Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Melisse, Santa Monica CA

Holding off on Urasawa until I have a finer understanding of the nuances of raw fish, Melisse was the last of the (now defunct) Michelin Two Star restaurants on my Los Angeles dining list. While not as famous as Spago and not as innovative as Providence, I felt somewhat regretful about having missed the restaurant on previous visits largely because Melisse seemed like the sort of restaurant I would love – Fine, French, Sleek, and focused on ornate presentations of locally sourced ingredients. With reservations booked well in advance for our first night in Los Angeles I’d be dining alone at this meal largely due to the cost – the prix fixe beginning at $105 and the Carte Blanche currently running $250.

Arriving at the restaurant early and having wandered the rainy streets of Santa Monica for approximately an hour after leaving the car at the $8 valet station I’d thankfully worked up a decent appetite before entering the large doors under an ornate awning that reminded me very much of Daniel in New York’s Upper East Side. Consistently rated either the best or second best for “Top Food” in Los Angeles by Zagat and helmed by Josiah Citrin, a chef whose resume includes stints at Chinois under Puck and Patina under Splichal my expectations were high and although I was informed that Citrin himself would not be present that evening when I made reservations I was sure it wouldn’t really matter as Chef de Cuisine Ken Takayama has been running the kitchen successfully on a day-to-day basis for nearly six years.


Arriving at the hostess stand and introducing myself I was greeted politely, but even though I was carrying a shopping bag the offer was not made to check it for me while I dined. Making my way though the festively decorated dining room I was once again reminded of Daniel with the raised edges of the room overlooking a central chandeliered area. Seated at a large and well adorned four top with thick linens and plenty of crystal and silver surrounding my charger the first person I would meet was actually the attendant who poured my water – house filtered tap that would be filled nearly every time I took two sips throughout the evening.

With ample lighting at each table yet a soft glow to the overall room I’ll note the feel of Melisse is certainly romantic in a sleek “LA meets Classic French” sort of way. The sort of way where soft Classical Christmas music playing overhead meets an automatic sliding glass door to the kitchen, the sort of way where one table has a man dressed in a Versace 3-piece suite and another has a guy in a hoodie and jeans, the sort of way where service is professional but somewhat aloof – i.e. sitting and waiting for nearly four minutes before a server would arrive with the menu – a server who handed me the menu, and explained the various options but did not know which wild game was available or the price of the Carte Blanche…thankfully, though I’m still uncertain as to why, she was replaced the moment I opted for the Carte Blanche but could be seen servicing other tables surrounding me throughout the evening. I will note here that an issue arriving later in the meal, an upcharge which was unexpected but certainly worth it, was likely her fault.

Taking care of me for the rest of the evening would be Douglas, a pleasant man who had clearly been at Melisse for some time. Capable and willing to discuss everything from sourcing to preparation techniques he represented my favorite type of server – the sort who seems to want to get to know the patron and is willing to offer his thoughts, as well. Offered wine or a cocktail I opted to begin things with a glass of Cremant de Bourgogne, Blanc de Blancs that was a bit brisk for my taste, but pleasant after acclimating to the flavor. A second mistake to the check would be attributed to this beverage choice, however, as I was charged for a much more expensive glass of Dom before the correction was made.

Assuring that there were no dietary restrictions though I’d prefer no beef the meal would begin with what has become the signature amuse at Melisse – Grapes in two forms. With the first taste arriving as half a frozen grape wrapped in Goat Cheese and Pistachio and the later an Adria inspired grape emulsion with Goat Cheese essence and Pistachio dust I really liked the exploration of temperatures and textures as the two flavor profiles were nearly identical, though entirely different.

Arriving post-amuse would be one of my favorite people at any restaurant – the bread man. Wielding a wooden basket laden with six options that arrived warm along with a subtly sweet locally sourced butter the choices for the evening were Bacon Ciabatta, Olive, Sourdough, Brioche, Basil Brioche, and Baguette. With the sourdough a tad hard for my liking I will note that the other options were all excellent though I stuck to the standard brioche and bacon ciabatta because both were soft, supple, and nicely paired with multiple courses…and per usual I ate way too much bread.

Starting off the menu proper would be a rather predictable course, but a tasty one - Kushi Oyster with Yuzu, American Osetra Caviar, Chives. Predictably briny and fresh the oyster/caviar pairing really never ceases to impress but whereas this is normally balanced with a tangy crème fraiche, the choice here to focus on lemony citrus and savory chives was a nice change.

Arriving as my second course would be something far more interesting, and far more complex than the Oyster. Described on the menu as Hokkaido Scallop, Santa Barbara Uni, Cauliflower, the dish featured all of the above arranged ornately and accented with mild lemon-uni cream and crunchy almonds. At once sweet, briny, creamy, crunchy, and vegetal this dish was the very sort of thing I expected entering Melisse – fresh local seafood and vegetables classically prepared but with Eastern accents.

Following the Scallop would be the first in a series of “wow” dishes – unsurprisingly given the menu’s progression, a soup. Poured tableside the Artichoke Veloute with chervil, goat cheese croquette, and white truffle foam arrived as only the spices, croquette, and a crispy artichoke in a cup. Adding the foamy soup and releasing the very essence of truffle as the steamy broth surrounded the croquette the presentation of this dish was not forgotten despite the elaborate dishes that would follow. Every bit as delicate and refined as Guy Savoy’s classic presentation the only thing missing was the truffled brioche.

At the end of the meal the fourth dish of the carte blanche would be the cause of a $65 upcharge on my bill – partially my fault, partially the fault of the servers. Having inquired about the dish and confirming I’d love to have it as part of the carte blanche I rather figured it would replace another dish rather than being added as a supplement, but in retrospect it was worth it…it was the best thing I have ever eaten. Titled “Truffle egg” with melting organic egg, shaved white truffle from Alba, truffle sauce and brioche, the dish arrived with explanation of its preparation – two “meringued” egg whites at the base and two at the top with a pair of sous-vide yolks within. Topped with buttery egg foam and resting in pool of truffled jus the “egg” was topped tableside with a substantial shaving of aromatic white truffles so potent I’m certain the table six feet away could smell it. Intoxicated by the aroma the first bite was purely truffle – earthy, lovely, powerful. With subsequent bites, however, the fluffy meringue and rich yolk stepped to the forefront mellowing the truffles ever so slightly. Using brioche only to wipe the plate clean the best way to describe the experience is eating a cloud of white truffles.

With the dining room manager stopping by to see how things were going and me gushing about the egg we chatted for a bit about my love for egg based dishes and foie gras, at which point he assured me that I’d likely be excited for the next dish which he would deliver himself – listed as “Seared Foie Gras & Pheasant Consomme” the dish was far more than that simple combination and featured not only the lovely seared liver, but also chunks of crispy confit pheasant in an aromatic broth laden with chanterelle mushrooms, sauternes, and shiso. As a lovely bonus, the small pasta in the dish were Foie Gras Agnolotti – rich and supple with foie terrine and packing a smooth gossamer finish.

Wiping the previous two plates clean with bread the next dish would continue the trend. Somewhere between soup and stew, “Coconut & Shellfish Nage” with chowder of Percebes, Maine Lobster, Aori Ika, Uni, and Chanterelles was miraculously light yet so packed with various seafood that each bite was an entirely different experience. Having never heard of Percebes it was explained that this was an imported form of barnacle and although the texture was similar to a clam, the flavor was sweeter and more briny. Paired with sweet lobster, creamy uni, and rich Japanese giant squid this was certainly a dish meant to wow with its ingredients, but in reality it was the simple way that the sweet coconut milk served to highlight each shellfish’s flavor that truly impressed me.

With Douglas returning to check in we talked about restaurants around town (he highly praises the kitchen at Providence and I certainly agree) and he informed me that since I was the only person in house who opted for the Carte Blanche that evening the chef wanted to send out a special surprise. Obviously never one to complain about such service my next presentation arrived with the same wooden box as the melting egg. Again topped tableside with perhaps even more truffle than the egg, White Truffle Risotto with Carnaroli Rice, Mascarpone and Shaved White Truffles was everything you’d expect from the ingredients – the smooth yet toothsome rice and mildly sweet cheese acting merely as backdrop for the aromatic truffles. While no toasted brioche was served, a simple request produced a slice within moments – another plate wiped clean, “manners” be damned.

The eighth plate of the evening would start the progression towards heavier protein dishes – a fish to be certain, but not just any fish, my favorite outside John Dory. Served again with Percebes, Wild Black Bass “En Ecailles” would pair a sous-vided filet of bass finished on a hot grill to make the scales crispy with Kubota Squash Gnocchi, Kohlrabi, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, White Carrots, and light cucumber consommé. Clear and clean the consommé itself was marvelous and the fish was perfectly executed. Less impressive were the gnocchi – more pan-seared pureed squash than true gnocchi and the White Carrots which were a tad bland. The weakest course of the evening, but I guess I can certainly forgive ‘good but not great’ sides when the central protein is so nicely done.

The menu would progress as expected next to bird – in this case a presentation from the wild game menu – Black Truffle Crusted Scottish Partridge, Marche Cherries, Celery, Foie Gras Jus, Potato Mille Feuille. With the expectedly succulent bird prepared medium rare it tasted quite unlike any poultry or fowl on a traditional menu – as a matter of fact, the lady at the table next to me had ordered this as her main course and did not enjoy it because it tasted “bloody.” From my perspective, however, this was perhaps the best fowl I’ve tasted outside a few select duck presentations and the Wood Pigeon I had at Picholine one year prior. Marrying the bird with a crust of light breadcrumbs and ample truffle served to make the flavors even more rustic and woodsy while the intense cherries and poached celery worked well together. Resting the entire presentation atop a potato that I can only describe as a sort of melting hash brown this was my second favorite course of a menu full of great courses.

My final savory of the evening would be another very solid presentation – an exploration of Jimemez Farms Lamb. Presented in four ways, all from the same animal according to my server, the dish featured braised shank, grilled sausage, and seared neck and loin. Paired with kohlrabi, carrots, and a Licorice/Olive Tapenade I will admit I would have preferred to see different vegetables than those from the eight course, but here the carrots were of the orange variety and more flavorful. The olive/licorice was interesting with the lamb but quite bitter on its own – the plate was no better or worse for it.

As a transition from savory to sweet Douglas would next arrive with the cheese carte. Featuring eighteen selections with each described by province, type, flavor profile, and Douglas’ opinion on its age and quality I will note that I did not get all the names, but of those remembered there were Brie de Meaux, Mimolette, Epoisse, Puget Oxford Blue, Gruyere, Comte, Gratte Paille, English Stilton, Roc Blu, Ladiosse, Dutch Gouda, Rocamadour, Fleur de Maquis, and Azeitão. Allowing Douglas to select a wide range for me the cheeses were presented with Pecan Currant bread, Walnuts cracked tableside, Kumquats, and port poached Pears. Noting that the Oxford Blue did not agree with my tongue as it was quite bracing, I particularly loved the Gratte Paille and Azeitao, both of which I’d never experienced before.

The twelfth course of the evening would be a palate cleanser of Vanilla Yogurt with Strawberry Compote, Strawberry Sorbet, and mint. House made the yogurt was simple, tangy, and smooth while the strawberry components were intense and lovely in texture. With a clean finish from the mint I was not surprised when my server told me that this used to be served in larger format as a dessert during the summer.

Ordering coffee – a $7 French Press of single origin Kenyan Estate sourced by LAMill I was largely underwhelmed by the choice largely because I simply don’t appreciate citrus tones in my coffee – it certainly wasn’t bad, but I’d have preferred more options. Arriving shortly after the coffee, my first dessert would be Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate – a quartet of desserts that reminded me much of desserts at The Inn At Little Washington and Jean-Georges. With chocolate injected via syringe at tableside the dish contained a hot Valhrona Souffle, Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch, Mascarpone While Chocolate Lollipop, and Coffee macchiato semifreddo. With each taste quite tasty I particularly enjoyed the subtle flavors of the Lollipop and the candy bar-like crunch of the peanut butter/wafer/ganache bite.

My final proper course would be another palate cleanser of sorts – titled Apple, Pomegranate, Dandelion-Burdock Soda the dish was actually better than the larger dessert and like the two forms of grape to begin the meal showed a bit of experimentation with an ingredient in both a natural and transformed presentation. With fresh pomegranate and mini-melon-balled chunks of apple sitting in the aromatic bubbly broth, the dish was then topped with crunchy dehydrated apple sticks and a dollop of apple sorbet. Crunchy, sweet, savory – a very nice way to finish.

Delivered with the check would be two trays of mignardises – the first with a pair of Caneles, Peanut Butter Cookies, and Gingerbread cookies and the second with Orange segments, Raspberries, Crème Fraiche, and Muscovado Sugar. Crunchy on the exterior and appropriately eggy within the caneles certainly stole the show from the other cookies, but dipping the raspberries in the crème fraiche and subsequently the sugar was simple and lovely as well.

After addressing the issue of the wine mistake and quizzically asking about the truffle supplement (which I assured them was no problem given the fact that the egg was amazing and that I received two white truffle courses, though I’d have still preferred been made aware when ordering) I settled the bill and thanked everyone for the lovely evening. Making my way to the street where it was pouring rain one my car was already waiting and I was headed back to the hotel within minutes. With the total bill including tax and tip topping $400 the question, of course, is whether the meal was worth it and although not every ingredient of every dish was a stunner, the number of exotic items and unique tastes were myriad while the service and setting were exemplary. For my dollar the best dining in Los Angeles is still Providence, but I’d not hesitate to return to Melisse and I would strongly suggest anyone who can afford the extravagance to go and order that incredible egg.

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