Restaurant Guy Savoy, Las Vegas (June 2011)

Three-star Michelin restaurants, Mario Batali is wont to say, are nothing more than a guarantee that people can eat the same food anywhere in the world. While he means that disparagingly, I see the globalization of chefs as a windfall, for I wanted to try Guy Savoy’s food without having to travel to Paris. And the Vegas rendition, located in Caesar’s Palace, includes many of the same dishes, servers that have worked at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris, and unlike the one in Paris, diners can see an Eiffel Tower from inside the restaurant.

Upon getting on the other side of those grand double doors, we were seated at a commodious two-top that could have easily accommodated four and greeted by Alain, our thoroughly French, Anton Ego-looking server. Without hesitation, I placed our order for the menu prestige–ten courses that include some of Savoy’s signature dishes–along with two supplements. When Alain asked if we would like to do the wine pairing–something I had seriously considered–I inquired into the price, was told $175 and politely declined. Instead we ordered glasses of raisiny 2007 Riesling, a wine with the highest residual sugar on their bible-size wine list.

In terms of the food, unlike Gagnaire, a Columbus of gastronomy in exploring newly discovered culinary territory, Savoy keeps it comparatively classical. Fittingly, our first amuse would be a foie gras club sandwich with a truffle vinaigrette. Crusty bread and creamy foie gras–what a great way to inaugurate the meal! I could wax poetic about just how exceptional service was, but I think an example should suffice. After downing the sandwich, my mother casually said, if this were a cocktail party, I would go back for seconds, and as if our table was mic’d, Alain delivered another round of sandwiches within seconds.

Next out, a bowl of raw peas into which a vichysoisse was poured with ground cardamon providing aromatics to the chilled potage.

Underneath the ground cardamon rested brunoised octopus on an eggplant purée with chive and a potato chip.

With amuses cleared, an enthusiastic runner and supervisor of the bread trolley delivered a warm tomato country bread with crisp edges and a florid interior. And a minute later that same runner introduced us to one of the most august bread displays my mother and I have ever seen in a restaurant. With more than a dozen on display, we took him up on his offer to do a bread pairing.

Our first course, titled “Peas All Around,” included halved raw and cooked peas, a pea gelée, pea purée, pea shoots, shiso leaves and a sixty-three degree quail egg. The amalgam proved to be a treatise on texture, which became a leitmotif throughout the three-hour and fifteen minute dinner.

For the second course a salty seawood ciabatta was paired with a salad of variegated beets and carrots finished tableside with a briny oyster vinaigrette and steaming liquid that filled the air with a cooled fog. And a chilled oyster shooter with lemon juice and a lemon foam served as a palate cleanser. 

Among the reasons for making the evening memorable was the fact that for the first 80 minutes of dinner, it was as if we had the restaurant to ourselves. 

Moving on to heartier plates, I requested the mosaic of milk-fed poulard, artichoke and foie gras with a black truffle vinaigrette and a piece of toast as a supplement. The black truffle vinaigrette would be an addictively good salad dressing; on this dish, though, it teamed up with the artichoke to balance the richness of the poulard and foie.

Paired with the skin-fried sea bass, swiss chard, shitake mushrooms, fennel, a vanilla-laced fish stock foam and five-spice (minus the cinnamon) was a bread punctuated by tart lemon rind. Leaving the scales on the bass resulted in an extra element of crispness, while the flesh flaked away beautifully into bite-sized bits.

Never have I been this excited to see a shot glass. From zero to $90 in four mother of pearl spoonfuls, the creamy, slightly tangy, vegetal and salty “Colors of Caviar” has become one of Guy Savoy’s most celebrated dishes, and it’s not hard to understand why. From bottom up, there’s a caviar crème fraîche, a caviar vinaigrette, a haricot vert purée, a layer of Russian golden osetra caviar and a warm sabayon spooned over tableside. So as not to overpower the caviar, we passed on the bread pairing, which would have been a plain ciabatta.

How do you follow up a caviar parfait? With foie gras–paired with caramelized onion ciabatta–of course. Steamed in a large plastic bag, which before being plated was brought to the table all puffed up, the foie sat in a sherry vinegar-duck consommé with radish and radish leaves. The bitter radish combined with the lobe of foie was a phenomenal twosome, though it didn’t quite measure up to Twist’s preparation one night earlier.

Leaving one’s fingers butter soaked, the black truffle brioche with black truffle butter was the perfect bread for the intense artichoke and black truffle soup with shavings of parmesan. When I say intense, I mean the aromas could be detected ten or more feet away.

With my mother and I both still rhapsodizing about the soup, Alain brought out the thyme and lemon rotisseried poussin with shaved summer truffles, warm asparagus salad, roasted onion and poussin jus paired with a multigrain and bacon-milk bread. The munificent main course included a juice-extruding breast, tender drumstick and fatty thigh meat, all of which I enhanced with coarse sea salt. 

For our second supplement, we went with the cinnamon bread crumb-crusted sweetbread on sautéed spinach with roasted carrots and a carrot-ginger sauce paired with a basil loaf. As tasty as the veal was, the trio of poultry was just too good to be followed up with another savory course.

Not pictured–my bad!–was the vegetable course: a braised cylinder of turnip with a chicken consommé gelée and a chicken stock-carrot foam.

For the cheese course–served with a litany of jams, of which I chose apricot and fig–I selected comté, fourme d’ambert and a chalky goat’s milk cheese with a spreadable consistency.

On to the sweets. To start a bitter grapefruit terrine glazed with Earl Grey and sitting on a maple tuile. 

The next two desserts were chilled and incredibly refreshing: (1) an orange custard with an orange granita, passion fruit sorbet and mint leaves and (2) a rhubarb jello with poached rhubarb, strawberry sorbet and basil granita.

The final course–a dark chocolate fondant on top of crunchy praline with chicory cream, toasted macadamia nut and a chocolate-praline crisp–was sheer decadence. Creamy, crunchy, sweet and bitter, this dessert seemingly had it all.

Full at this point, but aware of the restaurant’s dessert trolley, I overindulgently asked for one of each offering save for the praline ice cream. That included, inter alia, a praline mousse, vanilla ice cream, cherry sorbet, raspberry cheesecake, a lemon tartlet, a passion fruit marshmallow, a toasted coconut marshmallow, crème caramel, pistachio sablé, rose-praline rice pudding, vanilla bean rice pudding and chocolate mousse. Not surprisingly, we couldn’t finish them all. I did, however, consciously decide to end on a fruity note, popping the blackberry jelly into my mouth, realizing it would be the last thing that I ate in Vegas.

Restaurant Guy Savoy is Greece-bailout expensive, the most I’ve ever paid per person for a single meal. At the time, in my state of euphoria, it seemed irrelevant, for it had far exceeded my lofty expectations. From the three-star Michelin service to the exceptional food, it really is last-meal good!

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Las Vegas (June 2011)

Just about everyone I know with even the remotest interest in food can recall that most enchanting of thoughts, the thought that “this is the best meal in my life.” For me, it happened at Melisse in December 2009–a meal, alas, I don’t have photos of–after finishing their Carte Blanche menu. If one is lucky, there comes a point when one must pluralize the noun and beginning referring to one’s best meals. That happened earlier this year at Providence. After Wednesday night’s amazingly paced four-hour-and-fifteen-minute marathon of deliciousness, I am happy to yet again broaden that elusive distinction.

Having enjoyed the contemporary American cuisine of Shawn McClain the previous evening, I was looking to experience the food of some of France’s gastronomic titans. For those who haven’t kept abreast of developments in the Vegas dining scene, let me give you a brief overview. No longer is Vegas just the place where ingredients are moribundly kept alive with Bunsen burners and heat lamps at the $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffets. There’s been a dramatic maturation; in less than a decade the Mount Rushmore of Michelin three-star chefs from France has descended upon the city, starting with Joel Robouchon and followed by Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy and most recently Pierre Gagnaire. And it was the latter two with whom I was interested on this trip.

Gagnaire is perhaps best known for his habitual inability to get one course to fit on one plate (indeed, when I saw how narrow our table was, I told my mother spacing could be an issue, and sure enough on more than one occasion, our server, David, and our primary runner, Louis, could be seen working the angles in their heads so as to find those few extra inches to keep the plates from imbricating). That creativity, which many on yelp and elsewhere find obnoxious, motivated my decision to dine at Twist, Gagnaire’s only U.S. installation located on the twenty-third floor of the Mandarin Oriental. The man charged with carrying out Gagnaire’s vision is Pascal Sanchez, who has worked for the famed chef for over 10 years, and in so doing probably knows Gagnaire’s food as well as Gagnaire himself.

Seated without a moment’s wait for our 6pm reservation, we were presented menus–the only question being, what would we add to the tasting menu–and welcomed both by the aforementioned David, who proved to be one of the deftest servers we’ve been lucky enough to be looked after by, and Matthias, the general manager through whom I made the reservation.

We started with an amuse trio: (1) a potato chip filled with date purée and aged balsamic, (2) a pastis (an anise-flavored liquor) gelée with caramelized black pepper and (3) and a one-bite steamed pork bun topped with caviar. If there was any theme among these three seemingly disparate tastes it would have to be balance: the sweet and salty interplay of the potato chip, the licorice-laced lump cut by the pepper and the delicate bun serving as a neutral vessel for the hoisin-glazed pork and creamy caviar. Unlike the botched version of bun and caviar at SAAM, Twist got the size just right.

With amuses cleared, Louis brought out a plate of three freshly baked breads: a baguette, multigrain,  and raisin-molasses served with salted and unsalted butters from Normandy.

The first course of the tasting menu was simply titled “Yellow Tail.” As was the case with every course, though, the simple description belies the ornate parade of plates that follows. Yes, there was nicely balanced ceviche of yellowtail seasoned with lime zest, espellette pepper and Spanish extra virgin olive oil, but there was also the most delicious vegetarian dish I’ve ever eaten! And I’m not going to qualify that statement with a”since my dinner at Coi” or “since Jose Andres’ ‘Caprese’ salad.” Nope, this salad of green and white asparagus, pomegranate seeds, strawberry and chive flowers sitting atop a black olive gelée–with the marriage of bitter, acidic, sweet and salty getting along as if polygamy were legal–surpasses them all. If I could make vegetarian food taste like this, there wouldn’t be a need to eat meat. Even one suffering from myopia could foresee that this meal was going to be incredible.

Our first supplement to the tasting menu was “Twisted Bouillabaisse,”a capacious interpretation of the traditional fish stew. The trio of plates included (1) a salad of romaine hearts, anchovy, caramelized eggplant and chives, (2) a cauliflower velouté colored with saffron, red pepper marmalade, poached artichokes, fennel confit, candied garlic and an artichoke-olive oil ice cream and (3) a fish cocktail of snapper, sea bream and red mullet with fennel fronds. Chef Sanchez went two for three on this one; while the salad and velouté were stunning, the trio of fish was served cold and devoid of any seasoning. Here, Gagnaire and his progeny remind me of great writers who don’t have copy editors–amid the brilliancies, there’s also the occasional typo or pleonasm. I mean I get that they wanted us to taste the essence of the fish unadulterated, but a little salt would have been appreciated.

 The second of our three supplements we made to the tasting, a trio of foie gras, was just straight sinful: (1) foie gras parfait, brunoised duck breast, a port gelée, chives and toasted sesame seeds, (2) a terrine of rum-glazed foie gras studded with a peppery tuile atop a tangy chutney and a smile-inducing banana-artichoke soufflé and (3) shaved foie gras with pomegranate seeds in a black current sorbet. With each bite, I couldn’t help but wonder how mad my arteries were at my limbic system.

After a bit of a detour, we returned to the tasting menu. Described simply as “Summer in the City,” there was (1) a scallop mousseline topped with steamed leeks and Australian white summer truffles all in an earthy Périgord sauce, (2) a combination of rock shrimp, braised pork belly, cauliflower and zucchini sitting in a lemongrass-mint broth with fried squash blossom at twelve-o-clock, (3) pickled daikon radish and chives with–brace yourself–foie gras ice cream, (4) a watermelon-carrot-cantaloupe ice cream with pickled daikon radish and (5) a red mullet with shaved Australian white summer truffles in that same Périgord sauce. Let’s get the obvious out of the way; the foie gras ice cream was revelatory. The other standout was the reengineered scallops, made by puréeing fresh scallops with cream, forming them into that stocky scallop shape and steaming them just long enough for them to maintain their structural integrity on the way to the table, at which point they melt in one’s mouth with the texture of a luscious cream.

Having lost count of the number of courses at this point, we moved on to beurre blanc-poached langoustine with fava beans in a coconut-paprika green curry. There was nothing fussy about this dish, just great quality shellfish with a broth as good as one is poised to find, and I made sure to use the entire raisin molasses loaf to sop it up.

On we moved to the intermezzo. Normally an intermezzo is served to cleanse the palate, providing a bridge from the main course to dessert. As you can probably tell by now, Pierre Gagnaire and company don’t do normal. Twist served their intermezzo of broccoli cream, grilled aubergine, Glenmorangie (a single malt scotch whisky) granita and the equivalent of a cantaloupe fruit roll-up topped with a raspberry. 

Next up, the main course: corn-fed chicken roulade stuffed with almond and pistachio paste, grilled spicy tomatoes and black gnocchi with a bowl of ajo blanco (white gazpacho) with pearls of cucumber. Everything on the plate was immaculate from the pillowy gnocchi and grill-kissed tomatoes to the succulent chicken. To gild the lily, I took two baby’s fist-sized dollops of the salted butter and melted them across the entire surface area of the tournedos.

With the savory courses out of the way, it was now time for the parade of dessert plates to begin. While the chilled gazpacho served as a pleasant palate cleanser, I thought a proper intermezzo–read, a supplemental dessert–would be a smoother segue into the actual dessert. So I went with the nebulously-titled “San Remo,” which included (1) tandoori-dusted mango, julienne of jalapeno, Moscato granita and cassis syrup, (2) baby arugula salad with lemon confit purée, (3) a lime meringue with lemon foam and brunoised Meyer lemon and (4) a piquant limoncello-glazed lemon ice cream with meyer lemon meringue and Meyer lemon supremes.

By this point, my mother had grown considerably fatigued, hoping the fusillade of sweets would end, but as Louis cleared our plates, he rather sinisterly said, “there’s more coming.” And out it came (to the point where they actually had to bifucate dessert into two phases so as to be able to fit the plates on the table)–(1) a raspberry-basil salad with raspberry coulis and sorbet and a grenadine chantilly, (2) a strawberry sorbet garnished with radish, fresh strawberries and golden raisins, (3) sautéed cherries flambéed in kirsch, (4) a cantaloupe juice and vodka cocktail, (5) a rhubarb granita, (6) a rum baba with brunoised green apple and pistachio chantilly and (7) a Jivara milk chocolate cube with candied lemon peel. 

Finally reaching the meal’s end, Louis brought out cassis and lime meringues and a tray of petite fours, including, a seed-studded ball of fig paste, a cucumber sablé, a milk chocolate-orange cream with orange salt–easily the apogee of the quartet–and a fig sablé. 

There are those who inspire you to cook. And there are those who make you ask yourself, why bother? Gagnaire and Sanchez fall into the latter. Their food is ridiculous. It’s over-the-top. But it’s also delicious. And there probably isn’t a city better suited for it than Vegas.

Sage, Las Vegas (June 2011)

Jet-lagged, hungry and slightly woozy from the putrid fast food odors on the airplane, I arrived at the airport in Las Vegas thirty-five minutes before our 9:15pm (Pacific Time) dinner reservation. With only a carry-on duffel bag I made my way to the tortuous taxi line and waited about seven minutes before a good-humored vulgarian would rush me to Aria. Arriving at 9:05, I would thank the driver, meet my mother in front of the hotel’s registration desk and make the short walk over to Sage. In an unintentional homage to my San Francisco dining days, I pulled my jacket from my bag and put it on just steps away from the restaurant. Okay, that’s enough with the pre-dinner frenzy. Let me get on to the meal itself.

One’s first fine-dining experience is just that, an experience and nonpareil at that. Every meal thereafter then becomes a matter of grading experiences against themselves. And fairly or not, I decided to compare Sage to Mesa Grill and Daniel Boulud Brasserie, the first dinners on our two previous trips to Vegas. Through that lens, Sage dwarfs its competitors.

A bit of background. Sage is helmed by Shawn McClain, a relative nobody in a hotel that hosts Michael Mina, Julian Serrano, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Masa Takayama. But don’t let the limited name recognition fool you, for McClain is a “Best Chef Midwest” James Beard-award winner.

With our order for the four-course prix fixe placed, a runner dropped off the the evening’s amuse, two tiny pieces of apricot with slivered almond and crispy pancetta. Soon after, another runner approached our table with the bread tray. Two offerings were available: a country bacon and a sourdough with flecks of sea salt embedded in the crust along with Murray River sea salt and room temperature, house-churned butter studded with lavender.

For our first course, we went with one of McClain’s signature dishes: a foie gras brûlée, which was infused with Grand Marnier, a bing cherry, toasted cocoa nibs, shavings of foie gras torchon and brioche. This is right up there as one of the top-five foie gras dishes it has ever been my privilege to eat! The wine pairing, a 2006 Tokaj, reminded me of a Mott’s apple sauce made with Fiji apples, complementing the sweet custard (bear in mind, dear reader, this is my first wine pairing, so my repository on which to draw is barren).

Can one ever really have enough offal? The correct answer is no, so I supplemented the first course with a generous-sized appetizer of crispy sweetbreads, a piece of crispy pork belly, roasted trumpet mushrooms, sautéed spinach, and mascarpone-laced polenta. A polenta described as “creamy” was watery, wholly inferior to Scarpetta’s in Beverly Hills; the greens, too, went almost entirely untouched. It seems after the kitchen expertly handled the sweetbreads and belly, they relegated the accoutrement to an afterthought.
 For the second course, my mother was served Maine Dayboat Scallops with braised oxtail, broccoli rabe and wild mushrooms, paired with an oak monster of a 2008 Pinot Noir. Again the greens were underseasoned, but the half of scallop my mother shared with me had a lovely caramelized crust–though not quite as nice as the one atop the brûlée–and a healthy helping of salt. And I had the Maine lobster-stuffed casoncelli with braised Spring peas and lobster knuckle scattered throughout, paired with a 2007 Chardonnay. I would have been devastated if the kitchen fucked the peas; to their credit, they made love to them. In fact, everything on the plate was properly cooked and well-seasoned, from the al dente pasta to the tender lobster.
The penultimate courses for the evening were (1) a 48-hour braised beef belly with roasted potatoes, onions and rhubarb and (2) an Iberico pork loin, a milk-braised cannelloni of shredded pork shoulder, all of which rested atop asparagus and creminelli mortadella. As for the pairings, there was a 2006 Margaux with some barnyard funk to it for the beef and a Côtes du Rhône for the pork. The balmy 90+ degree temperature outside ought to have swayed me in favor of the leaner pork, yet it was the intensely marbled beef that left me smitten, the reasons for which include its fork tenderness and its ability to tame the aggressively alcoholic wine.

As we knocked on dessert’s door, I had yet to finish a single glass of wine. On the bright side, it suggests the probability of me becoming a dipso is exceedingly low.

Speaking of dessert, we were treated to a terrine (from the bottom layer to the top) of chocolate, blackberry and raspberry cremeux with a blackberry gelée, powdered chocolate and chocolate pudding. Its tartness proved to be a good foil to the richness from the previous courses. And to go with it, a glass of Lillypilly Late Harvest that tasted of starfruit with a hint of florality.
Having finished the terrine, I was left with four nearly full glasses of wine in front of me. Fortunately, my mother came to my aid quicker than Hank Paulson at the news of a drop in Goldman’s equity value and finished off the Tokaj and Lillypilly.
For our last taste of the two-and-a-half hour meal, our server brought us Sage’s version of a petite four, a shot of hot chocolate infused with mint, which I sipped happily, content that the first act of our Vegas gourmandizing had delivered.

Craft, Los Angeles and Red Medicine (May 2011)

Like trying to take the stage after a Christopher Hitchens talk, Craft had a tough act to follow. It’s possible that my expectations were too high. Or maybe this is another example of a food critic–in this case the LA Times’ who awarded Craft 3.5 stars on a four-star scale (for comparison, Scarpetta received 2.5)–undeservedly bestowing praise. The reason is hardly as important as the fact that Craft resides in the temperate clime of mediocrity.

My attitude toward the restaurant soured ever more over the course of dinner, but I’ll admit there were at least a few tasty plates of food, starting with the piquant amuse, an avocado sorbet with spicy crème fraîche.

That bright spot was quickly dimmed, however, when a busser dropped off a box of bread with two offerings, a limp pumpernickel and a passable sourdough, followed up by the first course–cured wild king salmon, salmon roe, pickled ramps and aleppo pepper crème fraîche–nearly twenty minutes later. The salmon was not only plated differently–on one plate the two pieces were undulating on another they were separated–but sloppily as well, centered in one instantiation and off-center in another. While the forthcoming simile contains a fair amount of inside baseball, it really captures how I felt about this dish; it was as poorly put together as a three-hour, in-class exam, which many were subjected to at the end of the winter semester.

The next course, one and a half diver scallops with fried basil, pickled tomato and compressed zucchini proved to be the best all-around dish during dinner. Fried basil provided texture, while flecks of salt atop the scallop coaxed out the mollusk’s natural sweetness, all of which was cut by acidity from the tomatoes.

Another strong–but far from exceptional–dish was the rabbit tortellini with fava beans, cipollini onions and fennel fronds. Both the pasta and the filling retained a nice bite, imparting a needed contrast to the gravy-like sauce.

A dish we decided to supplement the tasting menu with was the roasted quail with thyme and inconsistently reconstituted huckleberries–some were plump while others were still dessicated–and a side order of gnocchi. Colicchio has been known for gnocchi since his Gramercy Tavern days, and they lived up to whatever hype surrounds them. It was the quail, however, that miffed me. The two quails were halved, leaving four pieces to be divided among three people. Would it really have been too much to add one more bird to the pan? At that point, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied and floated the idea of heading to Red Medicine, but before I get to that, let me finish recounting dinner at Craft.

Next out was an overcooked fillet of wagyu flatiron with shishito peppers, charred spring garlic and more thyme. To worsen the dish, we were given dull knives, which ended up mangling the already tough piece of beef.

For the penultimate course, my brother and I had the almond panna cotta alongside blackberries, and my mother was given scoops of blackberry and chocolate sorbet. The drupe-based dessert had a smooth texture, but my mind was made up, and nothing was going to change it, not Michelle, our good-humored server, and not the trip to the kitchen after the meal’s end.

As Michelle marked our table for the soporific finale, a chocolate cream-filled crepe, roasted bananas, candied hazelnuts and hazelnut ice cream, I asked, “is it as boring as it sounds?” When she laughed it off, I pressed on. “Really, on a scale of zero to boring, how would you rate it?” Now, with a more serious answer, she said, “What it lacks in creativity, it makes up for in taste.” If only that were true. Beneath the rather smooth scoop of ice cream sat coarsely ground hazelnuts, which meant each bite of ice cream imparted a kitty litter-like grit.

With Jordan’s desserts already beginning to whet my palate, the mignardises, which consisted of brownies, almond cookies, coconut macaroons and a banana nut muffin to go, were relegated to an afterthought.

Final thoughts on Craft: as can probably be detected in the commentary, my disenchantment monotonically increased with each additional course, which also happened to coincide with the increase in the number of celebrities entering the restaurant. Craft reminds me of Spago–the Chez Panisse of southern California–in that it strives to be the place where people want to be seen. As a result, the kitchen caters to the average palate and wouldn’t dare serve up anything that would challenge–and certainly nothing that would offend–diners (for instance, nowhere on the menu can one find foie or veal).

Not content to let Craft be the last memory of my vacation, we ventured on to Red Medicine–this just might have to become tradition–for dessert, and I’m happy to say they salvaged what otherwise would have been a thoroughly disappointing evening.

My brother ordered one savory item, the pork chaud-froid with crispy chicken skin, lychee, clove, pistachio and crostini, and I went with three desserts: (1) the lemongrass pot de creme (my favorite) with sweet potato ice cream and red bull pate de fui (2) coconut bavarois, basil oil, basil seeds, chicory, coffee ice cream, condensed milk and peanut croquant and (3) caramelized profiteroles, cognac custard, cola jellies (for lack of a better term) black sesame and candy-like mango cylinders. After a short confab with Noah, and empty plates in front of us, home we went happily.

Scarpetta, Beverly Hills (May 2011)

After a morning filled with pre-departure errands, my mother suggested lunch at a chain restaurant that, according to Wikipedia, serves “American Chinese cuisine.” The idea was vetoed by my brother, who instead suggested going out for dinner. I had wanted to try Osteria Mozza–a partnership between Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Nancy Silverton–for some time, but they were booked until 9pm. So using Open Table’s primitive search on my phone, I came upon Scott Conant’s Scarpetta.

Since we would be eating at Tom Colicchio’s Craft the next night, the plan was to order à la carte. And that seemed to be the only option when no tasting menu appeared on the menus we were handed. Yet soon after being seated at a capacious four-top overlooking the Beverly Canon Gardens (see the photo below), Sophia, a server at Scarpetta whom we had met days earlier at Red Medicine, stopped by our table to say hello. Following a bit of small talk, I asked the all-important question, “is there a tasting menu?”, at which point she explained, the kitchen would be able to put one together. So when Nora, our tireless server for the evening, came to take our order, we went ahead and asked if we could go with the tasting menu. She said a five-course, reasonably priced option was available. What followed, though, was far more than five courses, and the only reason I can think of to explain it is that Sophia must have put in a good word with the kitchen.

Before the meal proper began, a busser dropped off a bread basket–the first of three during the three-hour dinner–with rosemary focaccia, ciabatta, and a sandwich-like stromboli with gooey mozzarella and salami. Accompanying the breads were caponata, marscapone butter and olive oil.

For the first course, we were served a duo of tuna with a single hon-shimiji mushroom. On the right sat a piece of yellowtail with chili oil and pink Hawaiian sea salt and on the left, a delicious commixture of preserved black truffle, brunoised carrots and micro greens encased by bigeye tuna. My first bite of the yellowtail, taken from the end closest to me, was worryingly bland. But as I moved closer to the center, where all of the pink sea salt rested, I was able to savor the fish’s flavor. Note to garde manger: season from on high.

Easily the earliest I’ve ever been served a braised meat, the second course consisted of a braised beef short rib served atop farro risotto and zucchini with nutty shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. As delicious as the short ribs were, I was spellbound by the course’s chaperone: a fricasse of truffled mushrooms on top of creamy polenta, which provided even more richness with its silken texture.

In lieu of the polenta, Nora brought my mother an heirloom tomato and arugula salad with basil oil.

On to the pasta courses, what I considered the meal’s apogee. When a restaurant charges $24 for spaghetti, one expects a damn good bowl of pasta. And with the first forkful, it became clear why this is what Scott Conant is known for. The signature dish’s dramatis personae include toothsome house-made noodles, a sweetish tomato sauce replete with all of its ecstasies of nuance and ribbons of basil. Indeed, in my mind, it effortlessly upstaged the duck and foie gras ravioli in a marsala-reduced sauce.

The fish course–a grilled fillet of branzino with charred onions and fennel and a celeriac purée–had the misfortune of being placed between two great plates of food, so aside from the crisp skin, there wasn’t anything particularly memorable about it.

That great plate of food to which I referred above, was a dry-aged sirloin of beef with each piece boasting a uniformly charred perimeter, a generous shaving of summer truffles, roasted baby potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms and a barolo reduction.

Dessert didn’t appear to be Scarpetta’s strong point, but of the three, the coconut panna cotta with coconut sorbet, a coconut tuile and grapefruit soup was my favorite, probably because it happened to be the lightest of the three.

Next out was a caramel budino topped with chocolate rice crisps and chantilly cream. I have no complaints with the budino; as for the gianduja caramel roll, it was rock solid, did-I-just-lose-a-tooth hard!

And to end, a molten chocolate cake, burnt orange-caramel gelato and espresso sauce. More than sated at this point, I tried two bites of the cake and thereafter cleansed my palate with a few spoonfuls of the creamy, if slightly muted, gelato.

As I reflect on this meal, I can say that not since my second visit to Acquerello in San Francisco back in May 2010 have I had such a good meal in an Italian restaurant. More broadly, I would group this dinner at Scarpetta–along with my first meals at Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas and at Melisse in Santa Monica–in the category of expectation-exceeders and look forward to dining there again.

Red Medicine, Beverly Hills (May 2011)

Going to Red Medicine for my friend Gloria’s birthday, with whom I first visited Red Medicine back in March, along with a handful of others meant there would be great dinner conversation, but also family style service, leading to hastily taken pictures so as not to impinge upon the dining experience of others. Yet again, then, the beauty of Jordan’s food doesn’t always come through.

We started off with charred Brussels sprouts tossed in fish sauce with prawn chips and caramelized shallots.

Following one of my favorite cabbage preparations, which puts to shame any bacon and butter-laced admixture I’ve ever made, were diaphanous rice paper wraps with rock shrimp, jackfruit, black garlic and bean sprouts.

This salad contained the meatiest maitake mushrooms I have ever tasted.

Unfortunately, this picture does the utmost violence to Jordan’s heirloom rice porridge with a slow cooked farm egg, long beans and Santa Barbara uni. Before all of the ingredients were mixed and piled on my plate, it looked like the most immaculately prepared bibimbap.

The salad of early season legumes and roots was on the bitterer side, but crispy pieces of bayonne ham provided a much appreciated salty touch.

Next an intensely flavored pork shoulder caramelized in black vinegar with goji berry, lily bulb and dried almond.

A newer item on the menu, the ocean trout cured in sugar cane, which allows it to retain its orange hue, with grapefruit, nasturtium, trout roe and burnt chili boasts a veritable playground of textures.

One of the dishes that didn’t wow me, due to a lack of salt–no surprise there–was the turmeric-dusted Alaskan halibut with coconut, passion fruit, chamomile and succulents.

Any outstanding dissatisfaction from the halibut was removed posthaste with the cromesquis of beef cheek, cashew, asian pear, radish, raisin and romanesco. The fried spheres concealed the bovine’s incredibly unctuous countenance.

Apparently not content to only send out one beef dish, Jordan sent out another: a wagyu beef brisket glazed with palm sugar and fish sauce. For my first taste, I made a lettuce wrap with pickled carrots and cucumber but soon jettisoned that consumption method when a server brought out artichokes en barigoule with green apple, green mango, green tea and tofu skin. From then on, I alternated between forkfuls of the brisket’s fatcap and the vegetal greens.

Steven Fretz, former chef de cuisine at Michael Mina’s XIV and soon-to-be chef at Curtis Stone’s new LA eatery, sat across from me throughout the meal and was kind enough to offer me a few bites of his à la carte order of pintade fermier (a French guinea hen) cooked in caramel with cinnamon, mustard lettuce, coriander, crispy onion roots and served with rice.

Zingerman’s, Ann Arbor’s lone gastronomic landmark, makes some good sandwiches, but Jordan’s version of “bahn mi” made with foie gras, forcemeat, jalapeno and carrot matches–and probably exceeds–any sandwich on their menu; it’s spicy, crispy and has a velvety filling that can only be achieved with foie.

On to Jordan’s masterful desserts: (1) lemongrass pot de creme, sweet potato ice cream, red bull pate de fui, orange blossom, bergamot and fennel fronds, (2) Bitter chocolate, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), oats, parsnips, brown butter and soy milk sorbet, (3) Rhubarb, mahlab, hibiscus,

And then the pièce de résistance. Never before have I tasted–thought of or heard of–caramelized profiteroles (paired with cognac custard, mango, cola and black sesame) with the choux pastry as crunchy as cracklings. But I’m sure in the weeks and months ahead, they will start appearing on myriad LA menus. It’s become increasingly clear that Red Medicine and Jordan’s intellectual property is becoming a hub for plagiarists–from Raphael’s pachydermal chef to Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio–who eat at Red Medicine and soon thereafter purloin Jordan’s innovative plating style, fraudulently claiming it as their own! And down I step from the soapbox.

Mezze, Los Angeles (May 2011)

Aside from the two or three instances in which a “Moroccan-spiced” something or other has been placed in front of me at Gary Danko or Fleur de Lys, I’m as green as it gets when it comes to Middle Eastern and North African flavors. And since our meal at Red Medicine in March, my brother has tried to convince me that there are non-Michelin-starred establishments worth patronizing. After discussing several prospects, we settled on Mezze, a recently opened restaurant in Los Angeles–where David Myers’ now defunct one-star Michelin Sona once lived–specializing in small plates.

Almost as soon as we were seated and handed a menu, Mike, the informal and affable captain, introduced himself, noted our request for a tasting and promptly collected the menus before I even had a chance to look at it. But it mattered not at all.

Bringing out two plates at a time, Mike started us off with (1) a roasted beet salad with sheep’s milk yogurt, fried haloumi and fried chickpeas and (2) a smoked sturgeon flatbread with sumac, labne, pickled shallot and caper berries. Haloumi is one of the few cheeses that can withstand high temperatures without melting, and the one fried cube I ate was delicious. If I was going to be finicky, I would say the beets could have used salt. As for the florid flatbread, not only was it visually stunning, but the tang from the sumac laced with labne (a yogurty cheese) harmonized wonderfully with the smokey sturgeon.

The next set of plates was the evening’s best: (1) jackfish crudo, tahini and cherry gremolata, (2) torchon of foie gras, peanut brittle and compressed watermelon and (3) house-made pita. From the sweet reconstituted cherries with tender pieces of fish to the spreadable foie with doughy pita, just about every ingredient, save for the insipid watermelon, worked together symphonically.

Coaxed as if it were risotto, the al dente Israeli cous cous provided a bed for halved kumquats and two corals of uni.

For a nice complement to the citric cous cous, we enjoyed head-on blue prawns with nigella seeds, braised fennel, fennel purée and black olive.

Moving on to slightly heartier ingredients, Mike placed a duo of offal in front of us: (1) braised veal and sweetbread ravioli and (2) braised tripe, falafel and raw chickpeas. While the ravioli filling was nondescript, the falafel was better than any I have ever tasted, and I’d like to think I’ve had eaten a fair share of falafels at Amer’s in Ann Arbor. But this one simply dwarfs its competitors–beautifully seasoned and fried perfectly with the surface maintaining a fried chicken-like crust and the inside still practically oozing.

If one were to ask me what do you prefer, striped bass or potatoes? I would more often than not say striped bass. On this night, though, the pee wee potatoes coated in zhug–an Israeli hot sauce (think Sriracha but better)–and aioli eclipsed the sous vide, persillade-crusted striped bass with littleneck clams and spring pea mash. The fillet was incredibly moist but flavor-wise, failed to impress. This being the second time in as many dinners where I’ve been disappointed with a fish course, I have become all the more appreciative of Providence.

For what would be the final savory course of the night, we were given braised lamb shoulder with freekeh, dukkah and a side of bok choy. While the Maillard-reacted exterior of the lamb combined with the unctuous interior was unequivocally superb, part of me wanted to say, hey it’s 9:30pm and eighty degrees outside–couldn’t you send out something lighter, like a leaner cut or even poultry? I was given a chance to speak up when Chef Micah Wexler came over to chat, but instead we ended up talking about his time working for Joel Robuchon, the potential for mundanity-laced tasting menus, meal pacing and of course, our next dinner at Mezze. But before that, we still needed to tend to dessert.

First out–more of a palate cleanser really–was a labne cheesecake with blood orange and tangerine. Sitting atop a crumbly crust, the creamy but tangy cheesecake went well with the citrus supremes.

And to finish the meal proper, a pine nut tart with a silky olive oil gelato.

The friandise consisted of a meringue, almond nougat, baklava and two kinds of cookies, but my brother and I were both enthralled by the gingerbread.

What’s great about a place like Mezze and many of its peers is that one can get Michelin quality food–the chefs who run these places did after all work in those establishments–without the steep price tag and without an insecure chef peregrinating through the dining room in need of an ego massage. Indeed, by the meal’s end, I wasn’t the least bit chastened that I never dined at Sona.