Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Providence - 11/12/2012

5955 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 460-4170

Providence was among my earliest fine dining experiences but since then most of my visits have been for special events like the 5x5, Bocuse d'Or, or Four for Fish dinners. The last time I'd had a proper meal from Cimarusti was over three years ago so with white truffles and Japanese Wagyu now seemed like as good a time as any for a return visit.

A fun modernist play on the welcoming cocktail, this has all the floral tang and stiff booziness of the classic Greyhound.

scallop tacos
This was the most elaborate of the opening canapes. Stuffed within the crisp vegetal leaves was a filling of toasty puffed rice and finely chopped scallops seasoned with a gentle citrus marinade.

parmesan gougere and tahitian pumpkin soup
The classic ritzy savor of the cheese puff was amplified by the layer of melted cheese on top. The pumpkin soup didn't really work for me but my companion loved the holiday-spice tinged sweetness of the thick silky potage.

smoked trout puree and salmon skin chips
The skin has a brazen salty potency to it while the smoked trout adds an intense fishiness; a complete turnaround from the profound sweetness of the pumpkin soup.

The grilled abalone wins points for its purity of flavor. The surprisingly tender muscle is imbued with a wonderful char and light spicy tingle as well as a lingering briny finish.

sword squid - chorizo
Like the abalone, the squid has a smoky char and dense yet tender texture. The slab of sausage provides a piquant savor to accompany the delicate salinity of the squid.

japanese kampachi (uwajima) - smoked gold rush apple juice, daikon radish, piquillo pepper
moschofilero, tselepos 2011
The meal proper began with thick luxuriously oily slabs of kampachi sashimi. The fish is deftly tempered by the combination of tangy apple juice and the astringent crunch of daikon. An ephemeral touch of spice hovers at the edge of the palate providing a subtle touch of heat but defying attempts to bring the pepper into focus.

the ugly bunch - abalone, geoduck, sea urchin, smoked crème fraîche panna cotta
This is a variation on one of my favorite courses from 2011 with crème fraîche in place of the soymilk panna cotta. The swimmingly fresh troika of shellfish deserves to be the star but in stead of a complex bouquet of brine, the palate is saddled with the weighty tang of the fatty cream instead.

hokkaido sea scallops (japan) - turnips braised in milk with turnip infusion and walnuts
riesling charta, hans lang 2010
Good sea scallops need almost no adornment and these were among the most flavorful that I'd ever tasted. The turnips provide an almost diametrically opposed flavor and texture, bitter where the scallop is sweet and succulent where the scallop is dense, the contrast gives the dish a captivating sense of finesse.

wild pacific halibut - two peas farms fresh cranberry beans, sage, oven roasted celebrity tomatoes
rosé of piot noir, solstice 2011
This was simply one of the best cooked pieces of halibut that I've tasted in some time. The fish breaks apart easily with a juicy sheen coating while the sage gives the halibut an understated zest. Meanwhile the beans provide a welcome starchiness while the tomatoes add a racy acidity. The result is a complete meal on a plate that conveys a simple yet satisfying heartiness.

italian white truffles - risotto
My favorite thing about winter: truffle season. Providence offers a number simple truffle/starch combinations and we opted to add a risotto to our menu. The rice is on the rare side of al dente with occasional bits of grit but still serves as a beautiful platform for the elegant perfume of shaved white truffle. A tasty risotto to be sure though perhaps not quite worth the $110 tariff.

dutch valley farms tenderloin of veal (holland illinois) - chanterelles, la quercia bacon, haricot vert, hazelnuts
monthelie, château de puligny-montrachet
This was a quintessential representation of veal. The meat is meltingly tender with a lean with a clean savor. The chanterelles add an earthy musk that expands upon the meat's clean savor while the beans and nuts add a sense of crunchy levity. The bacon was the real kicker here, with an intense smoky flavor and fatty snap the bacon is striking where the veal is reserved.

kamikubo farm wagyu beef A5, marbling score 10-12 (kagoshima, japan) - chanterelles, la quercia bacon, haricot vert, hazelnuts
After a three year absence, true Japanese Wagyu beef is again available in the States and I wasn't about to pass on my first opportunity to try it. The Wagyu couldn't have been more different from the veal; though just as tender the meat has thick veins of marbling and a resounding oiliness. The meat was sublime on its own but the bacon provided a discordant fattiness that clashed with flavor of the beef.

mast brothers 73% conacado mousse - cocoa streusel, figs, spiced ice cream
barolo chinato, damilano m.v.
With so much potent dark chocolate I was surprised that both the ice cream and figs stood out so prominently. The former gave the chocolate a lovely winter spice while the latter is apparent in a jammy ripeness on the finish.

Petit Fours
With Adrian Vasquez's departure Providence no longer offers their chocolate lollipops but the macarons, caramels, and pate de fruit were all quite enjoyable. My favorite was the caramel, which offered an enigmatic mix of miso and black pepper to temper the overt sweetness of the candies.

My previous trips to Providence were enjoyable but left me wanting. Though I has some complaints about the a la carte supplements, the tasting menu demonstrated creativity, finesse and flawless execution. This was the meal I always knew Providence was capable of delivering which left me wishing I'd gone with the Chef's Tasting instead.

Read more.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lunasia - 11/11/2012

500 West Main St
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 308-3222

After hearing so much about Lunasia I finally decided to brave the long lines to see what all the hubbub was about. Despite arriving just before 11:00, there was already a crowd in the waiting area and we had to wait over an hour for a table to open up.

Spareribs Black Bean Sauce
The meat was fairly tender but there was a fair amount of fat which meant that despite despite being a bit light on the black beans the ribs bore a pretty good flavor nonetheless.

BBQ Pork Buns
Lunasia really excelled with their baked pork buns. The freshly baked bread was thin and delicate with a golden glaze and the cavity inside is completely stuffed with sweet BBQ pork.

Pork Dumpling
Like the preceeding buns these dumplings came stuffed full of seasoned pork. The skin was a touch too sweet but the fried glutinous rice had both a crisp exterior and dense toothsome interior.

Macao Egg Custard
High end dim-sum restaurants tend to eschew push carts in favor of ordering from a menu which wouldn't bother me but for their consistent inability to save the sweets for the end of the meal. The Macao egg custard wasn't the richest that I'd had but it was freshly baked with delightfully flaky crust.

Twin Sesame Balls
Another dessert staple, these dense sticky balls are filled with a sandy sweet lotus paste.

BBQ Pork Rice Noodle
For me this dish is all about balance. Many preparations, Lunasia's included, feature too much glutinous rice noodle which makes the dish taste bland despite the porcine filling and pool of soy sauce.

Steamed Chicken Feet
Despite having one of the more labor intensive and intricate preparations, the chicken feet tends to be one of the more consistent varieties of dim sum across various restaurants. The skin on the feet is fried, steamed, and stewed to a fleshy tenderness then drenched in a dark savory sweet sauce.

Beef Chow Fun Dry Style
Though Lunasia is known for its dim sum, we wanted to try some of their regular dishes as well. Though the beef was a touch gristly, the noodles were nicely cooked their chewy supple texture was augmented with a weighty wok-fired char.

Jumbo Shrimp Har Gow
Har Gow is often used as the yardstick to measure a chef's skill. Ideally the skin is thin and translucent but strong enough to hold the filling without breaking or sticking. Unfortunately Lunasia's fell short on this account though the texture of the shrimp was spot on.

Supreme Beef Balls
Vaguely disturbing name aside these were actually pretty tasty. The meat has a spongy texture and is studded with bits of onion and cilantro giving the meat a herby twang.

Though there were some nitpicks, I came away very impressed with Lunasia's dim sum service which certainly deserves its place among the SGV's elite.

Read more.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Valentino - 11/14/2012

3115 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 829-4313

In 1972 Piero Selvaggio took partnered with a friend to bring gourmet Italian food to Los Angeles. Over the following 40 years Selvaggio turned a miniscule initial investment of $4,500 into a multi-million dollar restaurant empire that helped define modern Italian cuisine in America.

When I first heard that Valentino would be offering a 40-course menu to celebrate their 40th anniversary, my first reaction was sheer disbelief especially when I learned the menu would feature Sicilian/Sardinian cuisine of Selvaggio's youth rather than the Northern fare the restaurant normally serves. A one-night only tasting menu is hard enough to pull off and one this extensive with unfamiliar dishes would be a logistical nightmare for any staff. If that wasn't enough, they were also offering an optional wine pairing featuring 2-ounce pours of 40+ Italian wines (roughly 3 bottles worth) that had me fearing for my life. Still, despite all my reservations, I couldn't pass up a meal this extravagant.

INVOLTINI DI MELANZANE - eggplant rolls with smoked provola and onions
The meal got off to a great start with delicate curls of tender eggplant filled with onions and cheese. The sweet savor of the caramelized onions provided a lovely contrast to the twang of the eggplant though the combination was a bit one-note texturally.

CRUDO DI PESCE - with trapani salt, olive and condiments
The meal had a number of service gaffes beginning with the presentation of the crudo. The tuna was completely unadorned which suggests it may not have been finished. The other spoon held a raw spot prawn which while tasty didn't fit the description above either.

PANALLE - chickpea fritters
FOCACCE - assortite
The panalle was definitely the more interesting of the duo, the dry crumbly texture and creeping savor was a bit odd at first but grew on me. The focacce had a more classically Italian flavor with fresh tomato and a pungent cheesiness.

SPIEDINO DI POLPO - octopus skewer
I was expecting something like a yakitori skewer and while the tender texture was quite enjoyable, the flavor was a touch bland.

STUFFED CALAMARI - with couscous, bronte pistachio and castelvetrano olives
The stuffed calamari was a huge step up from the octopus. The ring of squid gives the bite a dense textural base while the core provides a dark earthiness punctuated with the crunchy savor of the fried squid.

CROSTINO - with ricotta and sea urchin
I was a bit unsure about the combination of cheese and sea urchin, but the uni permeated the mild cheese which in turn tempered the rich brine of the roe.

SEPPIE - grilled cuttlefish with squid ink, orange zest and fennel pollen
MACCU - fava bean soup
The Seppie was the strongest of the three cephalopod dishes with its dense supple texture and beautifully nuanced brine. Though I'm not a huge fan of favas I quite enjoyed the intense smoky tang of this particular preparation.

CERVELLINI FRITTI - calf brain fritters with roasted mushrooms
The fritter was firmer than the previous preparations of brain that I'd tried, texturally reminiscent of sauteed sweetbreads. The deep earthines of the mushrooms intertwines beautifully tempering the metallic tang of the brain while heightening the offal's richness.

ZUPPA DI FREGULA E ARSELLE - couscous with saffron broth and baby clams
This soup was probably my favorite course of the evening. Lurking within the broth is imbued with an intense brine from the clams mixed with a light bitter herbaceousness from the saffron. Beneath the placid surface of the broth is a mound of couscous which gave the dish a toothsome weighty texture.

MAURO VINCENTE BUSIATE ALLA TRAPNESE - corkscrew pasta with almond pesto
BOMBA DI RISO AL RICCI DI MARE - rice pie with sea urchin and orange blossom
PENNETE ALLA NORMA - with eggplant, cherry tomatoes and ricotta salata
The trio of Sicilian pastas was a bit light for my tastes. Aside from a dollop of uni there was no meat on the plate. The busiate and penette both had a keen astringency though the almond in the former acted as a moderating effect. Like with the crostini, the urchin saturates the creamy rice; beautiful in conjunction with the delicate orange blossom.

ANZONE - braesaola-like cured lamb
SARTIZZA PICCANTE - cured spicy pork sausage
GUANCIALE - cured pork cheek
These three charcuterie courses constituted the main body of the Sardinian Antipasto. The Anzone had a robust rustic lambiness and smooth soft texture. The Sartizza was my favorite with a fierce spiciness to go along with its salty porcine sapor. The guanciale was almost like a gauzy veil of salted fat that oozed oil with each bite.

BOTTARGA - silver mullet roe with baby artichoke salad
Bottarga is definitely an acquired taste though the sweet fishiness is growing on me. The pungency was a nice addition to the mellowness of the artichokes.

FRITTATINA DI CICORIE - cast-iron baked flat omelet with bitter greens and potatoes
MIGGINE AFFUMICATO - smoked silver mullet with sheep ricotta and organic honey
I was expecting a bit more structure to the omelet, but the gritty texture reminded me of dry mashed potatoes than eggs. The greens and potatoes provided depth a pleasing if humble depth of flavor. The mullet was supposed to come with more ricotta but a mix-up in the kitchen left us with four thin slivers of the smoky ham-like fish sans adornment.

TIMBALLO DI RAGUSANO - grilled vegetables and Ragusano cheese tortino
I didn't think much of this course but it turned out to be much better than I expected. The grilled vegetables had a fairly weighty savor augmented by the sharp tang of the cheese.

RICCI DI MARE - sea urchin on a spoon
A comedy of errors surrounded this course with the kitchen bringing the crostino numerous times before finally bringing us the correct dish, which basically amounted to raw sea urchin roe in a spoon.

PUNZU AL SUGO DI GRANCHIO - thumb sized pasta with Dungeness crab meat
BUSA AL POMODORO E FIORE SARDO - homemade bucatini with tomato sauce and pecorino
MALLOREDDOS CON "PURPUZZA" - with homemade sausage and saffron
For the most part the Sicilian and Sardinian courses had been evenly matched but the Sardinian pastas were far superior. The busa was the least impressive though the dense noodles and bright acidity of the tomatoes made for an enjoyable contrast. The punzu had the verdant zest of the Sicilian Busiate but with an additional nuance from the crab. The Malloreddos was easily the best of the pastas thanks to the blend of rich porcine sapor and exotic saffron.

L'AGNELLO - lamb belly with Modica's spicy chocolate sauce and autumn caponata
INVOLTINI DI VITELLO - veal rolls with bread crumbs, raisins, peanuts, and cheese
The lamb belly was pretty much what you'd expect combining the fatty richness of belly with the gamy tang of lamb. The flavor on the veal roll was a bit more took a second to come develop but once it did the smoky meatiness came to the fore over the saccharine flavor of the raisins

AGNELLO AL FINOCCHIETTO - braised lamb with mirto-berry essence
MAIALINO AL FORNO - oven roasted suckling pig sprinkled with sea salt
So far the Sardinian dishes have been heavier than their Sicilian counterparts but their roles were reversed for the entrees. The suckling pig was lightly seasoned letting the natural flavor of the meat shine through, though I would have preferred a moister texture and perhaps more skin and fat. The braised lamb was much more robust, but tame when compared to the belly.

CONFETTURE - orange and mandarin jams by Caffe Sicilia, Noto
MIELI - organic eucalyptus and strawberry tree honey by Liccu Manias
The cheese selection didn't really do much for me. Personall I prefer richer softer varieties but these ran towards the firmer textures and milder flavors.

TORRONE ALLE MANDORLE - nougat with Noto's almond by Corrado Assenza
FRUTTA MARTORANA - marzipan sweet fruits
GELLO DI MELONE - melon jelly
CANNOLICCHI - mini cannoli filled with ricotta cream
SORBETTO AL FICHI D'INDIA - prickly pear sorbet
AMARETTI DI ORISTANO - little bitter macaroons-like cookies
PABASSINOS - raisins and almonds biscuits
TURTA DE ICOS - fresh figs pie
The meal ended with a bonanza of sweets. Unlike the rest of the meal which was evenly balanced, there were two more Sicilian offerings for the desserts. The standouts for me were the cannolicchi with its simple buttery crust and lightly sweet filling and the amaretti de oristano with its light almond flavor and dense chewy texture.

40 courses and 40 wines was a bit ambitious to say the least. The meal got off to a rocky start with the kitchen forgetting to serve us 9 courses. Only after we got to the pastas did we realize we hadn't had nearly half the stuzzichini and antipasti. Similarly the staff lost track of which wine we were on a couple of times, though I believe those mistakes always ended in our favor. Despite the service gaffes, Valentino shone where it counted: the food; clearly there is yet life left in these old bones.

Read more.