Monday, October 29, 2012

Campanile (Los Angeles, CA)

Campanile Restaurant
624 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Mon 10/29/2012, 07:30p-10:05p

Campanile Exterior

If we're talking about old-line eateries in Los Angeles, it's no doubt that Mark Peel's Campanile would be one that comes to mind immediately. Since opening in 1989, the restaurant has become a sort of training ground to a generation of LA chefs and a second home to countless diners. As such, I think we were all surprised to hear in September that the place was closing down after 23 years of business, the victim of an expiring lease. Many are bemoaning the loss of Campanile, though just as seemingly many are indifferent, pointing out that the restaurant's faded in recent years, especially with the departure of Nancy Silverton. No matter which side you're on, it's clear that Campanile stands as one of LA's most iconic restaurants, and thus a visit was absolutely necessary before the place left us for good.

About the Chef: A California native, Chef Peel was raised throughout various parts of the Golden State, and got his first restaurant job in high school, washing dishes at a place in the small town of Healdsburg in Sonoma Valley (known these days mostly for being the former home of the acclaimed Cyrus). He eventually transitioned into a cooking position there, and by the time he graduated, had worked at a number of local eateries. Peel attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, studying history, but soon left and enrolled in the hotel and restaurant management program at the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. During his tenure there, he landed a job peeling vegetables at Wolfgang Puck's legendary Ma Maison (where Wolf first made a name for himself in the 70's), and, as part of the training there, was sent to France to stage at two Michelin three-star places: the longstanding La Tour d'Argent, as well as Roger Vergé's Le Moulin de Mougins (where Daniel Boulud worked early on).

In 1979, Peel became a Sous Chef at Michael McCarty's seminal Michael's in Santa Monica. Though he was married at the time, it was here where he would meet future wife Nancy Silverton, who started as a cashier before moving to pastry. Following, Peel cooked for a year at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and, in 1982, became the opening chef for Wolfgang Puck's groundbreaking Spago. Silverton moved to Spago during this period as well, and the two were soon married (and would later have three kids together). The couple left in 1985 and spent six months revamping Warner LeRoy's Maxwell's Plum in New York, then returned to LA. Back home, the duo then decided to set up shop in a historic building owned by Nancy's father, Larry Silverton. Larry was also a partner in the business, as was former Wine Director Manfred Krankl, who left some years later to start the Sine Qua Non winery (he was replaced by Claudio Blotta, of Cooks County fame); interestingly, he was also the husband of Nancy's sister Gail, who owns Gelato Bar (their son Nikolas Krankl heads up Single Origin Coffee at Short Order, and their other son Andreas Krankl used to run Press Panini).

In January 1989, Peel and Silverton launched La Brea Bakery in the space, with Campanile debuting six months later. The restaurant was a rousing success, garnering a "Best New Chef" nomination from Food & Wine that same year; Peel was also nominated for James Beard's "Best American Chef" in 1990, 1995, and 1996. In 1994, the husband-and-wife team wrote their first cookbook: Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Home, which was followed up by The Food of Campanile in 1997. 2001 saw a Beard nom for "Outstanding Restaurant," and also marked a turning point for La Brea Bakery, which was sold to Irish firm IAWS Group for $55 million. Peel also became a partner in Jar, Suzanne Tracht's modern chophouse (Tracht once worked as Campanile's CdC), but would divest his stake in 2004. The couple, however, would end up divorcing in 2005, with Silverton soon selling off her stake in the restaurant. Peel, for his part, remarried not too long after to vlogger Daphne Brogdon. With his ex-wife out of the way, he partnered with Campanile's GM Jay Perrin and took over the old Oasis Mediterranean Bar & Restaurant space on La Brea, with plans to open a wine bar there. However, by 2009, that idea had morphed into a mixology-centric concept named Glass and Mirrors.

During this period, Peel also competed on Top Chef Masters, eventually losing out to Anita Lo in a Neil Patrick Harris-inspired challenge, and released a new cookbook called New Classic Family Dinners. In October 2009, he purchased The Point, a casual lunch spot in Culver City, from Beacon's Kazuto Matsusaka and his wife Vicki Fan, who'd opened the place in 2007. It never really took off, though, and ended up shuttering in early 2011, reportedly the result of a botched Groupon deal (it has since reopened under new management). Glass and Mirrors, meanwhile, transformed into The Tar Pit, bowing in December that year as a sort of 40's supper club concept, with cocktails by Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club in NYC. Things, however, didn't work out quite as expected, with Saunders leaving abruptly in February 2010; Marcos Tello was rumored to take over, but that never came to fruition (instead, they nabbed David Kupchinsky). The situation was not helped by a less-than-stellar review from LAist's Lindsay William-Ross, which ignited a veritable shitstorm on the Interwebs, with both Mr. and Mrs. Peel colorfully chiming on the discourse.

Things weren't all bad though. In October 2010, Peel made an appearance as a guest judge on Hell's Kitchen alongside buxom "elite food blogger on Yelp" Libby Rego, the lovable Sophie Gayot, and some guy from Nobu (talk about a motley crew). Then, the following May, he announced that Campanile was going to part of the new remodel going on at LAX. In February this year, Peel collaborated on a dinner with Roy Choi entitled "Let's Fuck Things Up!" (seriously, that was the name). Perhaps they "fucked things up" too badly though, as The Tar Pit ended up closing in March, with Campanile biting the bullet not long after. The reason for the shutter was supposedly the expiring lease. But, remember that the building's landlord is still Nancy's father Larry Silverton, and word on the street is that he still had an axe to grind with Peel over the divorce.

Campanile Interior
Campanile sits in a historic building built in 1929 for film legend Charlie Chaplin. He never occupied the site, however, since he supposedly lost the structure in his divorce to his 16-year-old second wife Lita Grey, who he married to avoid statutory rape charges after knocking her up(!). After Larry Silverton purchased the 10,000 square-foot space in the late 80's, it was remodeled by architect Josh Schweitzer to its current form, encompassing multiple dining spaces, a pastry kitchen, a wine cellar, two private dining rooms, and even an outside patio. In the early days, Peel and Silverton even used to live in a small apartment on the third floor.

Campanile Menu Campanile Drink Menu
Campanile's menu is fairly compact, featuring the traditional setup of appetizers and mains--no "small plates meant for sharing" here. They also do lunch, brunch, a Grilled Cheese Night on Thursdays (Campanile helped popularize that trend), as well as a "Social House" happy hour menu on weekdays. To drink, think classic cocktails, a smattering of beers, and a great Cali-centric wine list overseen by General Manager and Sommelier Johann Drolshagen. Click for larger versions.

Sazerac Pancho Victoria Moscow Mule
Sazerac [$12.00] | rye whiskey, cognac, peychaud bitters, absinthe rinse
Pancho Victoria [$12.00] | reposado tequila, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lime juice, kaffir lime-ginger syrup, float of lagavulin
Moscow Mule [$12.00] | vodka, ginger beer, lime
To wet our whistles, we went with cocktails to begin. First was Campanile's version of the Sazerac, classic in essence, with a tasty interplay between the duo of liquor and the bitterness imparted by the Peychaud's. Even better was the Pancho Victoria, which I found rather delicious. I loved its mix of sweet, sour, and boozy flavors, perfectly integrated under a smoky, peaty veil of Lagavulin scotch--very nice. The Moscow Mule was also delectable: very traditional in preparation, yet wonderfully refreshing and effervescent, with the brightness of ginger melding well over the tang of lime. Overall, we had a strong trio here.

La Brea Bakery Bread
You'd expect bread ostensibly produced at the world-famous La Brea Bakery to be stellar, but what we were served here was merely ho-hum. Overly hard butter did not improve the situation.

Pickled Deviled Eggs
Pickled Deviled Eggs [$7.00] | crispy bacon, chives
Deviled eggs were enjoyable, with a subtle tanginess from the pickling process to counteract the lushness of the yolk. Great touch of salt from the bacon, too.

White Bean Puree
White Bean Puree [$14.00] | balsamic reduction, olive oil, parsley, crostini
A purée of bean was hearty and satisfying (especially when taken with the crisp bits of bread), but disturbingly reminiscent of a plate of refried beans. I wanted more acidity, more brightness in the dish to offset the sheer heft of the white bean.

Duck Meatballs
Duck Meatballs [$14.00] | shaved parmesan, torn basil
Meatballs were on point: soft, yet slightly gritty in consistency, with the rich, savory taste of duck on proud display, perked up by just a kick of piquancy.

Strawberry Salad
Strawberry Salad [$16.00] | mixed greens, Humboldt Fog, strawberry & white balsamic vinaigrette
The strawberry salad was a pleasant surprise. The greens and onions here worked flawlessly with the tangy vinaigrette dressing, while the goat cheese added a palpable weight and creaminess to the dish. All that was then deftly complemented by an undercurrent of sugary strawberry.

Aviation Viva La Raza Alexandria's Sour
Aviation [$12.00] | plymouth gin, maraschino liqueur, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, crème de violette
Viva La Raza [$12.00] | passion fruit, agave nectar, lime juice, jalapeño tequila
Alexandria's Sour [$12.00] | kaffir lime syrup, vodka, pressed lemon, topped with champagne
Our second round of cocktails started with the Aviation, and old school concoction made pretty much by the book here, resulting in an almost bracingly sour drink with a hint of bitterness; I would've liked more of the violet to have shown through though. The Viva La Raza was probably the best of the threesome, with a lovely sweetness up front leading to a lingering heat on the close, all mediated over a marked base of agave and tequila. Finally, we had Alexandria's Sour, with its smart interplay between the tangy citrus and vodka, all with the sparkling wine adding a great touch of levity to the mix.

Sauteed Trenne
Sauteed Trenne [$16.00] | garlic, shallots, bitter greens, bolognese
Moving on to pastas now, the trenne was a clear highlight of the meal. First off, the deep, dark flavors of the ragù were spot on and immensely comforting, with a luxuriousness that was perfectly tempered by the astringency of the greenery on the plate. At the same time, the trenne itself was superb, with a firm, almost crisp consistency that I adored. Clearly, the winning dish amongst the pastas.

Pasta Carbonara
Pasta Carbonara [$16.00] | pancetta, cream, cracked pepper, gruyere
The carbonara, meanwhile, was also quite delicious, with a classic mix of salty, cheesy, and peppery flavors, all bound together by a wonderfully firm base of al dente spaghetti. This one was easy to like.

Fresh Sheep's Milk Cheese Ravioli
Fresh Sheep's Milk Cheese Ravioli [$16.00] | wild mushrooms, tomato cream sauce
The ravioli, finally, was the least interesting of the pastas. The tangy tomato sauce made sense here, moderated by the weight of the cheese, but I really would've liked to have tasted more from the mushroom.

Olive Oil Poached Salmon
Olive Oil Poached Salmon [$30.00] | beluga lentils, wild arugula, parsley pesto
And now, the mains: Kicking things off was one of the best cooked salmon dishes that I've had in recent memory. The fish itself was faultless really, tender, fatty and slightly rare in temperature, with a wonderful salinity that just worked gorgeously with the bitterness of the arugula. I also enjoyed the beluga lentils, which lent an earthy heft to the plate that serving as a fitting counterpoint to the salmon. Definitely a favorite of the evening.

Pan-Seared Scallops
Pan-Seared Scallops [$30.00] | creamy polenta, vanilla butter carrots, asparagus, wild arugula
Scallops arrived perfectly cooked: supple and springy in bite, nicely caramelized, and with a great mix of sweet and salty flavors. They were enjoyable alone, but unfortunately, the vanilla notes present in the dish really didn't jive with me. I found the ingredient rather overwhelming, and would've liked the asparagus and arugula to have offset it more.

Aged USDA Prime Rib
Aged USDA Prime Rib [$40.00] | flageolet beans, bitter greens, black olive tapenade
Up next was a straightforward steak, though I think we were all expecting an actual Lawry's-style prime rib. Nevertheless, the beef was pretty delicious, showing off plenty of bovine flavors and a lovely touch of char bitterness. I even liked the beans and greens as well, which worked wonders in moderating the potency of the rib eye. However, I would have liked the meat a bit rarer, though.

Grilled Striped Bass
Grilled Striped Bass [$28.00] | grilled broccolini, kalamata olives, blistered cherry tomatoes
The savory section of our meal ended on a strong note with this sea bass. I found the fish firm, yet moist, with a great char and loads of mouth-watering, briny flavors. As such, the veggies here did an admirable job in really providing a bright, juicy, crunchy counter to the fish. Yum.

Welschriesling 'Zwischen Den Seen,' TBA #7, Kracher, 2004
To pair with the desserts, we ordered up a bottle of Trockenbeerenauslese, specifically the Welschriesling 'Zwischen Den Seen,' TBA #7, Kracher, 2004 [$136] from famed winemaker Alois Kracher. Unsurprisingly, it was pretty much everything that you'd want in a dessert wine, with all the expected notes of stonefruit and honey on the palate, balanced by a touch of spice and light acidity. Delish.

Seasonal Sorbet
Seasonal Sorbet [$12.00] | lemon honey sorbet, blueberry compote, roasted pineapple
We ended up ordering all five of Campanile's desserts, and I began with the lightest of the quintet. The sorbet was pretty straightforward, nothing really to write home about, with a bright, bracing, lemon-y tartness from the sorbet tempered by the sugary combo of pineapple and blueberry.

Boca Negra
Boca Negra [$12.00] | chocolate sauce, orange buttermilk sherbet
This "black mouth" cake was more to my liking: super rich, and almost ridiculously dense, an unmitigated expression of chocolate only partly softened out by the tart-ish, citrus-y sherbet.

White Chocolate Saffron Crème Caramel
White Chocolate Saffron Crème Caramel [$12.00] | strawberries, candied almonds
Campanile's interpretation of flan was also quite effective, subtle in essence, with an eggy, nutty relish and hint of saffron that made perfect sense with the overtly saccharine nature of the caramel sauce here.

Housemade Ice Cream
Housemade Ice Cream [$12.00] | chocolate lavender, chocolate sauce, brownie bites
A relatively simple presentation of chocolate ice cream was bumped up a notch by the incorporation of lavender, which lent a much appreciated floral character to the dessert. Nice textural contrast from the brownie bites, too.

Apple Cheddar Tart
Apple Cheddar Tart [$12.00] | rum caramel, vanilla ice cream
Last up was a pretty interesting take on an apple tart. The fruity sweetness of apple was certainly there, augmented by the rum and caramel, but the crux of the dish was the cheddar, which lent a lovely savoriness to the course that I rather enjoyed. The ice cream, of course, was a natural accompaniment as well.

And there you have it: the penultimate evening of dining at Campanile. As for the food, it was actually quite solid. Sure, it wasn't the most cutting-edge cooking around, but the flavors were there, the plates hearty and satisfying, and certainly, based on this dinner, there's no obvious reason why the place needed to shutter. Nevertheless, Campanile closed for good on October 31st, going out in grand fashion with a "Black & White Masquerade" on Halloween, which offered up unlimited food and drink all for the price of an $89 ticket. Say what you will, but Campanile will be missed by many an Angeleno. Mark Peel has stated that he'd like to reopen the restaurant somewhere else, but in the near term, remember that the LAX outpost is supposed to break ground next February, and the flagship La Brea Bakery store will eventually be relocated as well.

As for what's next with the building, it's being taken over by none other than Walter Manzke (late of Wildflour Cafe + Bakery in Manila and Milo & Olive Stateside), who's housing his long-awaited Republique there with Bill Chait's backing. The restaurant is slated to debut on June 1st next year, and will be split into two sections: a casual café and a more formal component. The former will serve all-day, turning into a wine bar at night, while the latter will be bistronomic in concept, with more limited seating and a more ambitious menu. In addition, Margarita Manzke will be running her own shop in the old La Brea Bakery, selling pastries and other sundry items. It's definitely something worth looking forward to, and I'm sure it'll do this storied space proud.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Amalur Project (Los Angeles, CA)

Amalur Project at Marcona
7368 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046
Thu 10/25/2012, 07:00p-09:50p

Earlier this year, I paid a visit to Marcona, a haute sandwich shop opened by longtime reader Collier Ulrich. Since then, the eatery's been humming along nicely, slangin' sammies created by Chicago-based chef Matthew Moss. In July, the restaurant started hosting pop-ups, the first of which was Kenny Seliger's Trap Door Dining. Marcona has followed up with the Amalur Project, a new series from up-and-comers Sergio Perera and Steve Monnier than ran on October 24th and 25th.

About the Chefs: Sergio Lujan Perera hails from Zaragoza, a major city in the Aragon region of Spain. He grew up surrounded by a family that loved cooking, with his grandfather serving as his key inspiration in the kitchen. He began really learning the art of classic Spanish cookery when he was 12 years old, and by age 17, was already making his way around some of the most popular places in Saragossa. From there, Perera moved to Barcelona, but grew a bit restless cooking the same traditional dishes over and over again. As such, he relocated to San Sebastián and secured a stage at the legendary Arzak, Juan Mari Arzak's vaunted temple of New Basque Cuisine. It was here where he experienced his turning point, completely reevaluating and reinvigorating his culinary aesthetic. He stayed at Arzak for three years, then moved to Japan with a friend he'd met there. In Kyoto, he worked at the friend's family's Minokichi Takesigero, a longstanding kaiseki restaurant, and also cooked at the famous Kitcho.

After two years in Japan, Perera returned to San Sebastián with an enlightened point of view, and secured employment at Andoni Aduriz's well-regarded Mugaritz. He would work there for three years before moving to the United States, first landing in New York. There, Perera spent two years at Jean Georges, and also cooked at wd~50 and Momofuku. The Chef then relocated to Los Angeles, working alongside Greg Bernhardt (opening chef of Church & State and former Grace CdC) and the inimitable Ludovic Lefebvre. During this period, he also collaborated with the Adrià brothers at El Bulli, Tickets, as well as 41 Degrees. Currently, Perera is private cheffing and planning the opening of his first solo project.

Steve Monnier, for his part, comes from Reims, a city in the Marne department of France oft recognized for its Champagne production. He was also raised in a family that was largely centered around the kitchen, and after finishing up school in his hometown, quickly made his way to the south of France. In Cannes, Monnier worked at Hôtel Martinez's Le Palme d'Or under Chef Christian Willer, focusing on Mediterranean cuisine. He eventually moved to Paris, finding employment at Alain Dutournier's two-star, Basque-influenced Carré des Feuillants. From there, Monnier transitioned to Restaurant Le Laurent under Philippe Braun, and then to the well-known Taillevent under Michel del Burgo. In 2002, he moved to Southern California, and spent time at Jean Francois Meteigner's La Cachette, Serge Bonnet's Cafe Provencal in Thousand Oaks, and the grand dame of French dining here in LA, L'Orangerie (under Exec Chef Christophe Bellanca), among other places. Since then, Monnier's been working as a private chef, and recently completed a stage at René Redzepi's world-renowned Noma.

Amalur Project Menu
And here we see Amalur Project's debut menu, featuring eight courses for a not-unreasonable $69 per head (there was also a vegetarian option at the same price point). To drink, think strictly BYOB. Click for a larger version.

2009 Château du Hureau Saumur Rosanna
To take full advantage of the BYO policy (and to pick up my copy of the new LudoBites cookbook), I stopped by local wine purveyor Domaine LA on my way over. I handed Brunellos Have More Fun's Whitney Adams a copy of the evening's menu, and she in turn suggested a trio of bottles to pair with the food. The first was the 2009 Château du Hureau Saumur "Rosanna", a sparkling Cabernet Franc-based rosé from the Loire Valley. Server Michael Nemcik (whom you may recall from the last LudoBites) popped the bottle soon after I arrived, and we both really enjoyed the wine. Think bright, fun, and refreshing, with a somewhat fruity/floral character balanced by a certain crisp dryness and minerality. Delicious alone, and lovely with the lighter courses to follow.

Compressed Asian Pear
Amuse Bouche: Compressed Asian Pear | Herbs, Burnt Orange, Cinnamon
Our amuse bouche comprised two perfectly chiseled cuts of Asian pear: dense, crisp, and bursting with bright, juicy sweetness, yet accentuated by the smoky, spicy, lingering notes from the orange liqueur. A very smart, very neat way to start the meal.

Sparkling Pear Soda
Nemcik was also offering up a special non-alcoholic libation this evening, his straightforwardly-named Sparkling Pear Soda [$4], a blend of puréed Bosc pear, cinnamon, allspice, clove, Madagascar vanilla, an orange peel-ginger simple syrup, French lemon juice, and sparkling water. Unsurprisingly, I found it rather delicious and very nicely balanced, with a great interplay between the sugary fruit and the aromatic spices incorporated in the drink. Loved the gritty consistency of the pear, too.

Smoked Grissini
1: Smoked Grissini | Goat Butter
The chefs' breadsticks were superb as well, smoky and savory in nature with hints of rosemary intertwined. They were certainly tasty alone, but even better when paired with a dab of that mouth-wateringly salty butter.

Carrots, Yogurt Foam
An off-menu dish featuring carrots then arrived. The sweetness of the root veggie was deftly tempered here by the included yogurt foam, while a drizzle of what I believe was olive oil added depth and gravity to the dish. I also appreciated the crunch and bitterness imparted by the radishes. Overall, just a masterful presentation of carrot, with some amazing colors to boot.

2: Oysters | Warm Potato Espuma, Truffle Caviar, Beet Vinegar, Passionfruit
Oysters arrived in two forms. The first featured warm potato cream and truffle, with the huître pairing swimmingly with the classic flavors at play, the truffle adding an exclamation point to the richness of the espuma. The beet-focused variation was surprisingly effective, with the sugary tartness of the beet and passion fruit combo melding smartly with the sweet salinity the oyster, all with a touch of overarching spice.

Edible Garden
3: Edible Garden | Rye Bread, Horseradish Cream, Vinegar Powder
Here we had Amalur's ode to the now-ubiquitous garden-inspired dish, with carrots and cauliflower set in horseradish cream and rye crumbs. I really liked the pure, unmitigated expression of the vegetables here, their light, refreshing crunch keenly set off against the enveloping tang of the horseradish. The crux, though, was the use of rye, which lent an earthy, bitter, crunchy base to the dish that did a commendable job in tying all the various elements together.

Scallop Chicharron
The kitchen sent out another bonus course, this time a scallop chicharrón, dehydrated and fried. It was as good as you'd expect, with a lip-smackingly saline, umami-rich taste that left me wanting more. Gimme a whole bag, please.

Frederic Gouison 'Heritage 1900' Pays d'Othe Apple Cider
For some of the heavier courses, we opened up a bottle of the Frederic Gouison "Heritage 1900" Pays d'Othe Apple Cider from France. This was a great pick as well, with loads of bright, apple-y sweetness up front, counteracted by an almost lactic tartness and funkiness that rounded things out perfectly. Think of it as an adult Martinelli's.

4: Lobster Mushroom | Onion Petals, Onion Broth, Tapioca Pearl, Celery Root Puree
Interesting note: the lobster mushroom isn't really a mushroom at all. It was rather tasty though, with an immensely rich, savory, satisfying smack along with a firm, weighty consistency that made them a joy to eat. Along with the 'shrooms came onion and onion jus, both of which provided a counterbalancing astringency that worked gorgeously here. Lovely texture from the tapioca, too.

Sea Bass
5: Sea Bass | Artichoke Heart and Crispy Artichoke, Citrus Emulsion, Nasturtium Leaf
Sea bass, meanwhile, showed off an intriguing, slightly-rare consistency, along with a focused brine that really did convey the notion of the fish. To that, the duet of artichoke contributed a moderating element, while the citrus emulsion imparted a bittersweet, almost floral component to the bass.

Pork Belly
6: Pork Belly | Pomme Souffle, Pork Jus, Compressed Granny Smith, Huckleberry
Pork belly was as wonderful as you'd expect it to be: tender and toothsome, with a great mix of fat and lean that duly displayed the pork-y nature of the cut. I thoroughly enjoyed it alone, but also found the sweetness imparted by the huckleberry and apple surprisingly well-suited, while the levity of the greenery was much appreciated as well. Even better were the pillows of pomme, which added a fantastic saltiness to the mix.

N.V. P-U-R Beaujolais La Bulle Gamay
Our final wine of the night was the 2011 P-U-R La Bulle Gamay, an off-dry sparkler set in a beautiful tone of scarlet. It made sense with dessert, showing off fun, fresh, festive, fruity flavors that were easy to enjoy.

Dark Chocolate Sorbet
7: Dark Chocolate Sorbet | Passionfruit Cream, Pistachio Sponge Cake, Chocolate Powder, Praline Sable
Dessert brought us a delightfully light, fluffy pistachio sponge, its restrained sweetness playing off of the intensity of the chocolate admirably, all while the praline added an interesting textural element. Note the handmade bowl here, supplied by none other than Mr. Nemcik.

Sweet Snacks
8: Sweet Snacks
Closing things out was a troika of mignardises: a salted ginger caramel, huckleberry pâte de fruit, and green tea macaron with elderberry.

Sergio Perera, Steve Monnier
Chefs Sergio Perera and Steve Monnier at the end of the first service.

There's no doubt that this was one of the more ambitious dinners that I've had in recent times. In general, flavors were very robust, very focused, very "ingredient-driven," so to speak, with the essence of the produce on proud display. At the same time though, the core of the menu was modern in aesthetic, with a certain organic, naturalistic character that lent itself well to the food. It'll be interesting to see how this all evolves. As for what's next for the duo, they plan to keep on going with these dinners, eventually adding an à la carte selection to the menu, and hope to open a permanent restaurant in the near future.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Red Medicine (Beverly Hills, CA) [2]

Red Medicine Restaurant
8400 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Sun 10/14/2012, 07:30p-10:20p

Red Medicine Exterior

Without a doubt, one of Los Angeles' most controversial restaurant openings of the past several years has been that of Jordan Kahn's neo-Vietnamese-y canteen Red Medicine, mostly due to the whole Virbila brouhaha. It's been nearly two years since that debacle. Red Med's put the incident behind them, and hopefully, so have LA diners. Or maybe not. I get the feeling that Angelenos still harbor a bit of resentment over RM's inauspicious debut. The place doesn't get much love around here, but rather, much of its praise seems to come from visiting foodies, chefs, and other luminaries. And in fact, it was indeed a visit by Opinionated About Dining's Steve Plotnicki (who's based in New York) that got me to return to give Red Medicine another go.

Red Medicine Menu Red Medicine Drink Menu
As far as Red Medicine's menu goes, it retains much of the same vibe that it had before, though there's less of an emphasis on smaller plates I'd say. We ended up ordering just a couple dishes, and let the Chef decide the rest. To drink, you'd be remiss if you skipped the cocktails (which are as creative as ever), but there's a smartly-curated selection of wines as well from GM Noah Ellis if that's your thing. Click for larger versions.

#73 - Novo Fogo Silver Cachaca, Lime, Sugar #75 - Germain Robin Craft Method Brandy, Calisaya, Sakuma Bros. Oolong Tea, Orange, Lemon #62 - Redemption Rye 2yr, Benedictine, Lemon, Agave, Ginger Beer
#73 - Novo Fogo Silver Cachaca, Lime, Sugar [$12.00] | Muddled and served in a mason jar / 'Caipirinha'. Shake hard five times. Service method stolen from Dragos Axinte.
#75 - Germain Robin Craft Method Brandy, Calisaya, Sakuma Bros. Oolong Tea, Orange, Lemon [$11.00] | Served chilled with an orange slice and grated clove / Adam's punch, using exclusively American ingredients.
#62 - Redemption Rye 2yr, Benedictine, Lemon, Agave, Ginger Beer [$10.00] | Shaken and served long with pickled peppers and fennel fronds
Three cocktails to begin: I ordered #73, which was basically RM's excellent version of the classic caipirinha, with a great, complex balance of boozy, tart, and even slightly savory flavors. #75 was also very nice, with a lovely mix of fruity, herbal, and delicious tea-like overtones, all over a great base of brandy--yum. My favorite of the trio, though, was #62, with its slightly saccharine, almost medicinal flair, amped up by the whiskey but also beautifully counteracted by the spicy, piquant smack of the ginger beer.

SWEET CORN [$18.00] | custard, frozen uni powder, rambutan, lemongrass, chervil, young ginger
We commenced with what must be the smartest, most complex bowl of corn that I'd ever eaten. The inherent sweetness of the corn was on proud display, emboldened by the custard and keenly augmented by the lushness of the sea urchin. At the same time, the chervil jus, lemongrass, and ginger contributed a contrasting herbaceousness and spice that did a great job in moderating the sugariness of the corn, making for an eminently balanced, cohesive dish. Fantastic textures, too.

HEIRLOOM BLACK CARROTS [$15.00] | guava, purple kale, dulse, young walnut, tamarind
I'm generally not a huge fan of carrots given their considerable sweetness, but what Kahn did here was pretty neat. The key was the guava, which added a distinct, fruity, saccharine undercurrent to the dish that somehow worked perfectly against the wonderfully charred Black Knights. It was a genius move, one that was duly followed up by the rich flavor of the dulse (a type of seaweed) in concert with the slightly bitter kale.

LIVE SCALLOP [$17.00] | cured with kaffir lime, jujube, whey, verbena, raw turnip
The scallops were also commendable, their intrinsic sweet brine superbly accented by pricks of sourness from the kaffir, yet flawlessly combined with the jujube. At the same time, the whey provided a tangy, lactic temper to the course, while aromatic overtones from the verbena rounded things out. Beautifully integrated, and with a nice crunch from the turnip, too.

#35 - St. George Absinthe, Pontarlier Anis, Benedictine, Sugar, Peychaud's Bitters #77 - Bols Genever, Cocchi Americano, Torley Muscat, Shiso
#35 - St. George Absinthe, Pontarlier Anis, Benedictine, Sugar, Peychaud's Bitters [$11.00] | Shaken very hard and served over crushed ice with a lemon peel / Our variation of the 'Absinthe Cocktail'.
#77 - Bols Genever, Cocchi Americano, Torley Muscat, Shiso [$13.00] | Carbonated, bottled, and served with a tall glass of ice
Round two of cocktails brought us #35, a potent drink with loads of anise flavor from the combo of St. George and Pontarlier, making for a medicinal, almost Tussin-esque experience that is definitely not for everybody--order responsibly. #77, meanwhile, was much more easy-drinking, with a delectably light, bittersweet character from the Cocchi that melded seamlessly with the sweet, juniper-tinged jenever and grassy kick of shiso.

INDIAN EGGPLANT [$16.00] | sprouted mung beans, soybean, coriander, black radish, morning glory
Eggplant was hearty and buttery, with a rich, complex taste interleaved with a nice touch of smoke. The combination of various greenery in the dish made for a bright, verdant counterpoint to the vegetable, but the incorporation of black radish into the mix was too much for me, its fiery, bracing astringency dominating the dish.

SNAP PEAS [$16.00] | raw & iced, soymilk custard, mint, coconut water, celtuce
The snap peas were another standout course, really showing off the pure, unmitigated essence of the vegetable, brightened up even further by the use of mint. The soymilk, meanwhile, served as a rich, creamy base to the dish, moderating and grounding the levity of the peas perfectly. Very well composed, and a gorgeous mishmash of disparate flavors that come together in stellar fashion.

SWEETBREADS [$28.00] | prune, leeks, mustard, chicory, smoked bone marrow, beech mushroom
Sweetbreads were unabashedly savory (almost too much so), with a considerable depth and weight duly enhanced by the smoky bone marrow and bittersweet chicory. The rich, hearty organ meat was certainly tasty alone, but the tempering effect of the mustard and leeks was key, as was, surprisingly, the saccharine nature of the prunes.

#76 - Green Chartreuse, Velvet Falernum, Pineapple, Lime #67 - Ocho Blanco Tequila, Cucumber, Lime, Vinegar, Agave
#76 - Green Chartreuse, Velvet Falernum, Pineapple, Lime [$15.00] | Served frozen with grated nutmeg and a mint sprig / Marco Dionysos' 'Chartreuse Swizzle'.
#67 - Ocho Blanco Tequila, Cucumber, Lime, Vinegar, Agave [$10.00] | Built over ice and topped with pickled cucumber, shallot, and chiles / 'Bloodless Maria'.
Our last round of cocktails started with #76, which I rather liked, with its deft interplay between the sugary falernum and the herbal, pungent nature of the Chartreuse, all finished with the fruity tartness of pineapple and a hint of sweet spice from the nutmeg. I wasn't as enamored, however, with #67. It had a good balance between the cucumber, lime, and tequila elements, but the vinegar and pickles took the drink in an overly tart direction.

LAMB [$29.00] | slow-roasted with california redwood, ripe and unripe mango, yellow roots
Moving on into some heartier dishes now, Kahn's slow-roasted lamb was excellent, supple and satisfying in consistency, with some deep, dark, spicy flavors that were smartly paired against the ripe, fruity sweetness of the mango--a perfect counterpoint to the meat. One of my dining companions even likened it to "lamb pastrami." Lovely crunch from the fried tofu chips, too.

HEIRLOOM RICE PORRIDGE + SANTA BARBARA RED UNI [$17.00 + $10.00] | egg yolk, hazelnuts, ginseng, echire butter
The porridge is one of Red Medicine's more popular items, and it's obvious why. It's a comfy, cozy dish, and easy to like. The rice, hot and hearty, formed an immensely earthy, savory, luxurious base to the dish--amped up even further by the egg yolk--and would've been enjoyable all on its own. To that, I loved the brine imparted by the sea urchin here, its sweet-saline nature duly enveloped by the porridge, but somehow still shining through. Great crunch from the use of hazelnuts as well.

WILD SANTA BARBARA SPOT PRAWNS [$110.00/MP] | cooked over hot river stones with lemongrass
Here we had our first of two large format dishes. The spot prawns were spot on (pun intended), with a gorgeous snappiness and crunch to 'em--not overdone at all--and showed off their trademark ocean-y relish admirably. The heads, meanwhile, were on point as well, with a great hint of lemongrass flavor all encased in a crunchy wrapper.

IMPERIAL WAGYU BEEF BRISKET [$80.00/MP] | braised for 36 hrs with palm sugar & fish sauce
Rounding out the savory section of dinner was this somewhat massive, impressive portion of wagyu. Not surprisingly, the brisket was a joy to eat, tender and toothsome, displaying boatloads of luscious, dark, bovine flavors, set off by a twang of sweetness and a punch of piquancy from the fish sauce. Delicious alone, the meat was even more enjoyable when consumed concurrently with the included sides of cucumber, onion, carrot, butter lettuce, and cilantro, which made for an uncompromisingly balanced, utterly integrated bite.

Red Medicine Dessert Menu
Given Chef Kahn's background in pastry arts, desserts are an absolute must here, and arguably the tops in the City. Click for a larger version.

COCONUT BAVAROIS [$9.00] | coffee, condensed milk, thai basil, peanut croquant
The sweet stuff started off with what has become Red Medicine's signature dessert, and for good reason. The interplay between the coconut and the coffee was something to behold, a balance of sweet and bitter flavors that led to a delightful touch of nuttiness on the finish, all under a whisper of Thai basil. Texturally, the dish was just as impressive, with the lush Bavarian cream playing off of the croquant and coffee with smashing results.

BIRCH ICE [$12.00] | almond praline, red currant, orange blossom, jasmine
I'm going to go out on a limb here and declare this the best dessert of the year, and probably among the top five I've had, ever. Yes, it was that good, and even managed to impress the likes of Saison's Joshua Skenes and Townhouse's John Shields, two of the heaviest hitting chefs out there. On my first bite, all I got was the jasmine cream and orange blossom bubbles, making for an almost soapy tasting experience that I found off-putting. However, the dessert just got better and better with each bite. The floral, aromatic nature of the jasmine-orange actually worked flawlessly against that intriguing birch ice cream, which was sheer genius, and I can't forget about the base of currant, which served as a sort of omnipresent, sugary undertone to the dish. Loved the textural element of the almond praline, too, as well as the Alinea-esque plating. This is, quite simply, Jordan Kahn at his finest, and I don't think there are too many other chefs out there who could pull off something like this.

GREEN STRAWBERRY [$11.00] | frozen cream, sorrel, elderflower, wild chervil
Up next was perhaps Kahn's homage to the classic pairing of strawberries and cream. Instead of regular strawberries however, the Chef went with the unripe varietal, which conveyed a marked sourness to them that played well off of the sweetness of the frozen cream and elderflower syrup. A dessert of bright, bracing flavors, tarted up by the sorrel and chervil--very nice.

MILK CHOCOLATE CREAM [$12.00] | in the japanese method, crispy devil's food, cucumber, buckwheat, lovage
Last up was a rather striking looking dessert, one featuring a chocolate "cage" hiding a Japanese milk chocolate ganache, among other ingredients. The chocolate melded admirably with the nutty character of the almond and buckwheat combo, while the use of cucumber, nasturtium, and lovage imparted a fantastic brightness to the course that I adored. Another strong plate from Kahn, and probably the best use of cucumber in a dessert that I'd ever experienced.

After a very rough start, things seem to be going well here, at least as far as the food is concerned. The cuisine seems to have matured somewhat, resulting in even more nuanced, multifaceted dishes that seem to be less reliant on overt Vietnamese influences. In fact, some of the plates were among the best things I've eaten all year, and I was fed flavors and combinations that I'd never quite experienced before, quite a feat given my jaded palate. After my first visit, I'd been always of the thought that Kahn's cooking was among the most ambitious in the Southland, and that rings even more true today. I get that there's a sense of arrogance and pomp to the restaurant, but I would try to look past prejudices and Red Medicine's considerable baggage and open yourself up to some of the most progressive cooking that's ever hit LA.