Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Dialogue - 09/27/2017

1315 3rd Street Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Dialogue, the tasting menu-only restaurant from Chef David Beran is easily one of this year's most exciting restaurant openings. Chef Beran cut his teeth at both Tru and Alinea. In 2011 he was tapped as the executive chef of Grant Achatz's new restaurant Next. He lead the ambitious new restaurant through 15 different menus, earning a slew of James Beard nominations and a couple awards. In April 2016, Chef Beran served his final meal at Next before striking out on his own.

Following the trend pioneered by Achatz and Kokonas at Next, Dialogue requires guests to purchase tickets in advance of the meal. With only 18-seats spread across a handful of tables and a bar overlooking the kitchen, it makes sense that the restaurant lacks the ability take on the burden of no shows.

Beran adopts the Kaiseki philosophy of tasting the seasons and his menu starts with a springtime levity , before transitioning to a hearty summer warmth, and finishing with the flavors of fall.

"Springtime for Sean"
Caviar is a great start to any meal whether served with traditional accoutrements or as a composed dish as we have here. The Osctra Caviar is paired with fresh basil, charred scallions, and peanuts two ways. The basil jumps out immediately laced with a twang of lime. The smoky-bittersweet scallions follow while the peanuts bring a lovely textural component soft boiled nuts and a dense creamy butter. The caviar overlays a nutty salinity over the entire dish.

roasted banana tea, browned butter, peanut
Chef Beran has a penchant for aging his own vinegar which made several appearances throughout the meal. First up was a shot of roasted banana vinegar (I didn't even know that was a thing) topped with a brown butter and peanut foam. The vinegar has a light tang tempered by the aroma of the ripened cooked fruit. The vinegar really shines when the foam comes into play bringing with it a savory-sweet toffee essence turning the tipple into a liquid Bananas Foster.

blackberry thermidor, short rib, bone marrow
The third course was markedly heavier than the first two with a creamy base of blackberry thickened with bone marrow. A bit of short rib centers the dish with a meaty holiday-roast like heft. A bit of cooked fruit add a pop of tart sweetness and the croutons provide an element of structure.

fennel, white peach and rose vinegar
The next two courses were intentionally designed to be completed by the wine pairing, a white blend that brings a bright juicy acidity. While I appreciated the soft notes of jammy peach and flowers, the fennel definitely stands out with a pungent licorice flavor. The acid from the wine does help matters but the bit still felt unbalanced.

dragon fruit, scented with roses from early spring
With my palate still reeling from the fennel, the dragon fruit had almost no flavor. Chewing on the soft mild block of fruit I kept waiting for something to happen, but alas, whatever was supposed to happen was lost on me.

king crab, popcorn, orchid, earl grey
For Chef Beran, roses always marked the end of spring and popcorn was evocative of summer evenings. The crab meat is covered in a subtly fragrant floral perfume. The crumbled popcorn comes through loud and clear; a beautiful compliment to the sweet crab meat.

"burnt lettuce that thinks it's a peanut"
Som Tum or green papaya salad has always been one of my favorite Thai dishes. This elegantly minimalist Som Tum has the traditional elements of papaya, chili, lime and sugar with one key difference; the peanut has been replaced with charred lettuce. Despite this change, the flavor profile is eerily faithful to the classic recipe.

96 hour koji plum, fresh yuba, thai basil
Two words: "Sugar Smacks." That's how Chef Beran described our next dish. Using their kitchen wizardry, Beran and his team have converted plum, soy, and basil into cereal. Toasted soy beans provide the starch while the fermented plum completes the illusion with an eerie caramel savory sweetness

squab, thai long peppercorn crème fraiche, begonia
The squab was served two ways, a sublimely supple breast and lusty hash. The breast is perfectly cooked with a bit of extra flavor from the skin and a creeping hint of parsley. The hash has much more meaty richness up front but finishes with a lactic creamy tang and faint whisper of heat.

bitter chocolate, cherry, preserved sakura
The chocolate has a dark bitterness and bright red fruit center that paired nicely with the lingering flavors of squab. This dish is something of a psychological experiment, with 76% dark chocolate the filling flavored solely with cherry juice, there isn't much sugar in this course, but we're so conditioned to think of chocolate as a dessert or candy that most diners are taken aback when its served in the middle of the meal.

"the sobering of rhubarb"
Along with the chocolate came a couple pieces of dehydrated rhubarb. The texture was more akin to fruit leather, the dense chewy "chip" has a tendency to get stuck in the teeth, which as it turned out was by design, with the remnants of this course needed to flavor the next.

choy sum, strawberry nahm prick, cashew
Choy Sum, a mainstay of many Cantonese restaurants, was a regular part of my diet growing up, but I don't think I've ever had it served raw. The vegetable is laced with a strawberry chili sauce that was simultaneously sweet, funky, and spicy; a bold accompaniment to the fresh succulence of the green.

pork belly, nasturtium, strawberry sambal
Chef Beran generously described this course as a "salad" but it was the stuff beneath the leafy nasturtium that stole the show. The tender slab of decadent pork belly gets a tangy lift from the jammy strawberry as well as the funky heft of the sambal.

black cod, yuzu kosho beurre blanc, sea grape
This was another of the psychological experiments. Diners either feel the dish is Japanese or French depending on the flavors the staff chooses to highlight. Indeed, with my focus diverted to the heady beurre blanc, the distinctive flavor of the yuzu kocho registered only as a vague sourness.

"everything is burnt"
With this course the Dialogue crew deftly recreate the feeling of a backyard barbecue, the quintessential capstone to summer and an appropriate way to welcome the onset of fall. The plate of monochromatic ingredients doesn't look particularly appetizing but the mix of smoke, onion, and soy was so eerily familiar to the family cookouts I had as a child that I couldn't help but feel an instant affinity for this course.

french onion soup, rosemary aroma
Ironically the savory portion of the meal wound down with re-imagined versions of classic soup and salad recipes. Inside the cheese covered puff was a concoction of rich sweet onions.

"memories of a tomato salad"
The shot of salad was centered around a tomato gelee. The bright summery morsel has a beautiful tomato fragrance contrasted by a peppery nuttiness.

whipped persimmon, lemon shortbread, hibiscus sugar
Our first dessert was a tangy lemon shortbread topped with a sweet persimmon frosting. The sweet and sour flavors complimented each other quite well.

ages of seedling farms apples, miso caramel
Moving firmly into fall, this was one of my favorite courses of the evening. The core of the dish is the familiar interplay of a caramel apple with a consistent even savor from the miso. The dish is augmented with a rapid-fire melange of textures

"an autumn morning"
The red and white color of this dish along with the prominently placed leaf, gave our last dessert an unintentional Canadian feel. The flavors were indeed autumnal with a pumpkin spiced ice cream and toasty pepitas. The leaf had an oddly tangy flavor to it that helped cut the heft of the pumpkin.

"a carrot pulled from the snow"
The petit four consisted of a cooked carrot tossed in a sugar frost. My girlfriend B aptly dubbed this a paleo churro.

Given Beran's resume, I had super high expectations for Dialogue and I'm happy to say that the meal easily met them. Despite his stellar resume, Beran comes across as very approachable; confident yet self-effacing. Beran and his crew engage with diners as much as they want to be engaged. A couple engrossed in conversation will receive a different level of explanation with each course than say a couple of food bloggers and their friends who are intently following the action in the kitchen and hanging off chef's every word.

At one point, Beran explained his goal was for guests to focus on each other with the meal as one element of their experience, a catalyst to generate dialogue. To that end the meal leverages elements of narrative, psychology, and of course the avant-garde techniques Beran honed over the past decade in some of America's finest kitchens.
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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Restaurant at Meadowood - 07/01/2017

900 Meadowood Ln
St Helena, CA 94574
(707) 967-1205

Perhaps its the location or the growing number of world-class restaurants in the city, but I've always felt that the Restaurant at Meadowood has been the forgotten son of the Bay Area fine dining scene. Certainly Meadowood has long dwelled in the shadow of its more famous neighbor to the south, The French Laundry. It speaks volumes that Michelin didn't even rate Meadowood when the guide first came to the Bay Area. It wasn't until the next year that Meadowood got on the board with a 2 star rating that was upgraded to 3 in 2011. I visited the restaurant back in 2010 and its been on my list for an encore ever since it netted star number 3. Though full disclosure, I tried to get a table at Atelier Crenn, Benu, Manresa, and Saison before looking towards Meadowood.

field peas
The tasting menu at Meadowood kicks off with a number of small bites. First up was a delicate melange of peas full of crunch and fresh grassy verve.

squash blossom
The second snack consisted of a fried squash blossom shaped into a crunchy taco shell. The shell is filled primarily with pickled pepper on a bed a squash puree. The combination deftly mimics the savory flavor of a traditional taco topped with bright fresh pico de gallo

oyster kohlrabi
The final snack consisted of a beautifully shaped Miyagi oyster from Marin County topped with mignonette and kohlrabi. The bivalve opens with a fairly assertive salinity followed by a pickled twang and hint of herbaceousness that brings out a melon-y character in the oyster.

daylily soup, caviar, radish
Moving into the larger courses we started with a vivid yellow daylily broth topped with a melange of radishes and herbs. The broth unsurprisingly has little flavor, instead it is the astringency of the radish that dominates. The quinelle of California Sturgeon caviar has a focused salnity on its own, but the rest of the dish rounds out the rough edges and leaves behind a gentle butteriness.

sunflower pasta, spot prawn
The meal took a markedly heavier turn with this immensely satisfying handmade pasta. The pasta itself is perfectly al dente and stuffed with a satisfyingly toothsome spot prawn filling. The prawns also feature prominently in the sauce giving the dish an ethereal salinity and smoky buttery heft tempered by the bitter succulents.

foievocado, chrysanthemum, dill
The next course was an ultra-luxe take on avocado toast. The creamy perfectly-ripened fruit is filled equally creamy foie gras threaded with charred herbs. The herbs are crucial here bringing a smokiness contrast to the richer elements of the dish. The accompanying toast is given equal care and exudes a heady fragrance of fresh bread and butter. If regular avocado toast were really this good I'd definitely be homeless.

halibut, unripe plum
This was probably the most memorable course of the night. The halibut is cured, dramatically reducing the water content and radically altering the appearance. The halibut takes on a visually striking appearance more akin to a block of pink Himalayan rock salt than a piece of white fish. Biting into the fish is an equally enchanting experience, sumptuously dense texture and an gentle even salinity with subtle undertones of umami. The unripened plum adds a slight preserved funk and sweet-sour twang though personally I liked the fish better without it.

abalone iridescence
The braised abalone is suffused with loads of briny umami and a delightfully tender texture. The slice of abalone is topped with a translucent leaf of wilted bitter greens for contrast and a sauce that brings with a little porcine richness with it.

squab tea
Along with a presentation of our squab, we were given a whimsical "squab tea" as a little intermezzo before the meat courses. The simple clear broth was reminiscent of a potent chicken consomme. The broth helped wash the flavors of the previous dishes and prime the palate for the courses ahead.

squab baked in calistoga clay
The baked squab is finished with a quick sear then spliced and served up with a black cherry glaze and pickled mustard. On its own the thin slices of breast are wonderfully tender slivers of smoke and char. The sauce and dressing bring a tight sour brightness and verdant brightness to the powerfully rich bird.

beef smoked in dry onion tops
The cut of beef came from a Wagyu breed raised in Colorado. The meat was smoked with onion and garlic and dressed with a sauce of beef fat, black garlic and finished with a pearly dollop of onion soubise. Imbuing the beef with common flavors found in the accompaniments deftly highlights the beef's natural flavor and richness without over complicating matters.

cereal of pinecones, toasted grains, raspberries
Our first dessert was a whimsical play on breakfast using baby pinecones to mimic a bowl of cereal with "milk" and berries. The overall effect was eerily reminiscent of a bowl of Lucky Charms with bright fresh fruit flavors and a simple comforting appeal. One of the evening's standouts and easily the best dessert I've eaten all year.

eggplants foster
The second dessert was a play on the classic bananas foster with an eggplant marinated in sugar then confited in butter giving the vegetable a texture very reminiscent of cooked bananas and heady salted caramel-esque flavor edged with a vegetal bitterness.

preserved fruits
A quintet of fruit-based candies ended the evening.

I visited the restaurant back in 2010, but found the experience wanting. The food was polished but felt somehow unsatisfying. This meal has the same level of elegance that I remember but with a bit more soul and creativity; delicately balancing the emphasis on lighter Californian flavors with flashes of lusty deeper flavor.
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Monday, June 26, 2017

The Rogue Experience - 06/21/2017

8687 Melrose Ave
West Hollywood, CA 90069

A couple months back Wolfgang Puck opened what is likely his smallest restaurant. Tucked away in a hard to find corner of the Pacific Design Center, The Rogue Experience serves as a test kitchen with executive chefs from across Puck's global empire coming for week long stints. The space provides an opportunity for the chefs to break out of their comfort zones, experiment with flavors and dishes that might not fit their day jobs, and exchange ideas with their peers.

When guests first enter the test kitchen, they are greeted by host David Evers who invites the diners relax in the comfortably appointed living area while he whips up a market-driven cocktail.

Ham and Melon - Mezcal, Melon Ice, Iberico Salt
Our welcome cocktail was inspired by the classic combination of ham and melon. Using mezcal as the base liquor gives the drink a hefty smoke that works well with the fatty funk of the salt. The ice cube is made from the 3 types of melon juice that has been concentrated through the use of a rotary evaporator. The drink rewards the patient as the dry woody elements of the mezcal are slowly countered by the addition of ultra-saccarine melon juice.

This was the first of two snacks the kitchen presented as we sipped our cocktails. The tart crust was surprisingly dense but with a pointed butteriness that played well with the one-two punch of earthiness from the abalone and mushrooms.

Our second morsel was a classic gougere twisted with a dusting of saline nori and finishing with lingering onion-y flavor from the ramps.

Like most restaurants, Rogue offers a wine pairing with their tasting menu but here it comes with one unique feature: it's bottomless! Given the meal is limited to a maximum of 8 guests, it makes sense to open a limited number of bottles and allow the diners to drink their fill. While this means lightweights can't split a wine pairing, it does allow diners to enjoy their wine without making sure to ration it throughout multiple courses.

With the snacks and drinks done with, we were given a brief tour of the kitchen before being brought to a narrow kitchen counter where the chefs whipped up delectable creations right before our eyes.

The meal kicked off with a bowl of paper thin slices of raw amberjack. The super thin slices have a markedly softer texture while the peppers and peanuts give the dish a spicy Thai-like verve.

Goma Dofu is made from sesame paste instead of soy. The resulting texture is slightly firmer than traditional silken tofu with a slight creaminess to boot. The use of sesame adds a slight flavor though the tofu still absorbs plenty of flavor from its companions, in this case a light savory dashi punctuated with a countervailing acidity from the citrus.

This was arguably my favorite course of the night and leveraged every part of the prawn. The body was served perfectly cooked in a European-style redolent of butter and pepper. The grilled rice ball had a nice bit of crunchy char and a heady saline funk from prawn innards. The course finishes with a dashi flavored with cherry blossom soy sauce and tinged red with powdered prawn shells.

The baby avocados came fresh from the local farmer's market. The perfectly fresh creamy avocado has a mild verdant flavor brightened by the pickled twang of the chanterelle and the toasty aroma of the puffed sorghum.

This was another of the night's standouts featuring a base of silky smooth creamed corn and a dense nugget of sea urchin roe. A light shaving of 2-year old cheddar from Fiscalini adds a bit of nutty pungency to balance the heft of the corn.

The beltfish was one of the most visually appealing courses of the night. The golden brown top looked reminiscent of perfectly toasted bread. The mild white flesh is fork-tender and a delightful canvas for the playful BLT particularly the interplay between the tomato and bacon.

The heavier fish course uses fresh spring ingredients to create Autumnal vibe. The base was a fatty slab of spruce-smoked Sablefish. The aggressive smoke is tempered by marinated grapes designed to taste like cranberries. A course of extremes, this was a fun concept, but needed some refinement.

Next up was a duo of livers. The classic foie terrine had a textbook texture and classic sweet fruit to compliment the buttery liver. Likewise, the Ankimo was dressed with textbook flavors of sweet miso that pair well with the aggressive caviar-like salinity of the monkfish liver.

The final savory of the evening was a perfectly done A5 New York strip. The seductive pink flesh is threaded with plenty of heady fat and sandwiched between two layers of perfect char. A medley of humble potato salad seasoned with dill and onion serves as a simple straightforward side lets the succulent beauty of the steak shine.

I've never run across an olive oil dessert that I didn't love and this was no different. The exotic fragrance of the olive oil is enriched with a multifaceted bouquet of fruit from the jammy apricot to the slightly astringent mulberries.

The final course was a veritable showcase of modernist techniques from the flexible ganache to the aerated brioche. Taste-wise the chocolate and cherries dominate though the dollops of jellied bourbon finish the dish with a nice boozy heat.

First up was a white chocolate bonbon with lemon that tasted uncannily like a lemon starburst. The cone consisted of classic ricotta mascarpone in a dense praline shell dusted with cinnamon. The final sweet was a dark chocolate filled with ancho that has an exotically spicy bitterness.

After dinner we retired back to the demo kitchen for glasses of 1992 DRC Marc de Bourgogne brandy and China China and conversation with the Rogue crew and other guests before calling it a night.

Every aspect of the Rogue Experience exudes the passion that drove the concept. With a 1-to-1 ratio between diners and guests, it seems unlikely that the restaurant will ever turn a profit, but the space wasn't designed with such base objectives in mind. Indeed the Rogue Experience is a safe space for Wolfgang and his team to push the boundaries and the resulting menu is a celebration of that creative process.

The Rogue Experience is only open three nights a week with 8 seats per night so as word gets out I have no doubt it will soon become one of the city's toughest tables.
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