Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bistro LQ, Los Angeles CA

Although not catering to the glamorous stars of Hollywood and not helmed by a celebrity chef I’d heard from a number of trusted sources that wonderful things were happening at 8009 Beverly Boulevard – the site of Bistro LQ. Living across the country I’ll admit I’d not heard of Chef Laurent Quenioux prior to 2009 when a friend suggested I should visit his Bistro on my next trip out west, but a quick search gave me all the information I needed – born and raised in France with an affinity for game, cheese, and heavy meats, trained in Michelin starred kitchens and alongside current mega-restaurateurs Splichal and Vongerichten, plus an uncanny knack for pairing unlikely ingredients into wonderful tastes and sensations – and all of that housed in a rather low key setting with a menu that doesn’t break the bank. Making reservations for four happened without a second thought – as a matter of fact it was the first reservation I made for our trip to Los Angeles.

Arriving at the small bistro and easily finding metered parking only yards away we made our way through the doors and were all immediately taken at how small the space was – you can quite literally see the entire dining room all the way back to the kitchen from the front door. While light tunes played overhead and the room was relatively quiet we next realized that despite the small size they were also apparently only seating in one half of the room – an odd choice that was never really explained. Greeted by a pleasant gentleman who noted our reservations we were led (with notes to watch a “lump” in the floor) to a cozy four-top along the far wall.


Seated for mere moments at the white tableclothed spot we were soon greeted by one of the two servers working the room – a young man who seemingly described everything as “beautiful” – who would fill our water and present our menus. Decorated minimalistically the room was awash in subtle whites and off-whites while white and pink flowers dotted the tables – the chairs, similarly, were plain and black looking largely like something that would be seen in a typical office. Greeted next by our primary server, Jennifer, we were presented a menu and the male server returned to describe the “beautiful” tasting menu options.

With Jennifer returning after a short wait we’d made our decisions – or at least we thought we had until we were informed that three of the items we’d selected were “out of stock” (which turned out to mean they were only being served to people who ordered the tasting menu as we saw two of them arrive at the table next to us – a table with two “foodies” waxing poetic about restaurants they’d never been to and things they’d seen on the Food Network…yes, the tables were close enough that you couldn’t ignore their conversation if you tried.) Taking a moment to reorganize our plan of attack we made decisions and placed our orders. Without spending too much time discussing service issues I will note that in all reality Jennifer tried to be a good server – she simply wasn’t. Descriptions were inadequate, she could not name items on the cheese board, and worst of all despite the fact that there were less than forty people in the restaurant it took over an hour for our first courses to arrive – and when I mentioned this fact she actually had the audacity to say “it hasn’t been that long” before correcting herself with a “has it?”

Setting aside issues with the service, size, acoustics, and stylistic choices of the dining room at Bistro LQ I will move on to the food – obviously the focus of Quenioux’s talents and the reason the restaurant has gained the attention it has. The first taste of our meal would be in the form of the nightly amuse bouche – salmon and tuna tartare with seasonal citrus. A tasty bite with obviously fresh seafood mingling with micro greens and the flavors of lemon and orange, nothing revelatory, but a nice start.

Arriving shortly after our amuse would be the nightly bread basket – a hearty and crusty French bread with a good crumb paired with semi-sweet unsalted butter. As we’d be left in bread and water land for another 45 to 50 minutes while the table next to us received two entire courses from the tasting menu I was glad to have something to nibble on, though more variety would have been preferable.

Moving on to the meal itself I will note that one of my favorite aspects of the Bistro LQ menu is the ability to order 1/2 portions of many of the dishes in order to formulate one’s own tasting menu. Taking full advantage of this option the first bites of our meal were a full order of perhaps the restaurant’s most well known dish – “Uni” with Sea Urchin Tapioca Pudding, Yuzu Kosho, and Kumamoto oysters in Lobster gelee. An astoundingly textural dish and perhaps the most unique presentation of urchin outside of that at Joel Robuchon this dish balanced the naturally sweet and unctuous urchin with creamy and smooth tapioca pearls in one dish while the shot glass contained a “gelee” with a texture more akin to jello that tasted precisely like lobster coral. With the gelee resting atop an intense and briny oyster and tempered by the spicy citrus of the yuzukosho the entirety of this dish could best be described as somehow separating the sweetest and most savory aspects of the ocean and serving them on a single plate.

Course two was another successful choice – Foie Gras 2 ways. Placing two cold preparations on the same plate for a mere $17 my first thought was “wow, that is a lot of foie.” With the first preparation a traditional Torchon Style laced with Huckelberries with Violet and resting atop Corn Bread and the second a Terrine Style with Cold Vin Chaud, Cardamom Orange Brioche, and a Quince Marshmallow I found the Torchon superb while the Terrine was merely good. Supple and nicely cleaned both preparations were faultless in their quality – the Terrine simply lacked anything special and neither the brioche or marshmallow really tasted like their title indicated. The cornbread, I will note, was almost a cornbread pudding and it was fantastic.

Fairing less admirably than the 2-way dish would be the Foie Gras Tostada - Seared Foie, Candied Heirloom Tomatoes Salsa, Pomegranate Molasses. Another ample portion, the biggest issue with this dish was its serving temperature of luke warm. Finding a single vein on dissection the foie was characteristically unctuous but the acidic salsa and sweet molasses actually overtook the liver’s place as the predominant flavors on the plate – the balance was simply off. As this was the only warm dish to arrive during our first round of plates I do wonder if some of the issue was that it waited in the kitchen while the other dishes were composed, but even searing hot I feel I’d have been underwhelmed.

The other final option arriving during our first round of plates would be a soup – a half-order each for mom and aunt. Crab - Corn and Cheddar Soup, Poblano Chile, Bacon Powder was poured tableside with the lovely air spreading over the table as it was poured. With the bacon powder served on the spoon and instructed to be stirred in I will note that prior to mixing I tasted the crab solo and it was lovely – sweet and fresh Dungeness dusted with chili powder in an ample amount. As good as the crab was solo, however, the admixture of soup, crab, and powder really brought the dish to life. Sweet, savory, a bit of spice and the texture almost like a fondue, but the flavors of the crab still peaking through in each bite.

With burrata apparently all the rage in Southern California currently I figured we would see it on the menu at Bistro LQ and although it wasn’t featured, it was a lovely side on the first dish of round two. Presented as “Lobster Salad - Corn Cannoli, Red Beet, Burrata Sorbet” this troika of flavors was fun and tasty. Ordered as a half-portion (again by mother and aunt) the lobster component was a half-mit and half-tail of warm butter poached lobster – no more, no less. Accompanying the crustacean would be a curl of house made corn tortilla filled with succulent corn cream and three jewels of earthy beats topped with creamy, rich, and mildly sweet “Burrata Sorbet” that tasted precisely like the famous cheese, but less dense in texture.

For my sister’s second course, her favorite of the meal, the choice was “Black Bass – Lentil, Cippolini, Morcella, Smoked Duck Wing, Pequillo.” Well aware that she had no idea what Morcella was when she ordered the dish I was shocked when she took a bite of the Portuguese blood sausage and said “this is really good – but I don’t know what it is” and impressed when the information didn’t seem to faze her…then again, it was really stellar blood sausage. Not to be outdone, the nicely seared black bass and smoky fried duck wing were also excellent while the toothsome lentils, pungent onions, and mild peppers lent a additional complexity to the otherwise hefty proteins. This dish was the exact sort of dish I’d expected entering Bistro LQ and the subsequent dishes would continue the trend.

For my second course, reportedly a “half” portion, I received Duck 2 Ways, a dish consisting of a whole seared duck breast and a full confit leg resting atop pickled cabbage, pickled huckleberries, and a flat pastry-like Huckleberry Muffin. With the duck prepared expertly and the bursting huckleberries balancing nicely with the savory cabbage I think my favorite aspect of this dish was pairing bites of the duck’s crunchy skin with the huckleberry and duck fat saturated muffin. At $17 this “half” portion would have been a $30+ main course at many restaurants elsewhere.

Having obviously noted my displeasure with the early delay in the meal our next round of dishes would arrive perhaps a little too quickly – literally 2-3 minutes after we finished round two. With my aunt’s desired main course of beef being one of the sold out items she instead opted for the Veal Rack at Jennifer’s suggestion. Featuring a Veal Medallion, Basil Gnocchi Gratin, Fava Beans, and Eggplant Fondue this was the one main course I did not taste, but my aunt felt the veal was “too fatty” and left much of it on the plate. The portion I tasted, the basil gnocchi mixed with exquisitely prepared Fava Beans and creamy mozzarella and topped with crispy veal bacon was quite tasty, though the gnocchi was a tad mushy.

For my mother, Pork - Braised with Chocolate, Achiote, Epasote and Honey Semolina Cake was a masterpiece and clearly showed off the fact that Chef Quenioux knows more than just French fare. While the pork itself was nicely prepared, it largely just served as a mechanism to show off the topping - somewhere between a mole and savory pork gravy with obvious Hispanic influences the complexities of the sauce reminded me of something from a Bayless kitchen – smoky, savory, spicy, and robust. Seated alongside a hollowed green tomato whose insides had been rendered into a sort of ratatouille and matched with two fried sticks of sweet semolina cake this “half” dish was simply a mountain of flavor.

Selecting a half order one of the night’s specials, my sister received Hare Saddle – Cock’s Comb, Potato, Fava Beans, Garlic Puree. Nicely prepared and expectedly grassy in flavor the hare itself was nicely textured and lean while the pan jus and garlic puree were nice additions. Topping the hare with a cartilaginous comb that had been poached in sweet vinegar my sister was not a fan, but I gladly helped her out. Rounding out the dish with a tumbleweed of crunchy fried potato and thinly sliced fava beans plus almond powder was a nice touch.

The final main course of the evening was another of the nightly wild game specials - Wild Boar with Chestnut Tagliatelle, and Balsamic Blueberries. Perhaps the most simplistic presentation of the evening the portion size was once again quite ample for the $17 price tag and the flavor was that of pork meets lamb – somewhat tough in texture but easily cut, heavy but lacking “chewiness” – a nice first experience with wild boar. With the hand cut pasta somewhat softer than I’d have preferred the taste was quite nice and the balsamic soaked blueberries were literally bursting with flavor.

Skipping coffee as the nightly options were all citrus blends we were next offered cheese or dessert. Having seen the ample cheese carte. Featuring 43 options on this evening I couldn’t pass up such an option for a mere $10 charge. With the board so large I will note that if you desire to see the selections you have to leave the table (mind the “hump”) and most annoyingly despite me getting up to hear the selections Jennifer could only delineate cow vs. goat vs. sheep and a couple easy specifics such as Epoisse and Brie. Deciding to give up asking after the third “I don’t know” I simply asked her to prepare a plate and so she did.

Served with the ten 1+ ounce servings of cheese would be one of the more impressive trays of accoutrements I have seen and included Hazelnuts, Roasted Cumin Seeds, Apple Gelee, Huckleberry Gelee, Bell pepper Mustard, Tomatillo Compote, Truffle honey, Homemade Green Ketchup, and crispy petit pain. A good mix I know the selection included epoisse, brie, pecorino, Roquefort, and a lovely ash-bound sheep’s cheese but as good as the cheeses were I think the restaurant would be best served to have them presented by someone who could identify them. Then again, perhaps I was spoiled after Robuchon and Melisse on previous nights.

Opting next for desserts, normally under the direction of Pastry Chef Anthony Huynh but on that night the responsibility of Quenioux and the pastry sous-chef, we each selected differently and shared as always. Starting first with the Funnel Cake – Mixed Berries Sauce, Pop Corn Sorbet, Salted Caramel, Peanut Brittle I have to say I appreciated the whimsy. Crispy and light just like the carnival favorite the funnel cake was lovely while the sorbet truly did taste like hot buttered popcorn – at least until mixed with the brittle and caramel at which point it tasted like caramel corn. Clever.

My dessert option, unfortunately arriving last along with the mignardises because it was the only one that required on the spot preparation, was described as Steamed Persimmon Pudding with Sweet Potato Sorbet and Coffee Crème Anglaise. Somewherebetween a bread pudding and a sticky pudding the chunks of sweet bread were on their own delightful while the coffee cream added a nice degree of bitterness to the otherwise saccharine flavor profile. While I’ll note the ice cream was quite tasty I personally believe I was served the wrong option as it tasted a potent vanilla or marshmallow and was far more creamy than sorbet should be.

For my aunt, the most successful dessert – another Pot de Crème presentation, this time Espresso & Chocolate, and served alongside Butterscotch Tapioca Bread Pudding, and White Chocolate Ice Cream Affogato. With hot, warm, and cold all on the same plate and two coffee themed options I rather wondered how my aunt would enjoy this dish, but in reality the affogato was overwhelmingly smooth and chocolately and the Pot de Crème so dark a chocolate that the espresso was only a bitter note on the palate afterwards. The highlight of this dish would be the Butterscotch Tapioca bread pudding – creamy, salty, hefty yet with textural pockets throughout…who’d have thought to put tapioca in a bread pudding? I guess the same guy who balanced it with Uni so nicely earlier.

Another spot of whimsy would be found in mom’s selection of the “Candy Bar Plate.” Featuring most prominently a thick Peanut butter Cup Tart the size and density of a hockey puck, a Kit-Kat Parfait loaded with chocolate, wafer, and cream, and Snickers Ice Cream complete with nougat and served atop crumbled peanuts with swirls of chocolate there was nothing complicated about the dish – it was just fun and tasty.

The final tastes of Bistro LQ would arrive, as mentioned, along with my dessert – a tray of petit fores and mignardises including vanilla marshmallows, raspberry gelee, Valrhona cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, and tip-top quality macarons of strawberry and coffee. Shortly after this Jennifer would return with the bill – desserts and cheese comped on the house for the long delay – a nice but unnecessary gesture given the bargain prices and portions of the food (slightly over $60/pp with tax and tip.)

Handing Jennifer my credit card I was next asked if I’d like to meet the chef – another great gesture that was actually a wonderful surprise. Short and somewhat shy I will say that of all the chefs I’ve met and spoken to, Chef Quenioux was perhaps the most down to earth aside from RJ Cooper and Roland Passot. Pleasant and readily dishing his opinion on the restaurant, the Los Angeles dining scene, and even local sports (I mentioned I was a Kings fan and he knew they were playing Edmonton the following night) I thanked him for the experience and told him the food was largely wonderful because it was. Making our way out of the restaurant, a signed menu in hand, and realizing how full I was I have to say that Bistro LQ is definitely unique and Chef Quenioux is genuinely talented, but a new front of the house will be necessary to truly push Bistro LQ into the upper echelon Quenioux is capable of cooking in.

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