Sunday, July 26, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 and Special Foodventure #129: Ten Favorite Dishes from Ten Years of Business at Melisse (Santa Monica)

In Los Angeles, where restaurants are continually turning over with name and ownership changes, a revolving door of management/chef swaps and unfortunately closing altogether, it's pretty impressive that an eatery will last more than a couple of years. So when Santa Monica's Melisse announced their ten-year anniversary, it was definitely good reason for them to celebrate their longevity and being a quintessential fine dining establishment.

And celebrate they did -- by offering a special menu in July highlighting ten favorite dishes from their decade in business for $150/person. To further sweeten the deal, corkage for first two bottles of wine (normally $30/bottle) is reduced to $10/bottle per table AND each diner is presented with a $50 gift card for a return visit.

Even given this good bargain, the meal was still on the spendy side (and I already had my 2009 splurge at Saam earlier this year) but much thanks to foodbuzz and their 24,24,24 program, which provides 24 bloggers around-the-world every month with $250 for their dream meals, I was able to partake in Melisse's milestone meal without having worry about pinching pennies!

So off to Melisse I went with the folks behind KungFoodPanda, PepsiMonster, PrincessKitty, FoodDigger and one bonafide Yelper from the O.C. Arriving early (so we can maximize on natural day lighting for our photos) we were led into a seamlessly elegant dining room that was delightfully sprinkled with modern touches - from the purple-and-white color scheme to a huge automatic glass sliding door to the wine cellar & kitchen areas, funky table sculptures and what I call a "nouveau chandelier."
Table and Champagne
I assumed when KungFoodPanda made the reservation he noted we were there for the anniversary tasting, since those were the only food menus aleady lying on our table upon our arrival; we were also presented with a winelist, and Will of Fooddigger generously got a bottle of Gosset Grand Réserve champagne ($129) for the table on top of the Chablis he brought. The bubbly was a totally delightful starter to drink with: a balanced nose of nuts, yeasty-toastiness and apple-pears, a medium-full body and a slightly bready finish that lingers just for a second or two.
Meanwhile, the efficient, professional yet very friendly and approachable service staff quickly served up our amuses - an heirloom tomato half enrobed in goat cheese and covered in pistachios, and a tri-layer shot of cucumber flan, tomato gazpacho and tomato gelee, with the staff instructing us to plunge our spoons deep so we can get each each layer for full effect.

Both were pretty delightful and fulfilled their role as amuses in every way -- I loved how goat-cheese-tomato bite just popped with sweet-and-sour juiciness in my mouth, accompanied by the fun crunchiness of the crushed pistachios. The flan and soup shot was refreshing yet luxurious, simply a nice combination of vegetal notes, acidity and fattiness that just gave it freshness and some substance without feeling too heavy.
Bread Service
While we were enjoying our amuses, we were also presented with bread service which, along the usual suspects of french rolls and ciabattas, included basil brioche, olive bread and bacon foccacia. I tried all three of the unique ones and found them wonderfully flavorful and remarkably light (a definite surprise with the foccacia) even after spreading on the sweet and soft butter.
Lemon Caviar
Our first official dish is "egg caviar" -- a soft-poached egg served in its shell topped with lemon creme fraiche, dollop of American Ossetra caviar and a sprinkling of chives along with a stick of puff pastry. Very luxurious and wonderful layered mix of flavors, from the poppity-briny caviar to the slight tartness of the lemon creme and the pure richness of a soft-poached yolk, and the chives were just enough to accent the dish without being overwhelming. I also appreciated the pastry too, which I bit into between spoonfuls of the egg to help reset my palate.
It is also here that the Chablis is opened and poured; again, very lovely -- most Chablis (or Chablis-style) wines I've had tends to be very minerally, some almost to the exclusion of other flavors, but this one's stony-flinty notes was nicely complemented with notes of apples, melons and a wee bit of citrus along with a super-crisp finish. Definitely great with some of the earlier, lighter dishes we have on the menu.
Tuna Tartare
Next is Melisse's version of tuna tartare, served in a layered tower with pickled cucumbers, avocado mousseline and a pool of yuzu vinaigrette. Distinctively Cal-French in style, the ingredients were top-notch (particularly surprised by the sweetness of the cucumbers) and the vinaigrette nicely tied the whole dish together. The avocado mousseline was tasty but I found it unncessarily fussy, since whole avocados chunks would've worked just as well.
Mandarin-Tomato Soup
Following that is the mandarin-tomato soup, prepared tableside. We were all first brought a bowl with tomato tartare, mandarin sorbet and basil chip, and then the warm, vibrantly-colored soup was poured in. Easily the most playful dish of the night, it was a jubilee of juxtapositions in my mouth as the sorbet and soup components hit my mouth individually before melding together-- hot and cold, savory and sweet, fruits and vegetables (yes yes, even if tomato is technically a fruit). Totally fun and totally tasty, I agree with one of my tablemates that this is the best tomato soup I've tasted ever, but falls just short of perfect by the basil chip -- packed full of flavor but having a chewy texture more like a jerky than a chip.
Foie Gras
Afterwards, a seared lobe of Sonoma Valley foie gras on top of a lavender-peach compote and pain d' epice with a white balsamic reduction and a roasted peach on the side; it's hard to not love the buttery, fatty texture of seared foie gras, but this version took it to a wonderful new level. Instead of more typical sides of just brioche and some form of apple & pear, the pairing here with the in-season peaches, white balsamic reduction and the gingery spice-bread breathed fresh air into the dish. And of course, it helps that the lobe is perfectly cooked too, soft and buttery but not overseared to the point of just bursting into a liquid in my mouth.

Shortly after finishing our foie gras, a bottle of Trousseau from Jura that I bought from Silver Lake Wine (and suggested by Matthew Kaner) was poured. It actually fooled quite a few of us (including the assistant sommelier, who had a taste) as a pinot noir, and despite being lighter red, it managed to hold its own even against some of the heavier dishes we had onwards, starting with . . .
Lobster bolognese with fresh capellini pasta, heirloom tomato sauce and a lobster-truffle froth. Excellent pasta that had a nice toothy yet tender feel, and I love the overall lightness of the sauce and the froth, which harmoniously blends in the truffle, lobster and tomato flavors instead of smacking me in the face with it. The diced lobster tail was a nice touch but seemed superfluous, since I was unable to identify the meat from this dish.
Next up are dover sole goujonettes over sweet white corn, chanterelle mushrooms, blistered almonds and a browned butter. The lightly-battered fish was firm and flakey but otherwise kind of bland, so best when combined with the tastier 'shrooms, corn and almonds. And despite how remarkably simple it is to make a browned butter sauce, everyone at the table --including me-- just went ga-ga over its nutty-caramelized flavor, and we were shameless in ripping pieces of our many-courses-ago bread to soak it up before the dishes were bussed away.
Our final meat course of the night is cote de boeuf with a wild mushroom fricasee, summer pole beans, potato-leek torte, herb jus and a sweet wine reduction. The rare ribeye was simply succulent and flavorful, and I love the accent of the jus (though some found it a bit too heavy on the rosemary). The torte, which is more like a potato and leek-stuffed puff, was wonderful too. My only qualm here is the heaviness of the vegetables -- the mushrooms and the beans were unnecessarily greasy-tasting, I would've preferred a much lighter preparation to better showcase their fresh flavors plus to balance against the already-heavy torte and beef as well as the numerous rich courses we've had so far.
But unadulterated, fresh veggies did sneak their way in as an accompanying salad in the pear & Fourme d' Ambert tart with a honey-pepper gastrique, essentially our cheese course of the night. While I can see where this dish was trying to go (being a savory-sweet cheese-fruit combo), the blue cheese just totally dominated every bite. Even when I generously rubbed it in the gastrique, the initially sweet honey notes quickly gave way to the cheese, the pears don't even stand a chance. Not necessarily a bad thing, especially for fans of blue cheese, but I found it a pity to prepare such a lovely fruit tart and unique sauce only to have it just totally decimated. Having said that, the partly melted cheese was a fine one.
For our first sweet, we got a duet of chocolate souffle (prepared tableside with an injection of chocolate sauce) and a banana mousse with caramelized bananas and Valrhona chocolate ice cream. Everyone else at the table loved their souffle, but I actually found mine dry and grainy, as if overbaked, not sure if I just happen to be unlucky or was being super-sensitive with souffles (so not my modus operandi, given my crazy sweet tooth). Nonetheless, it did have deep, complex cocoa aromas and was OK when mixed with the sauce. Their interpretation of a chocolate-banana fared much better -- creamy flan, great ice cream, crisped-up bananas -- hard to go wrong with that combination.
Our final listed course is Melisse's fancy version of the "fruit on the bottom yogurts" -- with housemade strawberry puree and vanilla bean yogurt topped with strawberry sorbet and fresh mint. Simple and excellent dish to end the tasting -- just light and fruity and mildly sweet and purely refreshing . . . one would almost healthy (wait, did I really just have creme fraiche and foie gras and ribeye in the last four hours?)
Along with our bill came some fun mignardises, mini caneles that tasted more like custardy-crisp churros, delightful peanutty-chocolate chip cookies, and wedges of plums (or pluots?) with cream and sugar.
For Next Time...
And of course, our $50 gift cards.

We also requested to have a few words with exec. chef Josiah Citrin, but he was occupied with the newly-opened Caché Restaurant (where he's a consulting on the menu), but chef de cuisine Ken Takayama and our server-captain/assistant sommelier Jay did have a few moments with us, discussing the anniversary, cooking at Melisse and their career trajectories (Ken's was particularly fascinating: he started out at a Monterey Park local-divey sushi restaurant, but took some interesting turns, including stints with Patina Group, that ultimately landed him there.)

Being a table of bloggers and hardcore foodies, we of course wasted no time analyzing the meal and comparing it to other restaurants' tasting menus. Overall, we found the dishes competent and solid; though not necessarily mindblowing in terms of creativity, maybe that's why they've been favorites, it's just straightforward cuisine with a few nice touches that have consistently great (and no doubt re-ordered numerous times) over the decade.

For those who can afford to make it this week for the anniversary special, I surely would recommend it. But for those who don't, there's no need to fret -- the Melisse folks were pleased with the popularity of this event and so are planning to extend it (minus the gift card special) possibly for the rest of '09, swapping and adapting courses as seasonal produce changes--and I look forward to a return trip here myself.

What Do Others Say?
- Gourmet Pigs had this same menu earlier this month and thought "the quality of the dishes . . . were excellent [and] service was spot-on"
- Dining compadre PepsiMonster was here earlier this year for the summer discovery menu a.k.a. "a dream meal that lives up to reality"
- J Gold of LA Weekly is unsurprised by its Michelin two stars
- Loving Annie found the dishes good "but not . . . memorable or spectacular" and the "service across the board lacks polish."

1104 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA

Melisse in Los Angeles
Melisse on Urbanspoon


pleasurepalate said...

It sounds like you had a fabulous meal. That caviar egg dish definitely caught my eye. :)

Adam said...

Interesting, I heard our meal with 4 courses was perhaps a better experience than this one. I still think Melisse is in the top 5 restaurants in the city.

kevinEats said...

Who exactly was the "bonafide Yelper?"

How did Mike compare this meal to his previous one? My guess is that it took Melisse down a peg for him.

Kung Food Panda said...

Terrific meal HC, there was a lot of hits and very little, if any misses. Although I liked the previous visit at Melisse a bit more, I'm definitely looking forward to the upcoming truffles tasting. You down Kevin?? :P

See you on Thurs!

H. C. said...

@pleasurepalate, yep -- very artful, and actually reminded of a dish Josef Centeno back with his spontaneous tasting menus at Opus

@Adam, yep -- I think both KFP and PepsiM felt the discovery menu was more adventurous; most of the dishes here are classics with a few modern touches, which is good on its own terms too.

@Kevin, oh I didn't have her Yelp page then; and yea, Mike preferred the discovery menu. See you at Hatchi

@KFP, I'll probably use up that $50 to eat one truffled dish ;)

Gastronomer said...

Money. Well. Spent! I think the summer discovery menu is calling my name!

Anonymous said...

rad post! one nitpicky note: Melisse doesn't use Sonoma Foie, they use French Lobes from Rougie.

H. C. said...

@Gastronomer is the discovery menu still going on? sounded like it already passed.

@Anon thanks for reading, and actually it was our server who informed our table it's Sonoma Valley foie ~ I'll see if I can get the official word from the resto and correct as needed.

Pepsi Monster said...

Yeah, that discovery menu will be in the mythical portion since they won't bring it back again.

That was the best meal I'll get this year. Bums me out they are taking that out.

I liked the anniversary dinner, but it definitely pales in comparison. Nonetheless, it was still an outstanding meal.

Great job H.C.! I'll see you on Thursday!

burumun said...

The menu was essentially the same as my meal, with the exception for the "cheese course". Though of course you guys had waay fancier wine :P

@PepsiMonster They won't bring it back ever again??? How sad!! That was such a deal.

H. C. said...

@Burumun, we also "pre-amused" ourselves with a few nibbles and sips at Rustic Canyon across the street right beforehand. Sweet Corn Agnolotti... *glomp*

Jin said...

omg congrats on getting the 24/24/24. i never do those things because i think i won't get it but you and abby have already sold me on it. how did you work off this meal?

SinoSoul said...

belated congrats. it's just so much better to spend someone else's money! with foodbuzz's "sponsorship" money, this meal became affordable. but getting $50 back in GC seemed redundant?

H. C. said...

@Jin, you're a fine blogger so I wouldn't be surprise to read your 24^3 blog entry soon! As far as scoring the meal, definitely 1) do some homework on the restaurant -- highlighting its history, accolades or other things that make it stand-out and 2) showcase any special aspects of the experience, rather a limited-time tasting menu (my case), chance to converse with the staff, ability to tour the kitchen or other "insider scoop" you think you can pull off. Good luck!

@SinoSoul, thanks! And yea, still trying to figure out how to use that $50 GC; maybe when it's winter truffle season, I can get one plate of pasta with shavings for just double-digits! Haha.

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