Tuesday, March 24, 2009

CUT at the Beverly Wilshire, Los Angeles CA

With an ever-growing empire of restaurants across the globe ranging the gauntlet from Fine to Casual, European to Asian, and Californian to Steakhouse many say that Wolfgang Puck is hardly even a chef anymore, but instead a celebrity who spends more time in the board room than the kitchen. Having had a superb lunch at Spago two years ago that essentially served as my introduction to true "fine dining," I admit Chef Puck holds a special place in my heart and regardless of the critiques the man is a culinary legend. Following a long interview day at CS I needed a high quality meal relatively close by and after reading the myriad reviews I decided CUT at the Beverly Wilshire was just what the doctor ordered. “You don’t eat steak,” my mother said when I told her of my plans but a quick perusal of the menu clearly indicated that like Mastro’s – a previously excellent experience – Beef wasn’t “the only choice.”

Arriving for my (admittedly early) 5:30 reservations after browsing around (and being ignored at) Saks just down the street I made my way through the beautiful hotel and smiling faces to the valet area in back where SideBar and CUT sit side by side. As the waiters were just arriving I was told it would take “about 10 minutes before my table was ready” and that I could wait in the bar. Entering sidebar I was impressed by the gigantic images of rock, movie, and political icons along the wall and the comfortable couches. Not wanting anything to drink I simply sat and checked out the scene while listening to the admittedly superb soundtrack of The Who and The Doors. After 15 minutes I went back to the hostess station where (ironically) she was explaining on the phone that they could only hold tables for 15 minutes before giving them away – and I was told it would be another 5 minutes before my table was ready. Looking at my watch the time was 5:45 and as such 15+5=20 by my math….clearly the 15 minute rule is for customers only. As promised, however, at 5:50 I was led to my seat.

Walking to my great table on the main dining floor (directly under a huge picture of The Material Girl herself) I noted three young chefs rapidly chopping fresh fruits and vegetables at the entrance counter and the wide open kitchen behind glass where one can watch every aspect of the preparation from cutting to searing to finishing to the chef’s interactions with the wait staff – very cool. Approximately two minutes after seating I was brought water and a menu (featuring The Governator) and greeted by the floor manager who wished me a wonderful meal and suggested I ask for her directly if I needed anything during my meal. I was subsequently visited by the sommelier (declined, but gracious) and then met William – quite bluntly the best server I’ve ever had at any restaurant (TFL, Trotters, Alex, Providence included.) A fellow Ohioan who talked plainly about the differences between the Midwest and the West, showed interest in my line of work, answered all questions, and engaged in conversations about music and the world in general – like a great bartender yet tableside – I really can’t say enough about the quality service, especially for a solo diner who wasn’t racking up a huge wine bill.

Menu selections made, William noticed me taking pictures and asked if I’d like to see the beautiful A5 and in order to be like every other foodblogger I snapped the obligatory picture of the $10,000+ worth of sake fed and massaged cow. Picture taken, I was next brought the signature cheesy breadsticks and shortly thereafter the bread and butter – and what a selection it was. Salted and somewhat smoky sweet butter plus pumpernickel, white, onion forcaccia, and pretzel all served warm – it is a tossup between the onion and the pretzel as to which I ate more of, but I know it was a minimum of 5 pieces each – a nominee for best bread selection ever.

After the breads I was delivered the first of two amuses bouche from the kitchen. The first, provided to every table within my view, was a basket of savory gougeres. Using a sharp cheese that may have been cheddar, the gougeres were good, but in my opinion somewhat too large and therefore not quite as melt-in-the-mouth savory as the versions at The French Laundry or Providence. The second amuse, comped by the kitchen (as noted on the bill) were three steaming knishes served with spicy mustard. Large in portion and perfectly crispy outside with a pillow soft interior these beautiful dumplings of four cheeses including mozzarella and gruyere, onion, and hints of sage tasted like a heavenly baked potato and should definitely be ordered or requested by those who’ve had the opportunity to taste a knish or pierogie in the past.

More discussion of the city and life in Los Angeles followed the knishes and after approximately 10 minutes a second server arrived with my appetizer - the Rhubarb Compote, Fresh Buratta, Prosciutto Di Parma, and Tuscan Olive Oil. Smaller in size than the version at La Botte and unfortunately without the Black Mission Figs promised on the online menu, the dish was still a hit with the smooth and milky buratta accented flawlessly by a slightly grassy olive oil and two thin slices of fatty and salty prosciutto. As compliments to the salty and smooth components of the dish were served small dollops of sweet rhubarb compote with strong vinegar accents and a sharp tang. All told the dish was great, but at $21 (oddly, the menu price was listed as $16 but the price on the bill was $5 more) I'd prefer the fantastic ham selections at The Bazaar or Osteria Mozza.

Following another short wait, presentation of 3 mustards and fleur de sel, and songs from Pink Floyd, Prince, and (ironically) Neil Young’s Ohio a small preparation table was brought up and after another short conversation with William two waiters appeared with my main course and side dishes. Each presented prior to preparation for pictures, the smells from the food had my mouth watering with anticipation. As a side, Creamed Spinach with Fried Organic Egg was a beautiful mélange of crème fraiche, nutmeg, and earthy spinach topped with one of the most yellow and pure eggs I’ve seen in some time. Breaking the yolk with a pair of long forks the server whipped the concoction to a light foam and then plated approximately one third. Still piping hot, the rich dish was absolutely wonderful in it’s simplicity and each flavor rang through with notable aplomb.

For my main, Line Caught Chilean Sea Bass (which I was assured had been caught live within the past 48 hours and passed all sorts of ‘ethics’ issues that I found humorous albeit appropriate) was presented in whole grilled form and then skillfully deboned tableside, drizzled with olive oil, and spooned with Spring Garlic Leek Reduction. Literally “fall apart” tender, this was possibly the best grilled fish preparation I’ve ever tasted and the quality of the bass was second to none. Mildly accented with the olive oil and surprisingly smooth yet aromatic onion/garlic reduction the dish was everything I expected and makes me wish I had the time, sourcing quality, or finances to make such a healthful dish at home.

Plates cleared (literally, mopped up with another slice of pretzel bread) I must admit I was feeling a little full – but having read numerous accounts of their dessert selections I was ready for more – and with 6 selections on the menu and only one that didn’t sound amazing I almost wished I had eaten less pretzel bread. Bearing with the menu’s title I “Cut to the Chase” and made my selection which I was told would take 10 minutes to prepare (and would be totally worth it.)

Once again, the general manager and William stopped by to chat while I waited and yet again I was wowed by such service – I can only imagine how the Hollywood elite are treated on their visits. When I asked if chef Puck or Hefter was in house I was informed that Puck was preparing for a charity event while Lee was to arrive later as he was at Spago for the early part of the evening. Moments passed and a young lady next appeared with a steaming metal pan while another carried a long white porcelain tray. “Be careful, it is hot” said the staff.

Valrhona Chocolate Souffle with Milk Chocolate Sauce, Whipped Crème Fraîche, and Gianduja Ice Cream…it is hard to sum up in words outside of “wow.” Enormous yet not “overwhelming,” airy yet dense, bittersweet yet fudgy (brownie-batter) – and that was just the perfectly prepared soufflé. On the side, a dense chocolate sauce that I was told was 64% cocoa Valrhona/whipping cream/butter, a heavenly light yet mildly sour whipped crème, and smooth hazelnut Gianduja ice cream each formed a completely different sensation when paired with bites of the soufflé and I was particularly glad that I was allowed to add each as desired as opposed to the standard cut/pour at so many other places. Better than Danko’s famous soufflé and at least on par (if not better) than the version at Le Cirque – a masterpiece, and the second time I’ve been blown out of the water by an LA Steakhouse dessert (Mastro’s Buttercake may still be my favorite dessert ever.)

Following the meal, more or less stuffed, I was brought a final treat from the kitchen – a pair of Caramel Crunch and Meyer Lemon Yuzu shortbread cookies. An appropriate end to such a great meal, the wonderfully cool and creamy lemon bars were every bit as good as a lemon torte pastry (and quite large in size for a petit fore of such potency) while the Caramel Crunch was large chunks of cashew encased in a decidedly chewy and succulent caramel – hilarious when your mouth is completely stuck together and yet another server stops by to ask you how the meal was.

When it was all said and done after tax and an appropriate tip I walked out of the Beverly Wilshire slightly north of $100 and miles north of content. A great fan of French and Italian restaurants in most cases I was simply stunned by the level of service, quality of food, and overall feel of CUT. Whether that night was “the standard” or whether the team simply went out of their way for a single diner I cannot be sure, but I would place CUT on my list of best places to eat solo of all time (along with Le Cirque, The French Laundry, and Providence) and definitely at the pinnacle of my steakhouse experiences – the staff of Mastro’s and Craftsteak could certainly stand to learn from William and Puck’s brilliant team. Without a doubt the next time I’m in Los Angeles or Las Vegas and one of my friends suggests they’d like “a steak,” my response will be CUT.

La Provence, Los Angeles CA

Like any aspiring fan of all that is delicious I did my research – someplace that opens before 7am and has great baked goods and is near enough to Cedars-Sinai so that I can find parking and make my 8am interview. After a recent trek of the French bakeries of San Francisco the name “La Provence” stuck out like a sore thumb, the reviews were solid, it opened at 6:30, and it was located on Olympic only 4 miles from the Medical Center…sold! An early morning run and lift at Bally’s (5am,) a quick shower, and throwing on the black Versace suit I made my way over to La Provence and saw the sign “no pictures” clear as day on the door……sigh, another bakery that thinks it is somehow “better” than the French Laundry, Alex, or Charlie Trotters. Ignoring the signs I proceeded to snap pictures both inside and out – nothing was said by either clerk.

Quite empty for so early in the morning I browsed the cases and must admit that aside from the enormous $28 Red Velvet cupcake there wasn’t too much “unique” about La Provence’s items, but all looked nice and fresh. After approximately 2-3 minutes of browsing I was finally asked by a clerk if I would like to order and I said sure, selecting 4 items. “For here or to go?” said the clerk. “For here.” “You are going to eat all of this alone? You are too skinny.” I laughed…I’ve eaten more….their portions weren’t exactly supersized. “Take a seat, I will bring it to you shortly.”

Confused because the items were all plainly available in the case, I took a seat…and 5 minutes passed before I was brought the items and a bill – odd. My first taste of the goods was a $2.95 Almond Croissant – appropriately crispy on the outside I waited for the soft inside to give way to some Almond flavor or compote…a flavor that never came. On examination this was simply a plain croissant with approximately 2 almonds chopped into small pieces on top.

Disappointed in the Croissant I next moved onto the $1.75 Pistacchio Macaron. Soft on the outside and creamy sweet on the inside, this cookie was appropriately formed but certainly not on par with that of Keller, Paulette, or Boulangerie. Average at best.

My next choice, the Cinnamon-Custard Roll, another disappointment. Similar pate a choux style pastry to the Croissant the buttery roll was tasty enough and the cinnamon/powdered sugar appropriately sweet, but the custard was largely flavorless and added nothing to the cinnamon roll aside from some moisture. Yawn.

Finally, having read allegations that La Provence’s Red Velvet Cupcake was the best in LA I decided to give it a chance…and was disappointed yet again. The frosting was not cream-cheese or fruitfully accented but merely a thick sugary buttermilk and as such not even remotely authentic. The cake itself was moist but lacked the cocoa punch of Yummy or Vanilla and wasn’t even close to the versions at Sweet Lady Jane or Jack n’ Jills.

All told I found La Provence to be off the beaten path and perhaps “undiscovered,” but at the same time I can’t really name any item that was worthy of discovery. Perhaps in the future I’d return to try their modestly priced $7 Croque Madame…but probably not.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Valentino, Santa Monica CA

Having already tasted much of the Los Angeles Italian fine dining scene with previous visits to All Angelo, La Botte, C&O Trattoria, and Osteria Mozza I finally decided to make my way to the venerable Valentino for a classy meal with an old friend who I hadn't seen in ages. Gracious for the company and expecting great things after reading Chef Tarantino's menu I even suggested the meal was my treat when I declined my friend's suggestion for the vastly more affordable Angelini Osteria. While I admit that high expectations aren't always ideal when going into a restaurant for the first time I figured Valentino's pedigree spoke for itself.

Arriving around 6:00pm and securing free parking only feet from the front door of Valentino's compound-like exterior I greeted my pal and we made our way through the front doors into the notably dark and romantic interior. Admittedly I was a little put off by the television in the bar and the cheesy Italian music playing over the speakers, but we were greeted warmly by our server and escorted immediately through to the main dining room and an elegant table in the corner. Wine was offered and declined and while I drank tap water my dining partner opted for an expensive, yet “excellent” Italian beer. Throughout the meal, I must say the service was good with my only major complaint being that water was not refilled as quickly as I would’ve hoped.

Menus were next presented and once we got past the notably high prices we decided to each get the same appetizer and a main. Orders taken, bread was next presented. Like Mozza and La Botte, bread was served without butter, but unlike the others there were multiple breads presented including an olive sourdough, crispy breadsticks, and a sesame seed white. Boring and cool I must say the bread was a great disappointment – I doubt butter or olive oil would have helped.

After a short while and a lot of excellent conversation our first course arrived – the Gli Gnocchi of Semolina-ricotta-saffron pillows with porcini, peas and prosciutto. My favorite dish and the standard by which I judge Italian food I must admit – I was floored. Despite the small portion, the gnocchi were flawlessly textured and perfectly soft, smooth, and “melt in the mouth.” Coated with a simple butter and Parmigianino sauce and contrasted beautifully with crispy prosciutto, earthy porcinis, and sweet peas my friend stated that this was the best gnocchi she had ever consumed and I would definitely place the dish amongst my top five – certainly the best in LA.

Dishes collected we sat and talked some more as the room began to fill with elderly couples in dark suits, many of whom carried bottles of pricey wines that were gladly served by the staff – Valentino is definitely the sort of place where the service improves with a significant wine bill. As the night went on the staff also notably lowered the lights to create more ambiance – I only wish they’d have lowered the music as well. It is interesting to me that so many complain of Mozza’s music when both La Botte and Valentino have a vastly inferior soundtrack that is just as loud.

For our mains I selected another pasta while my companion chose the Salmon with brussel sprouts and potatoes (not pictured.) Served on a long plate in an elegant manner, my Risotto Nero e Aragosta of Squid ink risotto with Maine lobster and cherry tomatoes was superb – albeit quite petite in portion. Flawless risotto blended with mascarpone that had been colored and accented with a generous amount of salty squid ink was served beneath a poached quarter-lobster and delectably sweet tomatoes that won’t be seen in Ohio for at least another 3 months – as delectable to the palate as the eye and a show stealing dish that nearly justified its price tag.

Enjoying the food and the company and certainly not yet full, dessert was ordered next and served quite quickly compared to the previous two courses. While my counterpart opted for a relatively standard chocolate lava cake with pear sorbet (loved the cake, not so much the sorbet) I selected the Bundino with Vanilla Praline Pudding and Almond-Orange Cantucci at the recommendation of our server. Small in size but relatively explosive in taste the dish consisted of a warm and buttery vanilla pound cake in a bowl buried beneath a cool and smooth pudding with hints of caramel, almond, and cinnamon. Good but not great, the dish was not helped by the bland and dry cantucci/biscotti.

All told I must say I have mixed feelings about Valentino. While the food was quite excellent, the prices were quite excessive and equally good food can be had at Osteria Mozza, La Botte, or All Angelo. While the service was good, we clearly did not warrant the same attention as those racking up an exorbitant wine/corkage fee and my water sat empty for 10+ minutes twice during the eighty minute meal. Finally, details such as the sub-par bread and excessively poor music simply weren’t conducive to a “great” experience. In the end I walked out of Valentino happy to have had the opportunity to treat my friend, but $150 lighter in the wallet and still a little bit hungry. While I’d likely come back to try the tasting at some point, I’d sooner check out Angelini or the Drago establishments first as I continue to look for a truly GREAT Italian experience in Los Angeles.

Little Next Door, Los Angeles CA

I love the idea of French bistro fare…alas we lack any such thing in most parts of the Midwest and specifically in Columbus – you’d be lucky to find a viable quiche let alone a crouque, terrine, or éclair. When deciding where to eat lunch on my shopping/browsing day in Los Angeles I’d originally thought sushi but after the excessive bill at Providence and an upcoming big meal with an old friend at Valentino I opted to go somewhat cheaper and look into the local French fare – specifically someplace that served Foie Gras terrine, Croque Madame, and pastry…a quick perusal of the net indicated that The Little Next Door was just the place.

Having heard mixed reviews of The Little Door in the past I admit there was some skepticism walking up to the jam packed bistro with its cute outdoor patio, but after seeing the food I figured I was in for a treat. Seated indoors by choice due to the loudness outside I chuckled as I made my way to the table and saw two oddly dressed poet-sorts rehearsing a script or play in the corner. I chuckled again later when I overheard the ladies at neighboring table discussing their heroin addict rocker boyfriends – like French Bistro fare, we lack these things in the places I’ve frequented in Ohio.

Greeted promptly by my server Ounaida I was reminded that despite the French name I was indeed in So-Cal and the multicultural kitchen staff furthered this notion – thankfully, however, the service and preparations were every bit on par with the authentic French staff of Butler and Chef in San Francisco. After listening to descriptions of the multiple specials of the day including a rabbit terrine and a duck confit sandwich I placed my orders I was brought a glass of water and a tasty French baguette that was cut and served with butter. As I waited for my food I stood up and browsed around the larder-esque interior which was laden with myriad jams, meats, preserves, terrines, pastries, and wines available to take home.

After approximately 10 minutes my first course arrived along with a guess that I was “not from around here” by my waitress. When I inquired about this assertion she stated that people don’t often order the foie gras for “ethical reasons.” Without getting into ‘food ethics’ – essentially the reason I avoid beef – I simply smiled and shrugged…and proceeded to enjoy a very good example of how a foie gras terrine should be done. Served with apricot puree and port reduction plus warm brioche toast points the terrine was smooth and cool, fatty and spreadable without being oily, and quite flavorful. While the brioche certainly wasn’t in line with the versions at TFL or Aqua, it was serviceable and buttery while the port reduction was sweet and savory and the apricot puree slightly sour with good texture. Served with a micro-salad with vinegar I rather would have liked something crisper as an accent, but at $18 the portion and quality were quite appropriate.

Finishing up my Foie, my second dish arrived relatively quickly and once again with a salad like the version with the Foie. The Little Next Door’s Croque Madame with an organic farm fresh egg was another good dish, though certainly not on par with that of Bouchon or The Butler and the Chef. Using a similar butter brioche to the previous toast points then topped with an adequate amount of cheese and the egg, there was vastly too little ham on the croque to provide sufficient texture and the overall consistency of the dish was somewhat mushy. Certainly fresh, at $13 I feel the dish was a bit overpriced for what it was and would look elsewhere in LA for my croque fix.

Having already eaten some of Paulette’s wonderful macarons earlier in the day I was somewhat tempted to try LND’s as a comparison but then my eyes wandered to the pastry case and the Tiramisu. Number two on my “must try” desserts (behind only bread pudding) the appearance alone of the Tiramisu with its fluffy balls of mascarpone had me hooked. Weary of versions in angled glasses due to the occasional concentration of rum at the base I started my taste at the top and was instantly wowed by the fluffiness of the mascarpone and the perfect accent of the cocoa. Digging deeper I found thin layer after thin layer of ladyfingers soaked in rum yet wonderful in consistency intermingled with even thinner layers of chocolate – and at the bottom of the glass, no rum…just a thick layer of chocolate ganache as though the creator realized the potential for pooling. Though I cannot be certain, my memory puts this Tiramisu at the apex of the ladder along with Jean-Philippe’s in Vegas and the portion size was significantly larger with a lower pricetag.

When it was all said and done I walked out of The Little Next Door very satisfied with the experience and despite my disappointment with the croque I was more than impressed by the Tiramisu. Similarly priced to Keller’s Bouchon I would put the experience on par to the Yountville version but not quite on par with the service and quality at the New York or Las Vegas locations. A good experience that I would recommend, especially given the broad range of menu options, and a good incentive to return and try the sister restaurant in the future – right after I try Chuch and State and Comme Ca for comparison.

Jack n' Jills, Los Angeles CA

Having already been to The Griddle Café thrice and not desiring a huge breakfast after the previous night at Providence I took an early trip to the gym for a run and then made my way towards Beverly, Rodeo, and Wilshire for a day of shopping and browsing the stores of Beverly Hills. Having heard good things about Jack n’ Jills and knowing it was centrally located in the midst of all the stores I wanted to check out I found free parking directly across the street and made my way over around 9:00am to check out what the small café had to offer.
Entering the front doors I was greeted by an incredibly clean restaurant that smelled of freshly baked bread, smoky bacon, and coffee – in other words, perfection. A smiling young lady with a decidedly French accent quickly approached me as I browsed the pastry case and I told her I was planning to dine in but wanted to browse the pastries first. Smiling the hostess told me to take my time and suggested I “try some samples” – a large selection of cookies and cakes under a glass platter on the counter – so much for a light breakfast. Tasting samples including a hefty and thick double fudge brownie, a nutella sandwich, a pumpkin-maple cookie, and a coconut macaroon I was already impressed by the quality of the goods and requested to be seated so I didn’t overindulge before even ordering – the cookie was superb!

Seated promptly I ordered a coffee which was refilled consistently throughout the meal, but quickly asked to have my seat moved towards the front as the four men behind me were speaking excessively loudly and two teenage girls engaged in valley-speak at the table next to me while simultaneously carrying on separate cell-phone conversations. After moving I was greeted by my primary server, a young lady named Colby with a fantastic smile that seemed to be serving the entire restaurant at once. Moments later my order was placed and I snuck up to grab a few more bites of Nutella Sandwich.

Approximately five minutes after ordering my coffee was refilled and I was delivered my first item – a large chunk of corn bread with whipped butter and maple syrup. Large in portion but quite overpriced at $2.95 the cornbread was relatively bland and somewhat dry without adding significant butter and syrup – certainly not on par with cornbread back in the Midwest or at Roscoe’s (or the now defunct Doughboy’s.)

Shortly after finishing up the disappointing cornbread my main course arrived, the PBC Cakes with peanut butter cup pieces served with hot syrup, butter and homemade whipped cream. Fluffy and airy with chopped peanut butter and chocolate infused throughout the batter I can say that these were the best textured hotcakes I’ve had in a very long time and the subtlety of the peanut butter cups was quite well balanced with the buttery batter. Topped with a heavenly smooth whipped cream and more chopped PB cups the addition of extra butter was unnecessary while the addition of syrup actually proved to make the concoction even more delectable. Nowhere near as decadent as Cici’s or The Griddle, I quite liked Jack n’ Jills cakes for a change of pace and a little more subtlety.

Finishing my pancakes and readying to pay the bill I noticed the server bringing out a fresh stack of warm cupcakes from the Kitchen and asked for one Red Velvet to go. Paying my bill, a relatively modest $23 with tax and tip, I made my way out into the beautiful Los Angeles weather around 10:15 with a to-go cup of coffee and a cupcake for later…later being approximately 35 minutes later when I decided there was still room to fill in my belly. Still warm and perfect with the coffee the small cupcake was dense and moist with a gloriously creamy frosting that tasted vaguely of lemon and cocoa – not quite as good as the version from SLJ the day before, but on par with that of Vanilla Bake Shop, for sure.

All told, Jack n’ Jills is a nice option for breakfast in Beverly Hills and although the prices are a bit high, the service is excellent and the free samples plentiful. I still consider Griddle Café to be the best breakfast in LA, but for a lighter option I’d definitely head back to Jn’Js, skip the cornbread, and opt for the cinnamon roll French toast in the future. I certainly wouldn’t mind tasting some more of their bakery options, as well.