nori Butter, Lemon, bread crumbs” would indeed take a little work for two of us and substantially more for the other whose scallop still seemed to be holding on for dear life. Getting past the presentation and moving onto the preparation this dish was perhaps the most simple of the night as the scallop had merely been shelled, seared, and then topped with urchin tinged butter and breadcrumbs before a brief visit to salamander but what it lacked in complexity it more than made up for in quality as the mollusk itself featured a caramelized top and slightly cool interior that functioned beautifully with the sparse accoutrements to highlight its natural sweetness.
Having needed more bread to sop up the uni butter from the scallop I was pleased to see that my taking an extra slice would not go unused in the same manner as the next plate arrived, a dish described as “Black sea bass, matsutake, rosemary” featuring a flawless slice of the tender and flaky fish with impressively crisp skin as its focal point but much more on closer inspection as the matsutakes revealed themselves in four forms; butter poached, shaved raw, dissolved into clarified butter, and finally as an effervescent foam. While a fan of Sea Bass in general and having admittedly been wowed by it at ink only two days prior I personally felt that this was one of the two best courses of the evening and even now it is a dish whose exemplary taste brings back fond memories of what high quality fish in the hands of a skilled chef can and should taste like.
Not to be outdone by the dish prior, “Wild King Salmon Belly, eggplant puree, braised fennel, roasted grapes” would arrive similarly plated to the Sea Bass but instead of using the light umami of mushrooms to perfume a mild fish this dish utilized some rather potent flavors to temper some of the most flavorful and texturally smooth salmon I have ever tasted. With my thoughts on salmon (yawn) well documented I have to admit that even beyond the quality and the texture I really enjoyed this dish due to the accoutrements – each highlighting a different aspect of the fatty fish with the smoky eggplant puree and roasted grapes in particular adding some unexpected levity.
Continuing the hit parade the other contender for best dish of the night would arrive as our seventh course – “Unagi, celery root puree, bone marrow, smoked sesame.” Starting first with the eel – fatty, slightly briny, and just a bit sweet even without the all-too-common BBQ treatment – this was without a doubt the finest quality unagi I have ever tasted and obviously knowing the quality of the fish the kitchen opted to pair it with a number of complimentary ingredients that not only helped to enhance the fish, but also that shined on their own – particularly the smoked sesame foam which served a stark contrast to the hefty marrow and slightly bitter celery root puree.
Having declined the beef on my preference our “main course” for the night would be my personal favorite, duck, arriving as a ruby-red 2oz slice with golden lacquered skin as part of a plate described as “Liberty Farms duck, cauliflower, braised rhubarb, Brussels sprouts.” With the breast expectedly tasty and succulent while each accoutrement was equally well prepared and drizzled with foie gras gastrique as an added bonus what really put this dish over the top was a tiny sphere, approximately the size of a golf ball, deep fried and stuffed with duck confit – a particularly nice flavor when matched with the unctuous sprouts.
With the cheese cart at Providence being perhaps the first time I was ever truly “wowed” by a selection of fromage I found myself quite giddy when Hoang wheeled the well culled selection of twenty-one into the room and although now much more experienced in my cheese tasting the selection did not fail to impress yet again. With choices from cow, sheep, goat, and even buffalo divided into sections Hoang took his time in describing each that caught our eye and with my friends deferring to my selection our eventual order would consist of six ~1.5-2oz cuts including the Water Buffalo sourced Casatica, Cow’s Milk Cave Aged Pyrenees Brebis and Italian Sottocenere, “Washed Rind” goat’s cheese from Capriole, Spanish sheep’s milk Malvarosa, and finally Rogue River Reserve Blue.
Presented as a single plate from which we were left to pick, choose, and explore along with figs, walnuts, Muscat grape and fig marmalade, apricot vanilla compote, and finally delicious walnut raisin bread nearly all of these cheeses were entirely novel to me and while each was quite impressive and nicely aged I personally found myself drawn to the Sottocenere with its notes of truffle and ash, the Manchego-esque Malvarosa, and surprisingly the pungent Rogue River Reserve Blue from Oregon with a pronounced ripe flavor yet subtle boozy fruit notes on the finish.
Having been entirely wowed by Adrian Vasquez’s desserts during my 2009 visit but hearing rumors that he’d since left I was surprised to see his name both on the website and the menu when I booked the reservation but with that surprise came a whole lot of expectations for the sweets, the first a mild palate cleanser described as “Cucumber Mint Frozen Yogurt with Yogurt Foam and Melon” that tasted precisely as the ingredients would have you envision. Pleasant in its icy meets smooth and crisp meets sweet and tangy approach I’ll admit this is something I certainly would not have ordered but all in all it served its job admirably, especially after that Rogue River Blue.
Moving next to the most attractive and interesting of the three sweets “Miso Cheesecake, sesame, plum, blueberries” would prove to be another surprisingly light dessert as the cheesecake itself was nearly as smooth as a pana cotta but with just enough grit and savoriness to make you aware that it was not. Complementing the cheesecake with the fruits noted above in the form of a blueberry gelee atop the cake and macerated blueberries strewn alongside with the juices trailing behind plus tart plum sorbet the flavors were all brought to a sharp point through the use of black sesame sauce and a soil of ground white and black sesame seeds. An intense dessert with both sweet and savory served up in balance this was precisely the sort of dessert I expected from Vasquez yet unfortunately what would follow would not be nearly as impressive.
Announced as our final dessert (something I’m sure my dining partner would have appreciated when the final savory arrived as he opted to order another glass of wine at that time since our server told him there would be more proteins to come,) “Ganache, raspberry, ginger ice cream” would arrive as just that – an admittedly impressive dark chocolate clearly made from superior cocoa paired with raspberries whole and pureed plus mild ginger ice cream, marshmallows, and crumbled gingerbread cookie. A decent dessert, sure, but a shockingly underwhelming one given the four that the man in the kitchen made on my last visit and more so when compared to those at ink and Red Medicine the nights prior.
Admittedly a bit disappointed given my well known sweet tooth and high expectations it was just after 10:00pm when our mignardises arrived – an interesting Jasmine gelee, a chewy sesame seed macaron, and a spicy cinnamon marshmallow – and with the savories portion of the kitchen now dark and the action on the sweets end also beginning to taper down Steven would again return with Hoang to ask us how everything had gone and to deliver the bill; a relative bargain considering the quality of the fish but seemingly not as much so as on my previous visit just the same. With the bill divided three ways largely to avoid the hassle of calculating who drank what and a copy of the menu requested (a stock copy without the substituted foie gras or duck unlike last time when a customized menu was printed on the spot) we next made our way to the street where we bid our farewells, exchanged information for future dining adventures, and went our separate ways.
So in the end it turned out that Providence was a good meal – at some points even a great meal – yet at the end of the day I still came away a little bit disappointed; the service outside of Hoang certainly not befitting a ** Michelin establishment, the pastries substantially dumbed down from prior, the kitchen table a far stretch from that at Saison or L’Espalier, and although my dining partners were great the overall mood rather mundane leaving me once again wondering if perhaps I’ve simply just experienced too many white tablecloths in recent months. Sure there was outstanding seafood – both the sea bass and the unagi amongst the best I’ve had – while the “egg,” bread service, and cheese cart continued to shine but when it was all said and done I felt partially vindicated by my stance on returning to the same restaurant over and over but at the same time a bit let down that while Providence has not really changed in the last two and a half years perhaps my expectations have – and perhaps to an unrealistic level.
5955 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038
Honestly I think you may be right - same bread, same amuses, even using the same "flow" through the tasting menu (though now a few items shorter at the same price.) And the desserts - Vasquez literally made me rething everything about putting savories in dessert courses during my first visit and this time I would have rather gone back to ink or Red Medicine - or even gone for some fonuts or an Amandine croissant.
The kitchen executes well, and the food is quite delicious, but it really wasn't rocking my world or making me long to rush back. Oddly I feel similar about Le Bernardin in New York.
I like to think of it another way - these are the types of places I go to "recalibrate" myself after eating at new and exciting places, be they elsewhere in the city or around the globe. They serve an invaluable role as a benchmark for how my tastes and preferences change with time.
Was at Providence last night and there were some notable additions/new items. "Ugly Bunch": goeduck, uni, and abalone on smoked panna cotta. This was stellar. The uni under scrambled eggs is a seafood version of the Arpege egg. Not new but delicious as always. There was another new dish of raw Santa Barbara spot prawn, uni, and scallops "poached" in a delicious dashi. The 63 degree duck egg with polenta and truffles was stellar. Whole turbot grilled over charcoal was also amazing served with potatoes, baby vegetables, and peas. I dare say the turbot was better cooked than the grilled whole turbot at Arpege.
The 26 month Comte was delicious, but the Epoisses wasn't even close to the stuff at LQ@SK last weekend. In fact, the Providence cheese cart felt a bit anemic and lacking in warm, runny, stinky unpasteurized cheeses compared to the LQ cart...then again, pretty much any cheese
I would recommend selecting the best from the market menu and the ala carte menu at Providence in the future and constructing your own tasting if you have tasting menu ennui.
Full review in blog, text as below:
I was warned about Red Medicine by no less than three people that it wasn’t that good, that the service was awful, that it was overpriced, etc – yet on the other hand I had it on good word from others that Jordan Kahn’s cooking was quite unique and that given a knowledge of my palate from reading my ramblings it was exactly the kind of place I’d like, provided we got one of the “good” servers. In the end the yays beat the nays for two reasons; number one being the hours and location and number two being the fact that I found a buddy who was equally interested in experiencing what, precisely, the former pastry chef of such celebrated kitchens as The French Laundry, Per Se, Michael Mina, and Alinea was thinking when he opted to open a Vietnamese/French concept restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Having originally booked Red Medicine based around my conference schedule for a 9:30pm seating as good fortune would have it the lectures ended early and with no interest in the provided “dinner” at The Beverly Hilton I was ready to eat by 5:30 – a decision that led to pre-gaming with pizza at Stella Rossa and yet still an early arrival just after 8:00pm at 8400 Wilshire Blvd where we fortuitously found free parking and made our way into the 90% full restaurant only to be told that they would be “happy” to seat us early and shortly thereafter further dispelling any fears of bad service or attitude propagated by not only people I know but by the media in regard to the public unmasking and removal of LA Times Critic Irene Virbila from the restaurant.
Seated at an all-too-convenient two-top well lit from the streetlights outside the restaurant menus were handed to us by the host and moments later we would be greeted by Rachel, a pleasant young woman who at first seemed taken aback when I joked with her that “we order, you bring food?” when she asked if we “understood how the menu worked” but then relaxed quite a bit after I told her I was just joking and did an admirable job keeping up with the rapidity of the room including water refills, replacing silverware between meals, delivering plates, and even occasionally bussing tables as the night went on. With a “no problem, I’ll be back in a few” after stating that it would take a bit to make our decisions Rachel disappeared and my friend and I began our deliberations as nearly every item on the menu sounded at the very least unique if not downright delicious.
Commenting on how interesting it was that a Cuban-American pastry chef would chose to focus on fine-dining/French leaning Vietnamese savories while browsing around the high ceilinged and therefore quite loud interior I have to say that although a bit cold I did not dislike the space at Red Medicine; the stripped down design, the concrete and wood, and the partially open kitchen very similar to that at ink. (and as it would turn out, to that at Animal and Gjelina as well) but the tables a bit closer together and the lighting somehow a bit more eerie casting an off-white luminescence over the entirety of the space. With our decisions largely made but still debating a couple of small details Rachel would return and while my dining partner opted for his first of two cocktails I firmed up the order for seven dishes, all to be served family style, to which Rachel simply stated “I hope you guys brought an appetite.”
Having asked her to have the chef send the dishes out in whatever order he felt fit the night’s dining at Red Medicine would actually start quite promptly with the first dish arriving no more than ten minutes after we placed our order in the form of “Brussels Sprouts / caramelized shallots, fish sauce, vermouth” – a dish that looked nothing like Brussels sprouts at first glance, but the first dish in a while that would sell me on this suddenly en vogue veggie. Topping the plate with dainty and crisp shrimp chips plus leaves – both raw and fried – of basil that added a nice crunch and some herbaciousness, the base of this plate was steaming hot and filled with at least thirty or forty of the small sprouts, all perfectly caramelized and imbued with their characteristic buttery notes. With the sprouts good, what really upped the ante in this dish for myself was the light and clean use of fish sauce balanced carefully against pungent caramelized shallots plus very light boozy sweetness from the Vermouth. Having been told by my friend at ink that this dish should be ordered if on the menu I entirely agree as it is quite rare for someone to take so many pungent flavors and make it work with so much balance and nuance.
Moving next to another longtime member of Kahn’s menu “Pork Rillette / crispy chicken skin, lychee, clove, pistachio, spicy herbs” would arrive in a cast iron casserole with a side dish of toasted bread and although appearing quite vegetal at first what lurked below the chicory, clove, and greens was anything but. Deep and intense with a smooth and spicy pork terrine broken up by not only toasted pistachios but also by the crunchy sapor of fried chicken what really set the rest of the flavors off was actually the lychee and sliced cipollini onions, an east meets west and sweet on sweet pairing I’d have never thought would work so well and much like the sprouts a very “busy” dish where everything just seemed to work.
By now proving that dishes were going to be anything but simple the next to arrive was something I’d have generally taken a pass on but luckily agreed to based on my co-diner’s suggestion. Titled “Santa Barbara Spot Prawns / melon, coconut, morning glory, horseradish, coriander” and thereby already featuring two things I generally don’t fancy in the melon and horseradish I was happy to find that this beautiful presentation in a shallow hand-blown glass bowl was surprisingly delicate beginning with some of the sweetest and snappiest prawns I’ve ever tasted. With the delectable shellfish base noted and resting in a light pool of melon juice and cilantro oil the rest of this dish would walk a tightrope of textures and techniques from the raw morning glory, coriander, and compressed melon to the modernist coconut powder and light notes of horseradish. With sliced daikon and water chestnuts adding just a bit more crunch this was certainly the lightest and most crisp selection in an otherwise heavy meal and perhaps all the better for it.
With that brief interlude of expectedly light fare (actually, not even an interlude as the next course arrived while we were working on the Prawns and finishing up the Rillette) the next course to arrive would actually prove to be lighter than expected…or at least as “light” as duck liver and head cheese can be. Described as “Foie Gras / mousse, tete de cochon, beets, green strawberries, chicory, croissant” and served on a slate in linear style this presentation began at its base with a buttery thin crust topped with poignant head cheese and four large dollops of airy mousse laden with the soon-to-be-forbidden flavor of duck liver. A strong base but obviously not enough technique or texture for Kahn’s kitchen what came next was an inspired pairing of bitters and sours not common to American foie gras preparations featuring earthy beets, sour green strawberries, sliced radishes, hearts of palm, and a “soil” made of chicory, cumin, sesame, and just a touch of brown sugar. Shockingly vegetal yet deeply satisfying this would prove to be the best foie gras preparation of my visit to Los Angeles and with the impending ban I’d strongly urge anyone interested to check it out before year’s end.
Having already underestimated the Red Medicine kitchen’s ability to take several hefty or potent ingredients and weave them into a fine mesh of flavors it was at this point no surprise when “Duck / caramelized endive, banana, toasted grains, brown butter, chinese five spice” arrived fragrant, aromatic, and although complex certainly not overly so. Beginning first with the duck – a fine specimen with just a bit of game and a nicely crisped skin – my favorite protein would prove quite nice and served overtop buttery endive at one end and crispy puffed rice and quinoa at the other it was interesting to compare and contrast before next exploring further and adding in the charred frisee, dehydrated brown butter, and razor thin slices of banana plus banana puree. Clearly reminiscent of Peking duck given the use of five spice but at the same time veering into Cuban flavors with the banana there was a part of me that thought perhaps some might find this dish too sweet but given my substantial sweet tooth I enjoyed it a great deal.
With duck and foie gras covered in the previous two dishes the last two courses of the night would feature another favorite ingredient – eggs – and with each arriving in a large bowl the duo would start with “Sweet corn / kelley’s egg, turmeric crepe, black malt, shiitake,” a dish that did not appear to be much at first sight, but a dish as unique as all those before it in the end. Having already mentioned the deep bowl, peering into this dish looked nothing like corn but rater something akin to a large dumpling topped with spindly greens and mounds of dirt but what once appeared like a dumpling would actually prove to be the thinnest of crepes imbued with the punchy notes of spicy turmeric while what lied beneath would indeed be slightly blistered and buttered sweet corn, dried shiitakes, and a single creamy egg. Taking a bite of each component before stirring it all together and forking some onto my plate I’ll admit that at first I didn’t quite “get” this dish, but as I tried a bit more it all seemed to come together – a smoky sweetness that was almost fruity and umami laden undertones with just a bit of spice. While probably the “worst” dish of the evening that was mostly due to how good everything else was rather than a reflection on the corn itself.
For the coup de grace our final savory of the evening was the oft raved Heirloom rice porridge / egg yolk, hazelnuts, ginseng, echire butter with Santa Barbara Red Uni and without a second thought I can say this was the single best savory I ate in Los Angeles and a top contender for one of the best things I ate all year. Beginning first with the porridge itself – think a hybrid between congee and risotto fortified with what it turns out is 6 tablespoons of echire butter plus a bit of cream that is easily enough to feed a pair (both calorically and portion-wise) on its own. Now add in a creamy egg-yolk that stiffens a bit in the steaming hot porridge, cracked hazelnuts, flakes of duck confit, sliced bok choy, various dried herbs including ginseng, and finally four large sea urchin tongues and I think you see where this is going; a full bodied blend of savory flavors all amplified by the copious use of butter and literally overwhelming the senses with no one flavor dominant but all contributing to the whole. While delayed in our enjoyment by a lack of service spoon I will simply say that despite Stella Rossa, despite the other six savories, and despite the obvious need to try Kahn’s desserts there was no way any of this was going back to the kitchen and not a drop of it did.
With the dessert menu featuring five options but one crossed off as they’d ran out of muscat grapes and my dining partner looking just a bit past comfortably full at this point we decided to go light on dessert and only three out of the remaining four options, the first two arriving as a duo and then the last when we’d completed those. Beginning first with what has become Red Medicine’s signature dessert, “Coconut Bavarois / coffee, condensed milk, thai basil, peanut croquant, chicory” the fragrant dessert arrived in what was perhaps a half-full eight ounce glass and again featuring the adept use of tastes, textures, and temperatures I really enjoyed the manner in which Khan utilized the custard-soft coconut as a backdrop to show off the contrast between sharp notes of the crunchy coffee and the more mellow tones of the peanut butter cookie. With the base strong and only enhanced by the sweetness of the condensed milk ice cream the final ingredient, a bit of gelatinous thai basil, was barely detectable on the tongue yet impressively notable on the finish.
For the second of the pairing, “Rhubarb / mahlab cremeux, hibiscus, gentian, aromatic willow” seemed a bit out of season to a Midwesterner but season be damned whit was one interesting dessert. Familiar with rhubarb – the poached fruit present at the center of the aromatic hibiscus meringue and the dehydrated paper forms atop – I was much less knowledgeable of mahlab, an ingredient my server had to return to the kitchen to ask about and apparently a spice made from the seeds of the St Lucie Cherry that imparted a slightly bitter but distinctively sweet taste to the smooth cream sitting atop the meringue. Finishing the dessert with more exotic leaves and flowers – not only as garnish but also in lending a slightly herbal lemon tone – this was precisely the sort of dessert I expected walking into Red Medicine and while not the best of the night certainly the sort of risk taking exploration of flavors I expected given Kahn’s pedigree.
For the final dessert of the evening, another mainstay since the early days of Red Medicine but reportedly updated seasonally, “Bitter Chocolate / kecap manis, oats, parsnip, brown butter, soy milk sorbet” would send off the evening with a bang. Beginning first with a light yet potent dark chocolate mousse and then pairing this with even darker crumbles of 86% cocoa this dessert progressed in a circular manner to include a noodle of sweet soy sauce, dollops of parsnip crème, chunks of brown butter cake, and finally oats plus the lightly flavored sorbet which seemed to tame everything just enough to keep any one flavor from overshadowing the rest. A brilliant dessert both sweet and savory, light and dense, smooth and crunchy the only thing that could have been a better send off would have been a sweet rice pudding comparable to that congee.
With the restaurant and bar now in full swing and the bill requested just as the time reached 10:30pm I was honestly surprised how long we had been at Red Medicine but what surprised me even more was how much I had loved the experience. Sure some have panned Kahn for calling this “Vietnamese” food and having never really looked into authentic cuisine of the nation I really cannot render a verdict in that regard but what I can say is that on a trip that included Los Angeles dining mainstays like Animal and Providence as well as up-and-comers such as ink plus a $350 white truffle tasting menu at LQ@SK the food at Red Medicine is the food I remember most fondly from the trip – food that was novel without being gimmicky, upscale yet honest, and above all else absolutely delicious leaving me with no doubt that I’ll be back.
8400 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
I enjoyed Red Medicine more than any other place I ate in LA. It was probably one of my ten or fifteen favorite meals this year. At ink there were flaws - not all the dishes were delicious, not all the portions seemed equivalent to the price, and while I think it can and will become a "destination" restaurant in LA (much like Animal) I don't think it is there yet.
I think Jordan Kahn's food - from the first bite to the last - shows a lot of guts, a lot of skill, and the sort of whimsy that should he ever choose to open an upscale place like his training grounds of TFL/Alinea/Per Se would put it on my top-5 places to visit in the US.
While I could certainly see Red Medicine getting loud and the service starting to suffer I found it on point in all regards.
Went to Red Medicine last night. It was stellar. Like you I underestimated the kitchen. Or maybe it was because of me you underestimated the kitchen. But my previous reservations about the place were totally unfounded. Sometimes it's great to be wrong.
The brussel sprouts were savory and stellar as you mentioned. One of the best preps out there. The roasted maitake mushroom salad with long beans, cauliflower purée and cauliflower chips reminded me of an asian version of Manresa's and Arpege's garden salad. Each component was delicious and flavorful on it's own. Even better when dipped in the pool of cauliflower purée. Braised pork shoulder was also outstanding. It was tender and flavorful yes. But the molasses almost candy-like crust to it was what made it memorable.
And finally the congee. Thick, rich, decadent and perfect when topped with the beautiful dark orange egg yolk and uni. I concur. There are very few things in LA as beautiful or delicious as that congee.
Went with two others on Jan 19th and loved it. Most exciting meal since Montreal's Au Pied du Cochon last year. The brussel sprouts, the charred leeks, the black carrots were all stunning in aesthetics, presentation, and flavors. The afforementioned porridge with uni got me to moan, and l am not an easy moaner. The sous vide pork belly served with lettuce, radish, carrot , and homemade nuac cham sauce then got me to moan again. Many unusual rieslings were available and were great matches to the food. Only negatives were a high price, totaled out at $335 for the three of us, and the noise level is really deafening.
Went to ink last night. Had the avocado with crab, tuna crudo with foam dashi, brussel sprouts with pig ears, giant squid spaghetti, sea bass, braised lamb. My favorites were the spaghetti and the lamb. I really liked the texture of the squid and liked how much it mimicked fresh pasta.
I found ink good and the dishes and technique were interesting, but I don't find myself craving anything the way I crave the porridge at Red Medicine. The brussel sprouts at Red Medicine are also much more flavorful. No small feat since the ink version is gilded with fried pig ears and lardo.
For me, I also find Red Medicine better than ink. The price points are about the same. It just depends on your alcohol choices.
Full review as below, pictures in the blog:
As it turns out Michael Voltaggio has achieved quite a bit since I first encountered his cooking at The Bazaar by Jose Andres shortly after its opening in 2009 – and when I say ‘a bit’ I clearly mean earned four stars in the LA Times, won Top Chef season 6, and headed up the highly acclaimed Dining Room at the Langham…y’know, small things like that. Of course since that time I myself have also accomplished a few things like finishing residency and getting licensed but also quite a bit of traveling including a visit to Voltaggio’s home town of Frederick, Maryland where I had a fantastic meal at brother Bryan’s VOLT Table21 and having enjoyed both the brother’s cuisine a great deal (despite never watching a single episode of Top Chef) it was with great interest that I watched their combined website throughout the development of Michael’s first solo restaurant, ink. and made every effort to land a reservation during my most recent visit to Los Angeles.
With a concept focused on "modern Los Angeles cuisine," meant to envelope the city’s various times, traditions, and ethnicities in Voltaggio’s distinct style and a location on a rather chic section of Melrose it would be a rather short ride from the Beverly Hilton to ink and all things being equal both finding a dining buddy and finding parking proved much easier tasks than landing a reservation to the restaurant with its strange online-only system and substantial hype yet despite all this our 10:00pm arrival found the restaurant only perhaps three quarters full, though plenty loud. Greeted at the door by a young female hostess and checking in we were asked if we would prefer a table near the kitchen or near the window and taking into account both the low lighting and the open kitchen we opted for the former, a good choice in the 70ish seater save for the substantially inebriated ladies at the table next to us.
Having met my dining companion only twenty minutes earlier we spent some time chatting while waiting to be greeted by our waitress, a pleasant young woman who explained the menu with great enthusiasm and made suggestions to order 3-4 plates a piece before leaving us to our decisions and after a bit of discussion we decided that since the Omakase was not yet an option (coming soon) we’d eschew her advice and attempt to recreate the experience on our own by ordering all but the three beef items on the menu – 16 total – plus a cocktail each to start, an order that seemed to make her day and spurred her to much longer presentations of the items with great knowledge of the chef’s techniques as the meal progressed.
Rather industrial in appearance with the as yet unutilized sushi bar in the back, dark woods at the tables and bar, steel in the kitchen, and track lighting above it was no surprise that ink was loud given the substantial bar scene and see-and-be-seen crowd but overall the restaurant felt comfortable and rarely did we have to speak loudly to converse even over the sounds of the kitchen where Chef Voltaggio captained his team in relative silence. Told that our courses would be sent out as duos or trios in a progression that the chef felt best it would be a few moments later that our drinks would arrive – for myself the Rum, lime, house grenadine, green chartreuse with rich notes from the rum and chartreuse nicely tempered by the lime and as I sipped the drink slowly the progression of food would begin – and not end until just over three hours later.
Having given Voltaggio the right to send out things in any order he chose it was really no surprise that he chose to start light but impressively he did not simply go in order, instead pairing things up logically and delivering in waves that worked well. Beginning first, light as stated, “Bigeye tuna, parsnip-sesame cream, grapefruit, soy gel” would arrive along with “Charred avocado, hen of the woods, whipped fish sauce, mushroom chicharron.” With the two of us sharing and swapping dishes I began with the Avocado and instantly felt we were in good hands for the evening as the beautifully plated dish displayed not only great flavor from the smoky ash on the avocado balanced against woodsy tones and the mild funk from the fish sauce but also great textures ranging from cool and creamy in the sauce to crisp and crackling in the fantastic fried mushroom crackers.
Moving next to the tuna, not a dish I would normally order on a menu, this tartare would prove to be rather standard in the exemplary protein paired with slices of grapefruit but what made it interesting were the black pieces of soy infused bread – intense and briny – along with the earthy parsnip cream and even more intense soy gel. Delivered with plenty of nuance, just like the avocado, I felt that these two dishes in particular exemplified Chef Voltaggio’s concept of “Modern Los Angeles” by taking ingredients generally thought to be very “California Cooking” and delivering them in a new and unique way.
For our second pairing, more on the mild side would be served up yet again each would show off Voltaggio’s flare for modernist cuisine while remaining firmly rooted in California’s bountiful growing season. Beginning first with the lightest dish of the evening – “Fluke crudo, romaine hearts, fried Caesar dressing, lemon oil” would arrive as an opaque drape of mild fish resting overtop the very heart of a romaine lettuce trimmed to fit the plate and kissed with lemon vinaigrette. Tasty on its own and complimented with radishes, herbs, and esplette what truly made this dish fun was in fact the dressing – small cubes with a golden flaky shell that burst into the creamy flavor of Caesar when cut or eaten whole. Sure it is a trick I’d seen before but it was delicious none the less.
A second salad would arrive along with the Fluke and would be one of my favorite dishes of the evening – a bowl described as “Kale, burrata, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin preserves, yuzu” that showed off all the nuances you would expect from the list of ingredients and an adept hand in balancing the bitter kale, creamy cheese, crunchy and salty seeds, sweet pumpkin jam, and light notes of lemon. While my dining partner noted that the dish may have been slightly better with one more ball of burrata I guess I probably cheated in taking two, but all things being equal it would be hard to argue with his assessment as the burrata was very well made and more would never be a bad thing.
Changing it up a bit and this time pairing something heavy with something light a chicken dish would arrive along with a spaghetti dish…kinda. Beginning first with “Jidori chicken, waffles, smoked maple, hot sauce” this dish would prove to be another of the more memorable of Voltaggio’s creations for the evening pairing savory and moist sous vide chicken thighs with the skin actually made crispy separately and then reapplied hidden beneath a thin and crispy “waffle” laden with buttermilk notes and resting in a pool of maple and pepper tinged pan jus. Tasty on its own but never to settle for anything simple the staff at ink finally completed the plate with orange dots and bruleed white dollops – thickened hot sauce and sweet maple marshmallows respectively – both delicious and unique point/counterpoint additions to the chicken and waffles.
For the spaghetti dish we were served one of the few items that has been on the menu at ink since the restaurant opened and to be completely honest it just didn’t wow me as much as expected. Titled “Spaghetti, giant squid, squash, hazelnut-ink pesto, piment d’espelette” and featuring snappy noodles literally made of squid the texture was fine and the flavor quite tasty but where this dish stumbled for me was in the pesto, an overpowering though complex sauce that buried the nuances of the dish leaving only hazelnut, basil, and garlic flavors plus a light fishy tone coming from bread crumbs made of “shrimp chips.”
Arriving in trio the next three dishes would prove to be a hefty bunch but when considering the following selections the progression again made sense and with that in mind we started our fourth course with “Lamb neck, chickpea poutine, yogurt curds, chive puree” – a clearly upscaled take on the traditional French Canadian comfort food replacing fries with what tasted very much like good falafel sitting atop a ragout of smoky braised lamb neck and topped with tangy yogurt curds, shredded chives, and greed dollops of “chive puree” emulsified in olive oil. Obviously lighter in conception and delivery than greasy potatoes with beef gravy and cheese curds this was yet another dish that to my Midwestern palate screamed “California Cuisine” in a very ‘right’ way with excellent balance, myriad textures, and a bit of tongue in cheek.
Fairing less well than the poutine, “Brussels sprouts, pig ears, house-cured lardo, apple” would prove my theory that sprouts are/were THE en vogue vegetable of 2011 and all things being equal the blistered and charred vegetables themselves were top notch; small, caramelized, and full of their characteristic flavor while the draping of briny lardo and crispy pig ears (more en vogue ingredient) with a bit of spice also worked well. Where this dish faltered for me, unfortunately was the “apple” component – a sour Granny Smith variety brought to a nearly lemon/bitter point through the addition of vinegar that I personally could have done without.
For the third of our trio we would receive yet another exemplary dish, this time focused on Voltaggio’s interpretation of the local Asian food scene in the form of “Vegetable congee, duck tongue, egg yolk, root vegetables.” Having only had a couple average experiences with congee in the past but with this dish to be the first of three on this visit alone I must say that as an unabashed lover of puddings, oatmeal, risottos, and custards this mushroom porridge was an absolute delight with the rice smooth but toothsome and the flavor tinged with deep woodsy notes but also some sweetness. Moving past the rice and on to the toppings, the egg would serve to add another degree of creaminess while the beets, crispy brassicas, and savory duck tongues upped the ante in terms of flavor, nuance, and texture. Despite all the food on the table this was actually the one dish where at the end I only wished I had more…a problem that would fortunately not recur the following night at Red Medicine.
Before our final and largest savory a duo of fishes arrived – the first “Skate wing, red pepper dashi, shishito peppers, kelp pasta, fennel.” Generally underwhelmed by the fish and having also had some rather foul meat in the past this lightly breaded and pan seared wing was actually high quality, fresh, and tasty but unfortunately this dish fell apart for me after the skate as it was nothing but acid, heat, and more acid. Though clever in texture with the “kelp pasta” much like the squid spaghetti there simply was not enough of the other components around to balance the intensity of the amalgam of peppers and as such I enjoyed much of the top wing and a bit of kelp but left the rest to my dining partner who seemed to enjoy it much more than I.
With the skate failing to wow the “Sea Bass, cream of dehydrated potato, black olive oil, lemon, caper” would prove to be vastly more impressive with perhaps the best balance between tender juicy flesh and crisp scales since Guy Savoy. Noting that the fish was a superior specimen prepared with the utmost skill the accoutrements would additionally prove impressive with the “cream of dehydrated potato” essentially house made instant potatoes infused with notes of butter and chive every bit as smooth as Robouchon’s and the rest of the plate dotted with sliced Spanish style salted potatoes, sliced black olives and its oil, a tinge of lemon, and a prolific brine cast by powdered dehydrated capers; a great dish from start to finish.
For our final savory – and certainly the biggest plate of the evening – “Berkshire pork, charcoal crust, macaroni and cheese, leeks” would arrive in a large bowl with three beautiful medallions of sous-vide pork loin at the base, each rolled in lightly sweetened charcoal powder with notes of cocoa and mellow bitter notes that balanced well with the savory pig. With pan seared leeks as well as tempura shredded squash blossoms resting atop the pork adding light vegetal notes and a bit of crunch the rest of the bulk of this dish was provided by the “macaroni” – large hand rolled noodles stuffed with a blend of aged cheeses including cheddar and gruyere – adding a creamy component to the dish. Not a subtle dish or delicate in any way save for the blossoms it really didn’t have to be – it was delicious.
With the meal largely quite successful and the dining room still perhaps 3/4 full as the calendar flipped to November 12th our waitress returned with a smile and inquired if we’d saved room for dessert and knowing this was a foregone conclusion at this point we ordered…all of them; four dishes arriving as two pairs with the first entitled “Peanut butter, milk chocolate, coconut, banana.” At this point expecting anything but boring or simplistic this dessert would prove that much like his brother at Volt Michael has a skill with sweets that rivals his hand with savories as a log of milk chocolate crema sat at plate center flecked with crunchy bits of chocolate and peanut butter-coconut tuilles making for an experience something like an Almond Joy (sans almonds) and only improved by the addition of creamy coconut ice cream, whole salted peanuts, and bruleed banana. A very nice dish with lots of texture and flavor this would actually prove to be the least impressive of the desserts which says a lot about what followed.
Arriving as a counterpoint to the sweet peanut butter dessert “Grapefruit curd, avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred maple-lime” would prove to be the most interesting of the desserts and although not something I’d commonly have ordered a very memorable dish. Beginning at center with a curve of panna cotta textured tart grapefruit curd tinged plenty of sugar and a buttery top note the tartness was first enhanced through the use of sliced chunks of ruby-red grapefruit but then reigned in through the use of the smoky bruleed maple marshmallow and buttery ‘pie crust’ crumbles. With dots of creamy avocado further smoothing out the acid the dish was completed with a large ball of lush cilantro sorbet – up front and herbaceous and a bit too much if taken alone but simply wowing when considered as a foil to the citrus.
At this point sated but not stuffed the finale of our meal would arrive as a duo including what was perhaps the best dish I had in all of Los Angeles – “Apple, crème caramel, burnt wood sabayon, walnut.” Beginning first with apple, at least three forms were present with balls of compressed Fuji plus gelee and sauce of the same and all were sweet, distinct, and pure while being nicely paired with the smooth crème caramel in a rather classic way. Moving away from the classic and truly making this dish a game changer, however, was the crumbled and cracked walnuts and buttery shortbread base for texture and last but not least a liquid nitrogen frozen custard made from a distillation of smoked barrel wood essence; a clever trick every bit “mg” but utilized to add a smoky note that simply brought each of the other flavors to a peak on the palate.
Opting to eat the apple first while my friend enjoyed “Chocolate, coffee, spice” so as not to blunt my tongue with the dark chocolate first I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when we traded plates but all things being equal the fourth dessert would be at least as good as the other chocolate option and although not as attractive a bit more interesting and tasty. Beginning first with chocolate in forms – dark soil, medium nitrogen frozen meringue, milk cream ice, and white crema – and subsequently adding a dusting of bitter espresso plus gelee of cardamom, clove, ginger, and notes of anise and allspice as well this dessert was certainly a unique way to show off the nuances of chocolate but all things being equal it just couldn’t stack up after the Apple…then again, not much could.
Asked if we would like coffee or a digestif to finish and joking that we’d like to order the beef dishes we’d skipped our server commended us on our stamina and subsequently brought the bill offering a “whenever you’re ready” even though the kitchen was now being scrubbed and Voltaggio was out talking with folks at the bar and wishing everyone a good night. With the bill paid (graciously by my dining partner) I waited for a moment while he went to the wash room and when Chef Voltaggio stopped by briefly he thanked me for coming in and again commended us for managing so much of the menu before asking what did and did not work, a great bit of hospitality showing that he is still interested in what the diner thinks – particularly when he admitted that the skate dish was a “work in progress” and also that he was surprised at my comments about the spaghetti as it has become a “customer favorite.”
With a copy of the menu in hand and now en route to the car and back to The Beverly Hilton with much more eating to be done in the coming days I can say without a doubt now that the Voltaggio brothers are both extremely talented and although quite distinct in their restaurants (an locations) both show a undeniable knack for using whimsy and technique to coax the best out of their ingredients. With service friendly and impressively informed and food that doesn’t always “wow” but invariably takes a chance (often with outstanding results) I can only imagine that ink will continue to grow with time and the Omakase will most certainly be on the short list for my next visit to Los Angeles.
8360 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90069
Glad you enjoyed Amandine. In my experience, they bake the best croissant in SoCal, and at a very reasonable price. For breakfast, go with the quiche (great custard, wonderful crust) or the french toast (two thick slices of brioche, almost moist interior) and avoid the ordinary omelets. Note it is on the north side of Wilshire, a block and a half west of Bundy.
Bar Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, The Nosh of Beverly Hills, AOC, Portos, Amandine:
Full review in blog with pictures, text as below. Lines placed to divide locations.
BAR BOUCHON/BOUCHON BAKERY
More or less the moment I received my flight confirmation to LAX I started planning my meals and despite the fact that “meals” were provided at the three day conference I was certainly not in town for that sort of dining – not when a number of quality breakfast and brunch spots are within walking distance of the Beverly Hilton and with the conference not starting until 2pm on the Friday of my arrival my I actually managed to get breakfast or an early brunch on each of my five days in Los Angeles, the first of which came with high expectations given my affinity for Thomas Keller – a very early seating at Bar Bouchon followed by a trip to Bouchon Bakery next door.
Having visited each of Chef Keller’s restaurants over the last few years with only Bar Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery Beverly Hills, and Bouchon Bakery Rockefeller Center as yet escaping my reach I admittedly went into my experience at Bar Bouchon with mild trepidation having been only mildly impressed by Bouchon Beverly Hills ten months earlier and having heard mixed things about Bar Bouchon (and the limited selection at this particular Bouchon Bakery) from a number of trusted palates and much to my dismay things seemed amiss literally from the moment I arrived.
Given the fact that it was Veteran’s Day and many folks were off work I was not terribly surprised to find Bar Bouchon rather busy on my arrival, but what was shocking was just how disorganized everything seemed – servers here and there, no one acting as a hostess, and the general flow a mess – especially given the TKRG standard. Standing in place for what seemed to be five minutes before a server asked “if I was looking for something” I suggested I’d like a seat and seemingly confused he wandered off with a different person, a young woman arriving a few minutes later and leading me indoors to the bar as all but a few larger tables outside were full.
Finally seated I waited for another four or five minutes at the empty bar listening to the music overhead and a table of three behind me chat before I was finally met by the bartender/”server,” Timothy who asked me if I’d like to start with something to drink and handed me a menu. Stating that water would be great to start and then clarifying that still would be fine a bottle was placed within reach and a glass filled as I perused the menu, asked a few questions about the daily specials, and was then left again for no less than ten minutes to “take my time” in making my decisions – decisions I made within much sooner than that and an order that I literally had to wave my hand at Timothy to place as he was kibitzing in the kitchen after delivering some beers to the tables outside.
Realizing at this point that a leisurely lunch was quite likely I grabbed a copy of the Los Angeles Times from the rack on the wall to read as I waited and sure enough it would be twenty minutes of sipping water (tables outside got bread and butter) before my Mousse de Foie de Volaille would arrive as a beautiful quenelle with a smear of apricot preserves plus toasted ‘croutons’ on a wooden service board. Taking into account that this was indeed chicken liver and not foie gras I first took a bite with my fork and then spread some of the creamy mousse onto a crouton before rendering my personal verdict that not only was this the best chicken liver I’ve ever eaten, but that it was better than a multitude of foie gras preparations as well. Impossibly light for liver and with the unctuous flavors nicely tempered by the apricot puree I took my time savoring each bite and though I had to ask for more croutons (not delivered, but instead finally given some of Bouchon’s famous epi baguette with butter) I’d have honestly not found this preparation out of place at Per Se or TFL – it was that good.
With another substantial delay as the cleared board and dirty silverware sat in front of me literally until my next plate arrived (requiring Timothy to set my main course down to clear the space and subsequently return with fresh silverware) my second dish of the afternoon would be a daily special listed on the board as “Lamb Shank Salad” and featuring finely shredded Braised Lamb Shank in a bowl with quinoa, broccoli rabbe, pickled onions, and a poached egg. Again prepared with the expected Thomas Keller level of precision and a lovely balance of bitter and savory mellowed by the creamy egg and a touch of acid from the pickled onions I will only note that the salad was rather small for $17, but given the quality of the ingredients and preparation plus the real estate it certainly was not substantially overpriced.
This time sitting, no exaggeration, for fifteen minutes with a dirty plate before me while Timothy first mixed a drink and then spent ample time chatting with a regular at the end of the bar about craft beers and computers I finally grew bored with the game and asked one of the other servers circulating in the bar to obtain my bill – a request that led to him going over to Timothy and asking him to get me the bill and Timothy subsequently coming over to see if he “might interest me in some dessert” – an offer I flatly declined (something I rarely if ever do) with a “just the bill” and on settling the tab sans gratuity I simply walked out with a bitter taste in my mouth but hopes that a visit to Bouchon Bakery next door could provide something sweet.
Having been warned that the selection at Bouchon Bakery Beverly Hills was much more limited than the other locations I was not surprised to find that the Bakery itself was in the exact same space as the “Pop-Up” from the previous Christmas, though the area had been converted from a round central “bar” to a proper pastry case. With the line short and three young ladies ready and waiting behind the counter I spent a few minutes perusing the options – mostly things I’d tasted at other Bouchons – and after asking a couple of questions I placed my order and made my way to the door to head back to the Beverly Hilton eating as I walked.
Beginning first with a seasonal item, one of Bouchon’s oversized Macarons noted as “Pumpkin Spice,” I was impressed as ever by the quality of Keller’s interpretation of the classic French cookie and its perfect crackling shell with a bit more chew than the textbook versions at Laduree but every bit as delicious. With the cookie itself mild and sweet with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove the interior of this specific macaron would prove to be duo – one third smooth vanilla cream and the other two stripes a heavily sweetened pumpkin puree with great texture and lots of spice. While I know some may say that Bouchon’s macarons are not “traditional,” they are still tasty and featuring more than just a single bite remain amongst my favorites.
Moving next to another pastry native to France – specifically to Brittany – the “signature” Kouign-Amann of this specific Bouchon Bakery would prove to be every bit the highlight item I expected and although not quite as mesmerizing as a couple of the ones I had in Paris (particularly the meal capper at Ledoyen) it was without a doubt one of the best pastries I had in all of Los Angeles. Somewhat similar to a croissant but yeasted for rise and imbued with sugar and butter between the innumerable layers this lovely $4 pastry would prove flawless to the tooth with a crackling lacquered shell giving way to a flaky but moist interior intense with French butter, plenty of sweetness, and just a touch of spice – it really did make me feel for a moment like I was back in Paris and if I lived locally it would be even more fantastic so I could arrive early, get one warm, and pair it with good coffee (something I never did manage to find in Paris.)
THE NOSH OF BEVERLY HILLS
For day two of the conference lectures started early and “breakfast” after a long morning run down Wilshire, Canon, and Robertson would consist of leftovers from Joan’s the day before but with lunch consisting of steamer trays I opted to head back to the streets for brunch at The Nosh of Beverly Hills – a deli that seems to glean most of its attention from the location rather than the food but an “institution” I figured I should check out because I can’t imagine I’ll ever be in the area again without a car and because I noticed on my run that they had televisions and the Buckeyes were playing.
Making my way into the surprisingly large deli/coffee shop/bakery/breakfast nook to find it unsurprisingly full I spent a few moments browsing the baked goods before a short woman named Linda greeted me with a gruff voice and led me to a table – a table later usurped by another server and his patrons when I went to wash my hands thus leaving me with a restricted view of the television, but perhaps for the better as OSU ended up losing the game anyhow. With the restaurant busy and more-so loud I sat for a few moments before a menu was delivered and after that I sat quite a while longer taking in the scene.
Established in 1975 I can only imagine that not much save for the televisions have changed at The Nosh in the intervening 35+ years and all things being equal most of the service staff has been there just as long, if not longer. With the floors a bit too dirty and the service a bit too slow it would be nearly twenty minutes after seating that my order was taken, though water was filled by a young bus boy in the interim, and even after the order was placed it would be a good half hour before it arrived – a single item, reportedly cooked to order and entitled “The Mother of all Waffles with Vanilla Ice Cream.”
Described on the menu as a “delicious waffle smothered with lots of warm apple pie filling, streusel, and drizzled with caramel sauce…mom would be proud” when my Waffle finally did arrive my heart sank – sure the waffle itself looked nice, a golden buttermilk version fresh from the iron with a great crunch and plenty of chew, but the toppings hardly resembled “smothering” with any of the three ingredients though given the low quality of the canned pie filling, minuscule amount of streusel, and no detectable caramel sauce at all perhaps this was for the best. Served with a side of warm Ms. Butterworth’s (real syrup was an extra $1.50) and the supplemental ice cream ($2.00 for a scoop and a half of something clearly from a carton) I decided to make the best of a bad situation and consumed what I can only assume to be the largest single amount of High Fructose Corn Syrup I’ve had in the last 10 years before requesting the check – another fifteen minute adventure – and paying the $15 tab with tax and tip before making my way to the street thinking that maybe, just maybe, the anemic vegetables and beige chicken may have been a better (and certainly more economical) choice.
With two days of subpar breakfast behind me the last day of my conference would begin the same as the second – a ten mile run followed by leftovers from the previous day at breakfast, in this case cold Stella Rossa Pizza – and with the conference completed at noon I grabbed a rental car to begin the “vacation” portion of the trip with brunch at Suzanne Goin’s AOC, a spot long on my must visit list in Los Angeles as its menu always wowed me more than Lucuqes but a place that always seemed to fall just short of making my final list until the recently started offering brunch with reservations easily obtained via OpenTable.
With parking not exactly easy to find but eventually allocated without paying the valet I made my way into AOC having salivated over the menu for a while yet to my surprise I arrived to find the room nearly empty with only one table in the main room and one table in the secondary room occupied. With no one manning the hostess stand I stood for a moment before a tall gentleman would eventually poke his head out from behind the bar and subsequently stride up to confirm my reservation and lead me to my seat – a seat literally in the front window with the option to look out onto the street or into the entirety of the restaurant, the later my selection if for no reason other than to watch the restaurant work, and with that a paper-clipped menu was left for my perusal.
With the front page list of cocktails and the tome of wine passed over it would be a short while before my server, Aleia, would arrive and having already browsed the menu I inquired about the daily pastry selection before placing my order – a scone, a main course, and a “dessert” that she stated would be ‘quite a bit of food’ but an amount I assured her I could handle before she returned to the kitchen to place the order. Without belaboring service issues too much I will note here that although pleasant enough Aleia would prove to be largely inattentive during the course of my stay only arriving to deliver items and making it quite evident that it was not her job to bus tables, fill water, or to inquire about guests needs thus leaving dirty plates in place as she walked by with her nose in the air and glasses empty until the sole ancillary server stopped by with a pitcher.
With menu prices clearly a bit higher than the average brunch my first item from AOC would prove to be the most notable offense by far, a $4 cornbread and blackberry scone that although warm, fresh, and buttery was literally only three to four bites and certainly no better than other scones that cost far less elsewhere. Admittedly tasty with a toothsome texture and substantial complement of berries at $4 I would have at least expected some clotted cream or butter, neither of which were included or offered.
Moving next to my “main course” the food at AOC would continue to impress despite its high cost while service continued to lack as the “Toasted brioche with gruyère, prosciutto, frisée and egg,” would arrive still bubbling and beautifully presented. Essentially an open face Croque Madame with a single slice of brioche lacquered in gruyere and then piled high with frisee, a thin slice of ham, and a barely set egg plus plenty of salt and cracked pepper I have to admit that despite the fact that this was more salad than substance I really did fancy the flavors and textures – a bit bitter, a bit savory, but plenty creamy and with sharp notes from the perfectly aged cheese. While the argument that $14 for such a sandwich is outlandish can certainly be made I’ll simply note that the ingredients were top quality and leave it at that – I wouldn’t pay that much again, not compared to the version at Bouchon, but it was quite good.
After I enjoyed starring at my dirty plate and empty glass for approximately ten minutes while listening to the group in front of me discuss the previous night’s scene at the club one of the back servers would arrive to clear the dishes and pour me a refill of my water only perhaps a minute before my last dish would arrive – the “wood oven baked pain perdu with caramelized apples, smoked bacon, and maple syrup.” Again pricey at $14 and served in perhaps a 12oz iron skillet this dish would prove once again the kitchen’s talents and all things being equal it is one of the best French Toast preparations I’ve ever tasted. Beginning first with the bread – the same brioche as the croque if I’m not mistaken – the pain perdu itself was entirely saturated and baked to caramelization on the exterior while moist, dense, and custard-esque on the interior. Imbued with smoky notes both from the oven and from the bacon and topped lightly with nearly applesauce textured apples plus a sidecar of pure maple syrup this dish this dish was everything I’d hoped – sweet and savory to be sure, but moreso a veritable bread pudding with exquisite ingredients prepared exquisitely.
Again seated with an empty plate until I actually raised my hand (elementary school style) to get Aleia’s attention and the bill I found it somewhat astounding that she failed to realize just how little attention she was paying to the dining room but figuring that perhaps this was just the style of AOC I left an average tip and thanked her for the service just the same before making my way to the street, again past an empty hostess stand where a few customers stood waiting and appearing puzzled. With high quality to match the high prices and never one to let cost (within reason) get in the way of a great meal I guess most of my disappointment with AOC is simply the lackadaisical attitude of Los Angeles service in general but all things being equal when paying a premium I expect service to match the food, something that if AOC could provide would make it a truly exemplary brunch.
For my next breakfast in LA the day would start the same as any other but with my home base now moved from Beverly Hills to the Hollywood Hills my morning run would see me stride over nearly every star on the walk of fame (who knew Bob Hope had two?) past a number of theaters and attractions (Museum of Death, really?) and even part way up the hill before a quick car ride in relatively mild traffic would take me to the city of Glendale to visit Portos, a Cuban bakery long overlooked given my frequent visits to the Griddle Café but a place that seemed ideal on this particular morning after overpriced sit-down breakfasts the three previous days.
With the streets of Glendale largely empty at 8am on a Monday and metered parking available as far as the eye could see I made my way into Portos’ main entrance where I surprisingly found no line but rather three eager servers ready to take my order though with so many choices both in the pastry case and on the large menu hanging from above it was actually I who made them wait as I evaluated their choices and my capacity. Standing and starring for what must have been five minutes as I let a couple of other guests pass by I eventually made my way to the counter once I had a good idea of what I wanted and there I met Francisca, a pleasant lady so short she could barely look at me over the case but so full of great suggestions – some I’d already planned on and some where I just took her word for it – that I ended up walking away with 7 items plus a large coffee…at a grand total of $10.62.
Still surprised by the lack of a queue given the rumors I’d heard of hour plus waits at the 20,000 square foot establishment I took my selections next door to the seating area only then realizing that there was actually a second (smaller) pastry case and take-away counter slightly more busy and finding a seat amongst the crowd before subsequently moving outdoors to enjoy the weather (and decreased noise) I started my tasting of Portos 40+ year old recipes with perhaps their most famous item, a “Papa Rellena” or “fried potato ball” stuffed with seasoned ground beef. Never one to order beef if given a chance but agreeing to this given Francisca’s insistence I took a bite into the Rellena to realize that while I am still no beef convert this certainly was a tasty morsel with the exterior crisp without being greasy and the interior a shockingly pure and smooth potato puree dotted with bits of spicy ground beef. Having been given two of these small balls despite only asking for one I’ll admit I ate both quite quickly and would probably order them again just for the quality of the potatoes.
At this point outdoors and sipping my coffee, a surprisingly smooth blend with cinnamon and earthy tones despite its low price, I proceeded to another suggestion from Francisca – the Rellenito. Served piping hot and wrapped in white paper to sop up some of the oil this unique item was described as a sugarcoated sweet plantain filled with black beans and although I cannot say it was exactly what I expected it was really quite delicious. More a puree of black beans and plantain than either “filled” with the other the concoction was subsequently fried and rolled in sugar, a sweet on sweet yet also somewhat earthy and savory two bite item that could just as easily served as dessert (really, a banana split replacing the banana with a few Rellenitos sounds like an idea whose time has come.)
Moving on to the last of my hot items, the most “savory” of the group for sure, a Ham and Cheese Croissant would prove to be the weakest of my choices (I stress my choices as my server suggested the Cuban pork sandwich instead) not because it was bad, but because it was merely average and everything else was better. With the exterior soft and the interior crumb similar this was certainly not gourmet, just good old fashion cheddar and boiled ham in a buttery puff pastry – no more, no less.
With the next two selections also my own the Cinnamon Roll and Almond Danish would each prove to be good but not stunning versions of their namesake pastries with the cinnamon roll a bit more spicy that I’d have expected – perhaps a Chiapas cinnamon instead of a more mild/cheaper version – and not as sweet as one might expect while the Almond “Danish” was much closer to an almond croissant than a Danish with a golden crisp exterior and giving way to a cavernous center lightly tinged with frangipane and ample butter notes. While certainly not “Cuban” pastries by any means a nice example of the bakery’s skills and given the price each an absolute steal compared to other “French” patisseries.
For my final selection, a “must must try” according to Francisca, the “Pastelitos De Guayaba” or Guava Cheese Danish would not only disprove my general disinterest in cream cheese but also prove to be every bit as good as the rumors. Beginning first with the same golden puff pastry housing the Almond Danish and the Ham and Cheese Croissant this decadent traditional Cuban pastry upped the ante by combining the slight musky sweetness of guava puree with the tang of the cream cheese leading to a flavor something like fruit punch but smoother and sweet but not so sweet as to overwhelm the butter or the saline notes of the cheese. Truly a signature pastry and again an absolute bargain that left me walking away from Portos not only wishing I’d have gone years earlier, but wishing that I’d have saved my money the previous three days and just stopped by Portos on day one and bought enough to refrigerate for the weekend.
For my final breakfast I’d considered Griddle Café for my fifth visit but with lunch at Jitlada and dinner at Animal before flying out I decided against the density of pancakes or French toast and instead after a morning run that entirely by accident led me right past Jitlada I showered, packed up, and made the drive to a place some claimed to have the best croissants in all of Southern California – Amandine Patisserie, a small boutique pastry shop on Wilshire that I’d actually walked by on my visit a few years prior without knowing enough to stop in.
With traffic heavy on Santa Monica Boulevard and my arrival later than I’d have preferred I was thankful to find parking quite just down the street and after a short walk up the hill I found myself at the small storefront where a small sticky note greeted me with the words “cash only – credit system down” and making my way through the door I was surprisingly met with a line ten deep; both a blessing and a curse as this delayed breakfast even further after a particularly long morning run but at least gave me plenty of time to browse the options before reaching the counter where I was greeted by a rather terse yet pleasant woman who seemed to expect that I should know precisely what I wanted by the time I approached. Rather unhurried myself though carrying my laptop I ordered a few items I knew I wanted (including the last almond croissant) and after asking a couple questions about the unlabeled items I settled on a half dozen in total, some for now and some for later, before paying the $22 tab and finding a seat near the patio in back.
Clearly not considering that a downed credit card system also meant no free wi-fi (as advertised) but with plenty of food to keep me busy I started my morning with the smallest of my choices and biting into the “mini” butter croissant, a $1.25 crispy ball of butter with a shell that shattered and an interior that bounced back with each bite I quickly had to agree that this was the best croissant I ever ate in Southern California though perhaps not quite as good as some in Northern California, New York, or Paris which prove a bit more balanced with notes of sweet and salt occasionally punctuating the butter.
Moving next to a $2 scone that I normally would not have ordered but had to taste in order to compare to the one at AOC two days earlier my selection of a Blueberry Cornmeal Scone would prove to be every bit as large and flavorful as that at Suzanne Goin’s brunch but half the price, slightly sweeter, and packed with more fruit intermingling with the moist but crumbly pastry. A great scone by any justification and amongst the best I’ve ever tasted I fully realize that ordering a British treat at a French patisserie may not be terribly logical but trust me, if this one is on the menu it is well worth the modest price tag.
Having snatched the last Almond Croissant – still warm I might add – but with such a variety of the delightful flaky pastries I simply couldn’t settle for one so in addition to the mini butter croissant and the larger almond croissant I also picked up a Chocolate Almond Croissant and a Banana Chocolate Danish planning on some for now and some for later – a plan that actually worked out for once (although later was only a couple hours, to be fair.) Beginning first with the two croissants – slightly different in shape but very similar in texture in that both were of the split and double-baked variety – both would prove to be textbook and nearly on par with those in Paris. Sturdy enough to withstand a bit of pressure but shattering into a hundred flaky pieces to the tooth the texture of each was only trumped by the flavor, both bold and buttery with a lot of almond in the form of those sliced and a thin layer of frangipane and the chocolate almond version piped with a thick core that complimented without overwhelming.
Moving next to the Danish, quite similar to the croissant but heavier due to the inlaid banana compote and sliced caramelized bananas, this treat would prove just as good as the Croissants even if not quite as “balanced” and with the layers just as crisp and buttery along the exterior the soft and moist interior was intensely sweet yet somewhat mellowed by the almonds. Best taken in large bites incorporating the edge and center into a single mouthful this dish probably would have benefited from the fork and knife treatment as both my shirt and my hands ended up covered with powdered sugar but c’est la vie, it washed right off.
For my final bite of Amandine I debated whether the Choux Cream would last in the car and with the weather mid -60s I decided to take a chance on the softball sized $2.25 pocket of vanilla custard; a good choice that I would appreciate shortly after lunch as the crackling choux gave way to a hollow core stuffed with creamy custard aromatic with eggy notes and vanilla. Not the prettiest pastry after my assault with a spoon left over from Bhan Kanom, but delicious none the less and a fitting last taste to what is now my favorite pastry shop in Southern California and a place that I will undoubtedly return to on future visits to try the French Toast and fruit galettes – ideally when the credit card machine and internet are up and running.
I never frequent the Nosh anymore after several bad experiences with both service and food. We had to literally go and get our own spoons and sugar for coffee after waiting for 5 minutes. Then after 20 minutes we still hadn't been able to order we got up and left.
The next time you go to Portos make sure to try the cheese roll. It's the sweet flaky delicious cousin to the cheese danish. The best item at Portos (or 1b. next to the potato balls depending on who you ask).
Ancillary Eats: (Joan's on Third, Fonuts, Bhan Kanom, Groundwork Coffee, Intelligentsia, Stella Rossa)
Full review with pictures in the blog, text is as below:
No sooner had I returned from Chicago than I was repacking my bag for the city of angels and although this trip was prompted more by business than by pleasure a fortuitous clinic schedule allowed me to tack on a few more days while some of the very best local foodies, gourmands, and chowhounds I’ve ever met volunteered not only their time and knowledge but also their cars, knowledge, and stomach capacity to meet up for some stellar dining during the course of my five day stay. Using the Beverly Hilton as home base during the first three days of the trip and the home of a friend in Hollywood during the subsequent two this series of eating would see me visit as far west as the Pacific where I’d enjoy coffee on the beach and as far east as downtown LA where after escaping the traffic debacle of the Twilight Red Carpet premier I dined on 18 course of White Truffles with new friends in a scene I cannot imagine occurring anywhere outside of LA.
Beginning the trip with a rundown of what I like to call “ancillary eats” – IE the things that did not entail breakfast, lunch, or dinner but at times wowed none the less my very first stop after cabbing from LAX to The Beverly Hilton would be Joan’s on Third, a place long on my list but always missed for whatever reason but a place whose take-away items would prove invaluable in avoiding “conference food” during my first day.
Arriving just after 11am with the sun shining on a national holiday it was no surprise to find the patio of Joan’s quite full and with the scene very much “Hollywood” as pooches sat on patrons laps outside and every woman wore sunglasses large enough to cover the eyes of both herself and three others I made my way through the crowd and eventually to the door only to find the interior equally packed. With the deli line at least twenty deep and all the seats filled I spent a spent a bit of time browsing the cheeses, dry goods, spices, and meats before making my way to my original destination – the pastry counter and bakery – where a short queue awaited and a number of employees were helping guests with various orders both large and small.
Making my decisions as I waited it would only be a short while before I found myself at the front of the line and greeted by a young man named Hugo I placed my order for a half-dozen items and with each selection carefully wrapped, boxed, and placed in a bag I paid the modest tab before making my way to the door and the subsequent walk back to the hotel – a walk interrupted by stopping to taste the first of the items, a “Cloud” Cupcake with a 5 inch mound of marshmallow fluff dipped in a chocolate shell perched precariously atop a dense dark chocolate cupcake quite similar both in texture and in flavor to the Hostess original.
With some of my bounty being consumed during day one of the conference while others remained refrigerated until day two my second taste from Joan’s would turn out to be the only disappointment – a doughy and surprisingly unsalty Pretzel Croissant that was much more “pretzel” than croissant in texture and much more dinner-roll than either pretzel or croissant in flavor. A decent taste with a lot of buttery notes I imagine I would have liked this much more with some crunchy salt or perhaps in a different context; all in all it simply wasn’t what I expected.
Never one to pass up unique cupcake options or the standard-bearer red velvet my cupcake choices in addition to the Cloud would include both a moist red velvet with slightly tangy cream cheese frosting that did not disappoint but also did not ‘wow’ and a Snickers cupcake that would prove to be the best of the bunch with a nearly fudgy thick cake slathered with literally fudge thick frosting and chunks of chopped Snickers candy. Small in size but not lacking at all in flavor this would prove to be one of the better cupcakes I’ve had in all of Los Angeles and a good indicator that the next two items would work well since Joan’s doesn’t seem to do “light” pastries well but certainly packs a punch when making dense and most treats.
For my last two selections, both holdovers for a post-gym breakfast the following day, a small Peanut Butter and Jelly Bar and a large slice of Banana Caramel French Toast Pie would prove to be the best of Joan’s selections as the first was essentially a brownie in texture but rife with pure natural peanut butter flavors and fresh jam while the second was essentially what would happen if you took thick buttery brioche and soaked it in custard (a la bread pudding) before baking and then topped it with a thick layer of sweet bananas drown in fresh caramel. While I personally would have preferred to see the two incorporated (and to have had the use of a microwave) I have to say that all things being equal it was very good and the balance of salt and sweet was spot on.
For a second sweet stop while in Los Angeles I found myself again on Third Street near a place I’d heard about from a vegetarian friend and with plenty of room to be wowed after an entirely subpar brunch at AOC I walked into Fonuts where I was greeted by a young man named Pete and the fantastic smell of baking donuts…yep, you read that right, baked donuts – the brainchild of former Bazaar pastry chef Waylynn Lucas that opened earlier this year.
With the shop small but cute and featuring a vintage stove as its only decoration save for the cases of donuts and large bags of LAMill Coffee I stood for a moment browsing the selections before stepping up to the counter to place my order. Admittedly skeptical given my own experiments with baking donuts twice resulting in tasty but dry round ‘muffins with a hole’ I asked Pete first of all how these little creations were made and subsequently for his recommendation of what was best – the first answer having to do with high humidity, pressure, and heat and the second including no less than half a dozen selections from which I chose three – a $10 quarter dozen bagged up and taken to the street to enjoy.
Having whittled my server’s suggestion down to the flavors most appealing to my sense my first taste of Fonuts would come in the form of the Peanut Butter and Jelly concoction and for a moment I felt my original cynicism was well deserved – the first bite was dry but buttery, almost like a buttermilk biscuit with no semblance of peanut butter or jam at all. Wondering if I’d somehow gotten the wrong donut and taking another bite it turns out that no, I’d not gotten the wrong donut but rather taken the wrong approach as this turned out to be a “filled” doughnut not unlike a hand-pie with the creamy, fruity, and salty amalgam of peanut butter and grape jam at its core.
Moving on to two more traditionally shaped doughnuts my next taste of Lucas’ wares was the Strawberry Buttermilk donut – a riff on my favorite “chain” donut of all time, the Strawberry Glaze at Dunkin – and every bit as good in texture while much better in quality. Beginning sticky and sweet on the exterior with a rich glaze dotted in candied strawberries and progressing to the mellow tang of buttermilk within the moist batter I can honestly say that with all things being equal I rather doubt I would have been able to distinguish this from a fried version if I were blindfolded and if placed side-by-side with Dunkin I’d gladly spend a few dollars more for this one on taste alone.
Eschewing any concept of “healthy” derived from baking instead of frying my final Fonut would be the oft raved “Maple Bacon” and without batting an eye I can say that although not quite as personally relevant to me as the Strawberry this was one helluva donut. Beginning first with the cake – moist, dense, and as good as if it were fried – this fantastic pastry was next topped with an ample layer of creamy maple frosting every bit as good as Tim Horton’s and subsequently piled high with salty smoky bacon; trendy for sure, but fantastic as well and while some may claim that the “baked” donut is essentially just a cupcake with a hole all I have to say to that is if someone wants to start serving cupcakes as good as Fonuts Maple Bacon or Strawberry Buttermilk “baked donuts” I’ll be there in line with cash in hand.
Moving onward, a third sweets stop would be for dessert following my first “real” Thai experience at Jitlada – appropriately at a “real” Thai sweet shop named Bhan Kanom recommended by my dining buddy as we opted to skip dessert at the famed Sunset Boulevard location both due to capacity and him having to return to work.
Having really never experienced Thai sweets in the past I was quite surprised entering Bhan Kanom to find the location not only quite packed with products but also with people, the majority Thai themselves and a good indicator of the authenticity of the cuisine. With options diverse but the store quite full (much like my stomach) and more dining plans for later I spent some time browsing before settling on my choice and in addition was gifted one of my friend’s “Pangchi,” a small fried disc consisting of Taro, Corn, Coconut, and Sugar that was crisp on the outside and creamy within costing a mere 40 cents and packing a whole lot of flavor into such a small and sweet bite.
Paying the modest tab of $3 and making my way to the street after gathering some plastic cutlery my dessert for the afternoon would be based on my fascination with taro – a root vegetable that should absolutely be more prominent in western cuisine – in the form of a simple chilled dessert titled “Sweet Rice with Taro.” Mildly sweet but full of creamy tones and the unmistakable flavor of coconut infusing the panna cotta smooth layer atop an admixture of soft rice and fibrous taro this dessert was part sugary and part savory but more surprisingly very light yet fulfilling – a slightly solid rice pudding, if you will.
Admittedly impressed and at the same time wondering what exactly the sweet rice would have tasted like warm my only regret in visiting Bhan Kanom is was my limited capacity – I’d have loved to try the warm black beans in coconut milk – and the fact that they were sold out of the fried taro, but in the end I can definitely say I’d like to go back and will certainly be on the lookout for Thai desserts during future travels.
Moving along as always to coffee, the conference that I was attending was thankfully supplied with a continuous (free) stream of LAMill and as such for the first three days of the trip I was appropriately stimulated and admittedly impressed by the quality of the brew being constantly refilled in the large silver containers at The Beverly Hilton but when my “supply” ran out at the end of the meeting I was once again set to finding some unique local brews – a bit of a challenge in Los Angeles compared to other major cities but one I was willing to take with the first of these stops being the Groundwork Coffee in Santa Monica; an experience that almost made me wish I stuck back inside at the conference (at least until I took my cup to the beach.)
A small shop on Main Street Groundwork is apparently a chain billing itself as “Los Angeles' premiere organic coffee resource, and the largest coffee roastery in southern California” and given this descriptor I entered the small shop with high expectations; expectations only improved when a young woman representing the local FOX affiliate handed me a reusable cup as part of the company’s green initiative but expectations that fell off the moment I was forced to deal with the “barista” – a young woman with multicolored hair who not only didn’t bother to answer my question of what they were brewing, opting instead to motion with her head to a chalkboard, but a young woman who also basically told me “tough luck” when the El Salvador Las Lajas coffee I’d ordered ran dry at the fill-your-own-cup station up front thus forcing me to settle for an inferior and over-roasted dark appropriately titled Bitches Brew because “it takes a while to brew fresh coffee y’know?”
Never one to abide the hipster barista attitude (really, you work in a coffee shop and you have tattoos, congrats) I eventually gave up on the ‘brew’ and tried the Lucky Jack despite the “no refills” sign and although a bit better with pleasant almond notes and some spice definitely not something I’d go back for, especially considering the attitude.
Omitting discussion of multiple stops at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf – all pretty much what you’d expect and generally high quality for the price – my other “destination” coffee stop during the trip would be the Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea on Abbot Kinney; their brews plenty familiar to me both from Chicago and from my own French Press but a location like this one featuring some of the white label blends a place I’d not yet had the chance to experience.
With the weather warm, sky clear, and the café surprisingly full just after 2pm on a weekday I spent a short time in line talking with an older gentleman who apparently lived in the area and came here daily for his espresso before making my way to the counter where I was greeted by the standard Intelligentsia barista – hipster, pierced, bearded, and inked – but friendlier than those in Chicago and placed my order for a 10oz pour over of Colombia El Trapiche and a Maple Pecan Scone provided by local bakery “Cake Monkey” and waiting for my order to be prepped and poured I browsed the shop (and more so the clientele including a man with an Ipad who I’m rather certain was wearing a crocheted afghan as clothing) and their impressive collection of cups, machines, beans, and even clothing.
With coffee in hand and parking nowhere near ready to expire but no seating available at Intelligentsia I prepared my coffee before making my way to the street to browse the multitude of unique shopping areas and upon taking my first with a sip of the brew – a soft mouth texture with notes of cherry and almond plus low acidity – I was impressed as ever by the quality of Intelligentsia’s roasting and sourcing but what came next, the scone from Cake Monkey would truly prove to be a surprise as I’ve found Intelligentsia’s baked goods quite subpar in the past. Layered and soft with pockets of butter interspersed with those of sugar and small chunks of candied pecans all topped with a thin maple cream glaze this was definitely a scone worth the $3 and although excellent with the coffee I can only imagine it would have been even more wonderful warm with a side of clotted cream or butter.
For the last (in writing, not chronologically) of these ancillary bites, the early conclusion of my meeting on Saturday would see me without a whole lot to do before dinner plans at Red Medicine at 9:30 and as such I phoned a friend offering to pay if he wanted to drive me somewhere for pizza – either Soto, Mother Dough, or Stella Rossa – the later our final decision given the recent rave reviews as well as the early opening hours and more unique offerings plus my familiarity (and fondness despite the critics) with Lettuce Entertain You restaurants…not to mention chef Jeff Mahin’s considerable culinary pedigree including Heston Blumenthal and Juan Mari Arzak.
With traffic light but the night already setting in our drive to Santa Monica would be quite brief and lucky enough to secure free parking just around the corner we walked up to the doors of Stella Rossa just twenty minutes after opening yet with the wine bar and many seats already filled. Greeted at the combined entry point for M Street Kitchen and Stella Rossa we requested a table for two and within moments were led to a tall two-top near the wood fired oven where we were greeted by our server, a young lady named Brittany who proved my theory about the majority of trendy LA spots hiring models as part time servers but who also did a great job of describing the menu, making suggestions, and keeping beverages filled throughout the evening.
With Chef Mahin working directly in front of us at the large commercial oven we spent a few moments taking in the scene – the room itself is rather Spartan with exposed brick, bulb, and hard wood the only decorations aside from a few flat screens and the decibel level moderate though I can imagine it getting quite loud when full. Having read a bit about Mahin’s year-long process to perfect the dough at Stella Rossa I watched as each ball was removed from a large glass storage jar, stretched by hand, topped, and placed in the oven – a rapid fire process seemingly much more efficient than that at other iconic pizza stops like Mozza, Una, Lucali, etc and within moments Brittany would return to the table to take our orders; 2 pizzas and fully expecting some to go home given our later evening dining plans.
With the room slowly beginning to fill and the bar becoming quite the scene my dining partner and I chatted for a bit as our pies were prepared and within twenty minutes of placing our order the two pies would arrive, both fragrant and golden with cheese bubbling but surprisingly (as it is so en vogue) without much notable char. Beginning first with the standard – the house Margherita with hand crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, sweet basil, and organic extra virgin olive oil I was instantly impressed by Mahin’s work on the crust as the locally milled flour with what I can only assume to be spelt, wheat, and cornmeal mixed in was perfectly crisp on the exterior but chewy and with a lot of sponge at the center. Almost like a “pan” pizza at the edges but moist and Neapolitan at the center the structure of the pie was really quite unlike any I’d tried before – a cross of styles if you will – and the toppings were impeccable while the size was quite ample for the rather low price.
Moving on to the more interesting of the two options, at least in my opinion, the Shaved Mushroom pizza with gruyère, melted onions, black truffle, torn parsley, rosemary, and thyme would actually prove to be one of the best pizza’s I have ever tasted – nearly on par with the Pannocchia at Vetri’s Osteria or the Rosa at Bianco in Phoenix. With the same fantastic crust this time tasting even more prominent as a slightly fermented/sourdough note came through the toppings were clearly the star here; a heaping layer of mandolined mushrooms that were deep, heavy, and elevated by notes of truffle amidst a sea of gruyere and lightly applied onions. With herbal aromatics including rosemary and thyme most notable on the finish this was the sort of pizza that becomes a restaurant signature – the sort that people will (and should) come from miles around to experience.
With the tab a modest $45 for two pizzas, a craft beer, tax, and tip plus enough leftovers to sustain me during the morning and early afternoon of my last day of the conference I can say without a doubt that the hype over the pizza at Rossa is well deserved and although there is no “celebrity chef” like there is at Mozza the scene is much less manic and the pizza, although different, is just as good and possibly even better. It will be interesting to see what happens with Stella Rossa given the fickle Los Angeles marketplace but for my part I’ll just say that while he does the basic Margherita well there aren’t many better pizzas to be had than the Shaved Mushroom.
8022 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048
El Salvador Cafe
575 E Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015
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Coffee Bean and Tea
305 S El Camino Real Ste B, San Clemente, CA 92672
Main Street Cafe
12939 Main St, Garden Grove, CA 92840
445 N Rossmore Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90004
8400 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
I'm curious as to why you usually choose red velvet as a standard bearer for cupcakes. I usually associate it with Southern cooking, cream cheese frosting, and, well... red dye. I've found bakeries can have amazing vanilla or chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting, and horrific red velvet cupcakes. Or is it just your favorite kind of cupcake?