Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Royce - 01/26/2013

1401 South Oak Knoll Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91106
(626) 585-6410

In an odd bit of symmetry the first big opening of 2013 is followed by the year's first big closure: The Royce at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. For many years The Dining Room under Craig Strong and then Michael Voltaggio was the gold standard for hotel restaurants in the area. With Voltaggio's departure in summer of 2010, the hotel turned the kitchen over to Patina-alum David Feau. Feau's sophisticated and inventive New American cuisine made The Royce one of few remaining bastions of fine dining in Los Angeles. Unfortunately the restaurant never really caught on with locals or hotel guests leading the powers-that-be to replace it with a steakhouse (shudder). With five visits in two years, the Royce is easily my most frequented restaurant so it was only fitting that I would be there on its last night to say goodbye.

"SENSES AMUSE - sucré - acid - salé - fumé - croquant
I've never been a fan of beets but their naturally high sugar content is singularly suited to a sorbet. The vegetable tinged sweetness is enriched by a covering of crème fraîche studded with salty exclamations of caviar. A dusting of Kaffir lime zest adds a citrus aroma that helps temper the intensity of the beets.

SPINY LOBSTER | DAIKON RADISH - raw marinated spiny lobster, horseradish daikon "remoulade", sesame beets, escarole
With the Lunar New Year fast approaching, lobsters have become increasingly hard to find. The bright saline pop of the lobster tail is augmented with a rich creamy horseradish remoulade. The beets didn't do much for me on this dish but the austere escarole helped cleanse the palate between bites. Delicate and refined but with incisive multifaceted flavor, this dish encapsulated everything I love about Chef Feau's cooking.

CLAMS | SEAWEED - steamed razor clams, "french kimchi", seaweed broth
I've had a handful of absolutely sublime razor clam preparations but this certainly wasn't among them. While the tender mild clams didn't do much for me, the broth was absolutely sublime; silky smooth with an umami-laced butteriness. The "French kimchi" smelled like the original but the flavor was much milder, an unconventional but effective compliment to the broth.

ARTICHOKE | LARDO - anzo artichoke "tulipe", white mushroom, lardo, mache bouquet
Given my general disdain for artichokes, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this dish. The tulip had a surprisingly direct smoky sapor deftly augmented by the unctuousness of the lardo. The artichoke pureè had an intense savory tang that was a bit harsh for my tastes though the palate cleanser of mushroom and mache provided a palpable sense of relief.

TURBOT | MUSHROOM - seared turbot cheek, celery fish stock, cauliflower "tofu", hedgehog mushrooms, ginko nut
The duo of turbot proved to be one of the most controversial courses of the night. I thought the filet had a satisfying dense tenderness, but some of my companions found the fish a bit boring. The cheek had a starkly different feel with a stringy yet muscular supple texture. The stock was made with the fish head and had a homey roast chicken like sapor. The accompaniments were all quite delicious as well particularly the yuzu tinged "tofu".

BLACK MULLET | FISH SOUP - seared black mullet fillet á la plancha, potato emulsion, canella fish jus, carrot-candy, fennel
This proved to be the most pleasant surprise fo the evening. The mullet a la plancha was satisfying in its direct simplicity but the soup was the real star of the show. Beneath the cloud of airy potato lay a dense bisque-like soup whose buttery savor had me craving more after every bite.

LENTILS | BLACK TRUFFLE - green lentils "du puy" & sweet peas ragoutté, pumpkin seeds, shaved winter black truffle
Our final meal at The Royce would have been incomplete without Feau's signature dish. Resting on the warm lentils, the intoxicating aroma of the prized fungus slowly fills the air. The taut plump lentils are mixed with sweet peas in a buttery soup. A generous helping of crisp pumpkin seeds gives adds a nutty counterpoint to the rounded buttery flavor of the rest of the dish.

This was an expansion on a previous Wagyu and bone marrow course. First up was a beignet of marrow. Underneath the crispy fried exterior was a rendered semi-liquid fat that had an oddly fishy flavor when combined with the puree. Next up was a Wagyu rib eye cap done Rossini style. The beef had a delightfully toothsome grain and luscious marbling beautifully moderated by the bed of crisp nutty greens.

GOAT TOMME | WHITE TRUFFLE - tomme de chevre, crispin apple, hazelnut, piemonte white truffle honey
Even without the black and white truffle this would have been one of the most interesting cheese courses that I've had in recent memory. The thin slivers of goat cheese melt on contact leaving a creamy coat on the tongue while the apple and honey add a moderating sweetness to balance the chevre's gamy tang.

SUSHI RICE | LEMON GRASS - creamy vanilla "sushi rice", lemon grass milk
When I saw this dish described as "sushi rice" I was instantly intrigued. The dish turned out to be a variation of rice pudding with a floral tang from the lemon grass ice cream.

CREPE SUZETTE | WHITE CHOCOLATE - "crepe suzette", frozen chocolate ganache, valencia orange grand marnier, grapefruit ice cream
Though lacking the table side flames, this dish had the classic citrus notes enriched by a decadent chocolate ganache.

PETIT FOURS & CHOCOLATE - the royce selection
The final course consisted of a handful of chocolates and tiny pastries. The pastries included a chocolate nougat, queso torta and miniature key lime pie. The chocolates were the classic Royce trio: espelette white chocolate, illy espresso milk chocolate and fleur de sel dark chocolate

With a string of inventive, sophisticated and consistently delicious courses, this meal was a fitting way to say goodbye to The Royce.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Hinoki & the Bird - 01/17/2013

10 West Century Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 552-1200

Little more than two weeks into the year and we have our first high profile restaurant opening, Hinoki & the Bird; arguably the spiritual successor to Sona, Chef David Myers' former flagship which shuttered in 2010. With its Cal-Asian small-plates focused menu, Hinoki & the Bird doesn't quite recapture Sona's grandeur but it does reunite the mentor/protegee pair of David Myers and Kuniko Yagi

Myers early career is one any chef would envy. After getting his start working for Charlie Trotter at his eponymous restaurant in Chicago, Myers staged at the Château Les Crayères. After returning to the States, Myers joined Chef Daniel Boulud at Daniel before making his way out west to Joachim Splichal's Patina. From there Myers worked briefly at Jaan Beverly Hills, before striking out on his own with Sona. Opened by David and his then wife Michelle in 2002, Sona rapidly achieved overwhelming critical acclaim. Building off this initial success the duo expanded at breakneck speed, building a brasserie (Comme Ça), a chain of pastry shops (Boule) and an Italian restaurant (Pizzeria Ortica). All that came to a screeching halt and by the time of Sona's demise, Myers had built up a surprising amount of ill-will and seen his once promising restaurant empire plagued with closures and the eventual dissolution of his Food Art Group. I'd hoped that the new Sona would be an opportunity for the chef to get back to his roots but alas the restaurant never reopened though Myers did start two new businesses: a cafe and patisserie both located in the Mitsukoshi Ginza in Tokyo.

Like her mentor Executive Chef Kuniko Yagi rose to prominence despite lacking any formal culinary instruction. Unhappy with a career in finance, Yagi left her native Japan and moved to Los Angeles where she supported herself working as a server in Ubon, Nobu Matsuhisa's ill fated noodle house. While there she had a chance encounter with Myers and so impressed the chef with her passion that he offered her the opportunity to stage at Sona. With her innate talents and dedication, Yagi excelled rising from commis to sous chef and finally chef de cuisine. Yagi has not been idle since then, cooking her way through Europe and Asia before returning home to take over the Exec role at Comme Ça, while simultaneously trying her hand on Top Chef Season 10.

Located in The Century, an uber luxurious condo complex in Century City, Hinoki & the Bird has a warm yet contemporary feel thanks to the abundance of wood and metal presented with clean minimalist lines. The first thing I noticed upon entering the restaurant was the intense fragrance of fresh wood, fitting given that Hinoki is a form of Japanese Cypress.

gordon’s cup - gin, muddled lime, cucumber, szechuan pepper, salt
bird cup - our take on a pimms cup, muddled citrus, cucumber, mint & ginger
nakatomi plaza - choya plum wine, yamazaki, fresh pressed green apple
Our first round of drinks conisted of two refreshing cucumber based drinks and a playful libation whose name comes from the movie Die Hard. The Nakatomi plaza proved to be my favorite of the trio the fresh pressed apple gives the drink a Jolly Rancher-esque sweetness while the whiskey provides a robust boozy contrast.

marinated tuna - lemongrass salad
First up were slices of beautifully seasoned tuna topped with lemongrass salad. The marinade gave the fish a delightful savor while the salad added a nice crunchy textural contrast as well as a light vegetal bitterness.

scallops - grapefruit, lime leaf
While I wouldn't have minded a bit more daring with this course its hard to fault the combination of pristine scallops and citrus. The fruit added a bracing zest to the sweet shellfish but the puffed rice was the biggest surprise of the dish, conveying an intense toasty savor that belied its tiny size.

1/2 dozen oysters - pear mignonette
The restaurant had three types of oysters on deck and we opted for the Forbidden oysters, a salty Chesapeake variety. These oysters fit closely to the classic flavor profile which paired nicely with the sweet and sour relish of the pear mignonette.

beef tartare - pickled jalapeno, parmigiano
Conventional beef tartare is always something of a catch 22 for me: I feel compelled to order it whenever I see it on a menu but find the typical preparation a bit tired. Fortunately this was anything but conventional, the jalapenos gave the dish a spicy and tart contrast while the cheese provided a sense of sharpness to the weighty raw beef.

hinoki swizzle - amontillado sherry, st germaine, fresh green apple, & champagne
griffith park swizzle - bourbon, mint, lime, bitters & absinthe
jungle bird - black strap rum, pineapple, lime & campari
The Hinoki Swizzle was easily the most interesting cocktail of the night, the sherry gave the drink a strong coffee-like flavor that dulled with time leaving a sweet tropical flavor reminiscent of lychee. The Griffith Park was my favorite of the trio, grippy and stiff the drink has enough acid to keep from being overly strong, but definitely packs quite a punch. I struggled with the Jungle Bird, which had a cloying plum-y ripeness on the attack and an intense bitter herb-y finish.

crispy marinated chicken - lemon aioli
In my head I envisioned something like Chicken Kara-age but the bird was much more like classic fried chicken instead. Each beautifully fried piece had a perfectly golden exterior wrapped around utterly tender bird that positively dripped with juices. Between the light seasoning on the batter and the marinade on the chicken itself, I found the aioli completely unnecessary,

salt & pepper marinated calamari - ajwain-tomato jam
The name had me thinking of the classic Chinese dish but this preparation was more like a classic calamari done right, thin crispy batter around tender yet supple squid. The sauce was a welcome addition with a tangy zest tinged with a heady exotic spice.

chili crab toast - spicy cucumber, coriander
The chili crab was a faithful recreation of the popular Singaporean dish. The spicy-sweet crustacean is balanced by the herbaceousness of the cilantro and grounded by the toast.

fried oysters - black garlic aoli
Next up were the fried Hama Hama oysters. Biting through the dense exterior one is rewarded with a rush of brine tinged goodness. The garlic aioli was a bit heavy handed; perhaps a lighter accompaniment something with acid or spice to balance the weight of the batter.

white negroni - amère sauvage (bitter gentian), bianco vermouth, rocks, grapefruit twist
harajuku - hakushu single malt whiskey, gran classico, byrrh quinquina & chocolate bitters
kingston negroni - smith + cross jamaican rum, gran classico, sweet vermouth, rocks, orange twist
Consisting of three negroni style cocktails this was the roughest round of drinks we had all night. The White Negroni was harsher than the one we had at Bestia, with the grapefruit essence smothered by an overarching vegetal bitterness. The Harajuku was my favorite of the trio with a flavor reminiscent of a boozy Sweet Tart. The Kingston had a fantastic honeyed opening but the aftertaste reminded me of cough medicine.

lobster roll - green curry, thai basil
The lobster is evenly seasoned with curry giving it a light creaminess and infusing the sweet shellfish with a tinge of spice. A generous portion of the crustacean is spooned over a charcoal bread that exudes a heady buttery aroma. All in all I enjoyed this twist on the New England seafood classic.

hinoki scented black cod - sweet potato, pistachio
Certainly the most visually impressive dish of the evening, the fish comes with a thin sheet of smoldering Hinoki wood which filled the air with an aromatic smoke. The fish itself has some of the same woody char on the skin while the fatty flakes remain moist, oily and sweet. The side of woody charred mushrooms brought out the underlying salinity of the fish.

clam chowder - celery leaf
An interesting take on a cream-based clam chowder. There isn't much chowder to speak of but what little soup their is rife with the rich essence of bacon and clams. The finely chopped potato gives the dish a nice starchy heft while the celery leaf definitely punches above its weight with an intense vegetal counterpoint.

caramel braised kurobuta pork belly - radish, mustard greens
This is exactly how I love my pork belly cooked slow and tender with an unabashedly fatty sensation. For those who don't like copious amounts of rendered fat, the radish and mustard greens provide a crisp succulent textural contrast as well as a sharp countervailing bitterness.

coconut-curried mussels - sausage, cauliflower
I've been liking mussels more and more of late especially when the dish uses sausage of some sort. The umami twang of the meat is shot through the heady coconut curry broth masking the salinity of the mussels and leaving behind a meltingly tender sweetness. Though I don't normally care for cauliflower I thought the subtle bittersweet flavor was the perfect foil for the weight of the broth.

tangerine caipirissima - white rum, lime, tangerine & brown sugar
seasonal fix - gin, rum, vodka or tequila, served with fresh lemon over muddled seasonal fruit
tommy’s #2 - tequila and/or mezcal, lime, orange & agave
We originally planned on having three rounds of cocktails but with more food still to come we decided another round of drinks was in order. The Caipirisima was one of the lightest drinks of the entire evening, basically a Caipirinha but with white rum instead of cachaca, the drink conveyed a multifaceted array of citrus fruits. We opted for a dealers choice with the Seasonal Fix and got a combination of gin and fresh grapes, simple juicy and refreshing. The Tommy's was my favorite of the bunch with a smoky punch overlayed across the orange and lime.

maine lobster
Moving on to the simply grilled portion of the menu I was expecting something like yakitori but these were more composed entree sized dishes. The lobster had a delicious snap to it along with a subtle brininess that was augmented by the bisque-like dipping sauce.

drunken duck breast
This was an absolutely beautiful duck breast the meat itself is dense yet slick and full of flavor while the skin exudes both a nice bitter char and a subtle aroma of duck fat. The skewered persimmons provided a short-lived but intensely sweet accent to the bird.

wagyu strip loin
The strip steak was done just the way I like it still nearly raw in the center with a well seasoned crust. The salad was a nice touch, the leafy greens came with a tangy sauce, the perfect counter to the heft of the meat

sambal skate wing
The skate ended up being the best of a really strong round. While the duck and steak were both delicious the skate had the most complexity of the trio. Cooked on the bone, the meat is threaded with gelatinous bits that give it a ridiculously tender mouthfeel. After scraping clean the meat on the top we each picked up a handful of bones and proceeded to suck them clean. The bowl was filled with a mixture of fish sauce and chili and while the funky flavor can be off putting our party couldn't get enough of it.

haricot vert - sesame
I guess we had to have some green stuff. The green beans had a pleasing snap and light sweetness that went nicely with the nutty flavor of the sesame.

grilled winter mushrooms - sea salt, lime
Here we have a duo of fresh shitakes and oyster mushrooms. The oyster mushrooms had a clear woody flavor heightened by the grilling while the shitakes had a more complex earthiness that was delicious with the ephemeral flavors of salt and lime.

braised shitake mushroom
The braised shitakes were similar to the grilled preparation above but more succulent and perhaps a hair softer, delicious on their own, the mushrooms were absolutely stunning when taken with the yuzu kocho.

classic negroni - gin, sweet vermouth & campari, rocks, orange twist
dark ‘n stormy - bermudan rum, fresh ginger & lime
With only two cocktails left we decided to just go ahead and order them both. The classic negroni is one of the few classic cocktails I still struggle with though I have come to appreciate the drink's aromatic bitterness. The dark and stormy has a lightly vinousness to it augmented by a muted ginger kick.

braised lamb - tiny potatoes, cumin seed
One of my companions was curious about the lamb and when our server raved about it we decided to go ahead and get an order. This was one of the weaker dishes of the night for me. The lamb was tender but a touch dry with a fair amount of gaminess to it though the accompanying coconut curry did help matters somewhat.

kale - crispy and raw, curried almonds, pecorino, red wine vinaigrette
Though my party tends to shy away from plates with too much green on it we all seemed to enjoy this salad. The vegetable is prepared three ways with the fried kale adding an overarching savor the natural bitter flavor of the greens.

black sesame ice cream - lemon, hibiscus
We might have totally missed out on the mochi were it not for recommendations by the staff. The black sesame was the only traditional flavor but even this staple had a delicious floral tang to it thanks to the lemon and hibiscus.

honey ice cream - persimmon, licorice caramel
This was the sweetest of the three mochi ice creams coupling an unholy troika of rich honey, ripe persimmon, and lightly herbaceous caramel. The sugary blend elicited surprised and appreciative murmurs from the entire party.

miso ice cream - butterscotch, togarashi
Never a huge fan of miso, I had my doubts about this combination but it proved to be the strongest of the bunch. The butterscotch completely dominates the palate in the early going with loads of salted caramel goodness, with the floral savory sweetness of the miso apparent on the finish.

meyer lemon shaved ice - pink lady apple, greek yogurt, pistachio
With a good mix of fruits and a white chocolate sphere filled with strawberry-guava there was plenty to enjoy about this dessert but while each of the disparate elements is enjoyable on their own together the dish feels a bit disorganized.

steamed banana cake - saffron cremeux, frozen coconut, hazelnut
Never a fan of banana this dish was definitely my least favorite of the bunch. In all honesty the banana was actually fairly mild but the whole dish had a hazy muddled sense to it with no direction or structure.

matcha zephyr - matcha sponge cake, zephyr namelaka, yuzu
This was far and away the stand out dessert. The lissome texture and lightly bitter flavor of the sponge cake is deftly augmented by the zephyr ice cream while the core of yuzu gelee provides a bracing citrus compliment to the cake.

chocolate-praline - malt cake, milk chocolate jelly, cocoa nib
Clearly the safety valve on the dessert list. The fantastically rich chocolate flavor is complimented by a multifaceted textural palette from the creamy chocolate jelly to the crunch of the praline.

It was nice to see Myers back in the kitchen though with multiple restaurants demanding his attention it remains to be seen how much time he can devote to Hinoki and the Bird. I suspect in the long run it will be Chef Yagi calling the shots on a nightly basis.

Hinoki & the Bird may not have the same cerebral complexity (except for the desserts) that Sona did but its hard to deny the appeal of pristine product expertly prepared and allowed to stand on its own.

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