Sunday, October 26, 2008

XIV - 10/16/2008

8117 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 656-1414

"I'll have one of everything on the menu." I've always wanted to say that and I finally got to at XIV. The idea at XIV is quite interesting, custom-table designed tasting menu, where all selections are prepared for the entire table. Of course there are 8, 11, and 14-course meals picked by the chef which vary depending where the party is seated. In a flash of genius, one of my dining companions suggested we order two of everything on the menu to be shared by the four diners in our party. The staff seemed a bit uncertain at first but warmed quickly to the idea. At the end of the meal we learned there is actually an official name for ordering everything off the menu, they call it The Gamut.

XIV (fourteen, though I have developed the habit of saying each letter) is Michael Mina's newest restaurant and his first in LA in over 20 years. For a number of reasons, I was apprehensive about this choice. First, my experiences at two other Mina restaurants, Stonehill Tavern and Michael Mina in Las Vegas, were both lackluster. Secondly, I have been to both the original Katsu-ya and the Starck designed one and the original is leagues better. Lastly we went on opening night and that hasn't worked out well for us in the past.

The restaurant shows its Starck designed origins both inside and out. The exterior is a rectangular building covered with white tile with two vertical handles marking the door. Out front, creatively trimmed bushes spell out XIV. The interior is quite a change from the contemporary minimalist exterior. Modeled after a European castle, the dining room looks like a sumptuously appointed living room. Plenty of wood paneling, books, and couches draped with plush covers. Interestingly the bar clashes with the rest of the decor all stainless steel and bright lights. To go with the beautiful decor, the restaurant has hired some of the most attractive waitstaff of any restaurant I have ever been to.

The cocktails were quite innovative and I decided to go with the Scottish Mule (Hendrick's Cucumber, Fresh Lime, Ginger Beer) which was very refreshing, crisp cucumber and a hint of citrus, I only wish the ginger were more apparent. One of my friends was going to go with a mojito but decided to get a Chupacabra (Don Julio Blanco, Jalapeño, Fresh Lime, Ginger Beer, Mint, Chile-Salt Rim) which was spicy and sour rather than sweet and sour like a traditional mojito. Naturally, my other friend couldn't give up his characteristic mojito which I thought was a very balanced drink. In general the cocktails were all a bit on the light side in terms of alcohol but tasted very good.

Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben "Ürziger Würzgarten" Riesling, Kabinett, Mosel, Germany
This reaffirms why I love German Riesling, white flower and tropical fruit on the nose with flavors semi-sweet stone fruit and citrus as well as some light carbonation on the palate

Peter Michael L'Esprit des Pavots, Knights Valley, Sonoma 2005
A fairly complex Bordeaux blend, elements of red fruit, licorice, coffee, and black pepper.

A unique choice of bread, Naan, a flatbread I typically associate with Indian food. The naan is baked fresh and comes out piping hot, crispy and buttery. I all but wolfed down the first three slices I was presented with before one of my friends told me to take it slow, as we have 35 courses coming.

01: Michael’s Caviar Parfait - Selection of Wild and Farmed Caviars
What a visually stunning course to start, caviar, creme fraiche, salmon, egg, all resting on a potato croquette. We went with the farmed Oscetra caviar which was beautifully accented by the varying flavors and textures. Delicious but pricey at $60. There are also paddlefish ($8) and wild Oscetra ($120) versions of this dish.

02: Ice Cold Shellfish - White Shrimp Panna Cotta, Kushi Oyster, Steamed Clams
I was looking forward to the white shrimp panna cotta. The cream was delicious but I wish the smooth creamy shrimp was more apparent. The oyster was plump and meaty, with a mild flavor heightened by the tangy foam. The steamed littleneck clams were quite sweet but a bit too chewy for my tastes.

03: Ahi Tuna Tartare - Ancho Chile, Pears, Mint, Pine Nuts, Sesame Oil
I was a bit worried about the application of sesame oil but I think it worked out quite nicely with the tartare I really wish the chile were more apparent but the use of pine nuts added a nice toasted flavor and good crunch.

04: Chilled Maine Lobster - Potatoes, Celery, Chestnuts, Truffle
The lobster was very nicely done, three perfectly cooked sweet crunchy morsels. I did like the addition of potato which added more heft to the dish but I felt the celery was a bit jarring.

05: Sake and Maple-Cured Kanpachi - Apple, Cippolini Onions, Shiso
One of the most innovative preparations of Kanpachi I have had in a while. The fish had this woody sweetness from the maple and a slight burn from the sake.

06: Heirloom Tomatoes - Gem Lettuce, Avocado, Bacon Vinaigrette
A surprisingly straightforward salad, the leafy cool lettuce and tomatoes were given some weight by the avocado and the whole dish was elevated with the addition of salty smoky crunchy bacon bits.

07: Golden Beet Salad - Endive, Mache, Aged Gruyere, Hazelnut
Another impressive salad, the bitter greens contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the beets

08: Artisan Charcuterie - Pickled Cabbage, Caraway, Peach Mustard
The charcuterie was quite nice although I still have trouble really differentiating between them. Still they were all quite tasty especially with the sweet mellow peach mustard. The crunchy sour vegetables effectively cleared the palate between bites.

09: Beef Carpaccio - Hearts of Romaine, Cherry Tomatoes, Horseradish
I have always been a fan of carpaccio, thinly sliced raw meat what's not to like? What made this dish delicious is the use of lettuce. Simple romaine lettuce added a nice cool crunch that worked great with the mild horseradish. Very refreshing.

10: Bay Scallops Tempura - Cauliflower, Passion Fruit, Almonds
I was expecting some scallops covered in nice golden batter but this was actually sauteed scallops with tempura batter bits. I liked the flavor of the scallops with the smooth cauliflower and the burst of fruitiness from the passionfruit. Texturally, the passionfruit seeds were a bit jarring and the scallops were a bit tough

11: Dungeness Crab Spring Roll - Avocado, Cumin, Charred Jalapeño, Lime
When I saw the thin deep fried crab rolls I was a bit worried, turns out my fears were justified. The spring roll didn't have much flavor just an undifferentiated fried mixture.

12: Salt & Pepper Big Fin Squid - Glass Noodles, Carrots, Sprouts, Ginger
With glass noodles and ginger this definitely felt like something I could get at home. I thought the squid was a bit overcooked and the flavor balance felt a bit off.

13: Foie Gras Terrine - Cranberry, Cardamom, Greek Yogurt, Flatbread
A beautifully made terrine, very dense it slowly melts in the mouth releasing the rich fatty sweetness that I love so very much. The use of tangy cranberry and yogurt contrast nicely with the flavor of the foie. I would come back just for this dish.

14: Black Truffle Risotto - Sweet Corn, Castelmagno Cheese
Normally I am a sucker for truffle risotto, but I was a bit hesitant about the pairing of corn with truffle. Fortunately, it worked out better than I expected, the corn wasn't overpowering and the use of the cheese added a tartness that I really enjoyed.

15: Sunchoke Soup - Celery, Black Olive, Espelette Pepper
The sunchoke soup reminded me a bit of a cream of potato soup, sweet with a rich vegetable taste. The other ingredients were almost unnecessary.

16: Pumpkin Dumplings - Stewed Cherries, Brown Butter, Sage
When I put this in my mouth I thought it tasted like a savory pumpkin pie, with a shade of spice mixing with the sweet/salty dumpling. If I come back, I might have to skip this course.

17: Black Cod - Spaghetti Squash, Matsutake Mushrooms, Foie Gras Dashi
When I think of black cod I always think of the miso variety served at so many Japanese restaurants. This was clearly a Japanese inspired effort, utilizing traditional Japanese ingredients, like dashi and matsutake mushrooms with a western twist, foie gras which was a bit too powerful for the fish. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture before I started eating.

18: Jidori Chicken - Mesquite, Cornbread, Wildflower Honey, Spinach
Typically I shy away from chicken but I am reconsidering my stance after tasting this chicken, especially white meat which I normally find dry. This was quite the opposite, soft and fairly oozing with juice carrying the natural flavor of the chicken. Prepared in a sweet bbq style with traditional sides of cornbread and spinach, beautiful execution of a simple straightforward dish.

19: Liberty Duck - Confit & Prosciutto, Barley, Shiitake and Tamari
A fairly typical confit, the richness of the duck was accented by the prosciutto, the barley really helped to balance the intensity of the two meats.

20: Ocean Trout - Curry, Fennel, Sea Beans, Concord Grape
I think the cut of the fish was a bit too thin, as a result it was a bit overcooked and hard. This was one of the weaker dishes for me, it felt like the flavors just weren't well thought out.

21: Crispy Pork Belly - Pea Leaves, Orange, Salted Cashew
I had high hopes for this dish but ended up quite disappointed. The pork belly was overdone, I know the restaurant was going for crispy but it just ended up hard. The orange sauce was so intense it was downright caustic and dominated the entire dish, no mean feat when the focus of the dish is a big slab of pork fat.

22: Saffron-Braised Veal Cheeks - Chickpeas, Zucchini, Cherry Peppers
Typically I find veal a bit lean and bland, but no complaints here. The braising left the veal so soft I could cut it with my fork. Flavor-wise the meat is a bit sour, actually reminding me very much of beef daube (cheeks) done Provencal style.

23: Japanese A5 Kobe - Chanterelles, Haricot Verts
We decided to upgrade the standard Angus rib eye for an A5 Kobe and it was a great choice. The meat had loads of fat, not as nicely integrated as the best examples of Wagyu beef but delicious nonetheless. I liked the use of chanterelles and green beans as they were light enough in terms of flavor but added sharp textural contrasts and made the fat a little more managable, however I could have done without the sauce.

24: California Lamb - Salsify, Medjool Dates, Thyme, Walnuts
Lamb is very hit or miss with me. Sadly this was one of the weaker lambs I have had. Typically my complaints about lamb tend to center around gaminess, mostly an overabundance, but in this case there wasn't any flavor. Add to that the meat felt a bit tough and you end up with a very boring dish.

25: Roasted Venison - Onion, Brussels Sprouts, Huckleberry
Venison is another one of those risky meats but XIV prepares their venison beautifully. Venison tends to be lean so it is easy to overcook it but the meat here was quite supple. Masterfully done, the meat was definitely the star of this dish.

All five cheeses were brought out simultaneously which made for a very impressive display. I liked how each cheese was paired with specific ingredients rather than a common set of honey, fruit, and nuts that is the norm. We ordered a glass of Malmsey, with its toffee and date aromas, which played nicely with the cheese.

26: Chaource - Frozen Lychee, White Ale
I am a huge fan of soft rich cheeses so it was no surprise I liked the Chaource which had a flavor very much like Camembert. Honestly the cheese dominated the lychee and ale which I found unnecessary but not distracting.

27: Monte Enebro - Ash and Mold
This was another soft cheese with a creamy texture and a slightly acidic flavor that went very well with the yogurt-like "mold". I am not sure what the ash is but it looked a lot like ground black sesame.

28: Mimolette - Apple, Chamomile, Juniper Shortbread
A really hard yellow cow's milk cheese. This had a very mild nutty flavor but was a bit too hard to chew for my tastes. Probably the weakest of the cheeses for me.

29: Bleu d’Bocage - Lillet Blanc, Pine, Pumpernickel
A fairly mild example of blue cheese, this was served crumbled over the accompaniments. This kind of reminded me of a bowl of oatmeal after everything was mixed and had a texture that reminded me very much of cereal in milk.

30: Idiazabal - Dates, Smoked Bacon Powder, PX
A semi-hard sheeps milk that has a buttery taste, it is quite dry but not crumbly. I found the cheese overpowered by the dates and Pedro Ximenez although the use of bacon was quite creative. The bacon had a fluffy airy texture that reminded me of Chinese dry shredded pork.

As a parting gift, the sommelier, Chris Lavin gave us a glass of Weinlaubenhof Alois Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese, Burgenland, Austria 2006 to pair with the desserts. Surprisingly all the desserts were very good and even though we were full, I think all of us wanted more.

31: White Chocolate Cube - Orange Blossom Cream, Coriander, Pistachio, Sake
The minimalist exterior belies the complex medley of flavor that was to ensue. It is hard to describe how the flavors combined, each element had its own distictive note, but the combination was so much more. This is one of those things you just have to try for yourself.

32: Passion Fruit Curd - Tomato Marmalade, Jasmine, Cashew, Brown Butter
I really liked the tangy expressive fruit from the curd. The brown butter was extremely dense and sticky with a super-concentrated intense salty-sweetness. Together the two formed a very delicious dessert.

33: Lemongrass Custard - Cola, Buttermilk, Sweet Potato-Yuzu Mochi, Saffron
I had such high hopes for this dish because it made me think of the Lemongrass parfait at Melisse. With this course, the lemongrass was actually a supporting element to the tangy buttermilk. The star of this course was definitely the mochi, the tangy yuzu meshed nicely with the sweet potato.

34: Bitter Chocolate Cream - Ube, Mozzarella Milk Ice, Elderflower, Violet
Another visually arresting dish, I've seen gold leaf used to accent a dish but this is the first time I have seen silver used and the liquid form just made the whole effect cooler. I guess sometimes silver is better than gold. Visuals aside, the dish itself was wonderful, the cake lived up to its name with an intense chocolate flavor, nicely offset by the cold tangy mozzarella ice cream.

35: Hazelnut Milk - Frosted Celeriac, Tennessee Whiskey, Wood Ice Cream
This was a bit of an interactive course, where a chocolate layer separated the ice cream and celeriac and we were supposed to mix all the ingredients together and drink the resulting concoction. I had to try a bit of the wood ice cream which did taste quite cedary. Overall this was quite interesting, with complimentary flavors of wood, and whiskey adding to the sweet nutty milk.

After resting for a few minutes, we dragged ourselves on a kitchen tour before calling it a night. The first shot is of the area where they do the meats and hot foods. We even got a look at the tandoor where the naan is baked. Unsurprisingly XIV deviates a bit from the traditional clay oven with a big industrial looking stainless steel machine. Lastly there is a shot of the immersion circulators.

Late into the meal Michael Mina came out to talk with us and sign some menus and after our kitchen tour we snapped a photo with Chef de cuisine Steven Fritz.

The damage came to just over 1000 for the 4 of us not too shabby for trying everything on the menu.

The opening night experience at XIV was surprisingly strong. There were a number of standout courses, particularly the caviar, foie gras, and desserts. Naturally with 35 courses, some are bound to be weaker but overall I was happy with the food. If the restaurant continues to improve, I think the food here will be quite something in the coming months. There were a couple of small service gaffes, my waiter tried to take my cocktail while it was still half full, and the pacing of the courses was a bit off. Sometimes we'd have 3 courses on the table other times we'd sit idle for 10 or 15 minutes. Overall the service felt a bit rushed as we burned through all 35 courses in a little over 2 hours.

After two disappointing Mina experiences, I finally have an idea of what has made him successful enough to open 14 restaurants. I will definitely be trying his eponymous San Francisco restaurant next time I am in the area.

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