Melisse, Santa Monica (December 2010)

For the third time in a year, we arrived at Melisse for our 6pm reservation, were promptly seated and faced a menu with three options: four courses, ten courses or the fourteen-ish course Carte Blanche. The four-course seemed to be the obvious choice, since my sleep pattern remains inured to the eastern time zone and since the ten-course menu included three dishes my mother found unpalatable. But with hardly any arm-twisting and with James’ (our captain for the evening) mention of game on the Carte Blanche, Carte Blanche it would be.

The now familiar amuse always features a goat cheese-encrusted viand alongside a more modern use of the viand. Yesterday, it was a grape coated in goat cheese and rolled in crushed pistachio and a grape raviolo with a liquid goat cheese filling; the one-bite raviolo releases a stream of goat cheese, not too tangy and with hints of sweetness not unlike those found in mascarpone or cream cheese.

Before officially beginning our meal, a busser came by with the bread tray, one of the best–and my favorite–in California. Sure Patina has a great green olive roll. And sure Providence’s hot-out-of-the-oven bacon brioche coats one’s fingers in bacon and butter fat. But Melisse has both a black olive roll and a bacon focaccia, as well as two kinds of brioche–one regular and one basil–a french loaf and ciabatta.

Course one was simple enough: a fresh Kusshi oyster swimming in finger lime juice and topped with chives.

The second course featured two small, but wonderfully caramelized scallops, sitting in an uni cream and draped with fresh uni. Mandolined cauliflower and marcona almonds rounded out the dish.

Next came the artichoke soup.

Notice the difference? If you answered grated white truffles, you would be correct. Unfortunately, the robust flavors of the tomato confit and the parmesan fritter quickly enveloped the truffle’s aroma and overwhelmed the subtle artichoke.

The fourth course, a poached egg layered with cauliflower cream, crème fraîche, chives and a spoonful of osetra caviar, was all about unabashed lily gilding. With a deft spoon one could achieve a perfect bite: runny egg yolk, velvety cream, and those briny exploding pearls of caviar.

Not keen on eggs, my mother received a tartare of kampachi with osetra instead.

Unable to contain my excitement, I began defacing the fifth course before I even photographed it. And I challenge anyone not to. It’s foie gras three ways! First, it’s expertly seasoned, seared and served atop a cube of pain d’épices that soaks up all of the foie’s drippings. Then there’s a terrine with a yuzu gelée. And finally a torchon. The accoutrement include persimmons, more brioche, a blueberry compote and a kumquat gastrique.

In the inimitable words of Christopher Hitchens, four of the most overrated things in life are lobster, champagne, picnics and–pardon the infelicity, but I would hate to do violence to the Hitch’s ipsedixitism–anal sex. I can only verify 25 percent of the Hitch’s claim, for the highlight in this dish was the Musque de Provence agnolotti finished tableside with a kabocha consommé infused with brunoised vegetables. Each purse of pasta, separated by a chanterelle mushroom and a piece of grilled cuttlefish, was filled with silky pumpkin purée, which had an ambrosial sweetness, achieved by high-temperature roasting.

The risotto laced with black truffle and mascarpone was certainly not made for the sodium sensitive. Only four full spoonfuls of rice in all, each delivered salt, butter and wafts of cheese and truffle. The brown butter-truffle foam provided a nonpareil nosefeast. Far be it for me to offer emendations to the creations of Chefs Citrin and Takayama, but given this dish’s richness, I think a bit of fresh squeezed lemon juice or some citrus zest would have helped impart a bit of balance.

On to course eight, a Japanese trumpet fish with a brioche crust atop brunoised cucumber, kohlrabi purée, and roasted carrots. Without question, the brioche crust, comparable to cracklings in texture, made this dish.

Course nine was the much anticipated game course. The duo of Scottish pheasant with celery textures, turnip purée, marche cherry and black trumpet mushrooms was not quite as spectacular as the duo of partridge we were treated to during our first Carte Blanche. While the confited leg was as tender as can be, falling like dominos into four symmetric rectangles, the sautéed breast was a bit stringy; fortunately, the périgourdine sauce fortified with foie gras moistened it.

Domestic wagyu, also prepared two ways, would bring an end to the savory portion of the meal. This was steak and potatoes done up. Not quite as butyraceous as the more thoroughly marbled Australian wagyu served at Providence, the two generous slices of ribeye, finished tableside with a red wine-herb jus, were, in a word, delicious. And sitting on a mustard green leaf were baby turnips, cipollinis, a thumbelina carrot, and a well seasoned fingerling potato. It was the beef cheek, though, cast into a patty, that did it for me. Incredibly beefy and complemented by the dijonnaise, the braised cheek came apart with the gentlest coaxing from a fork.

Ever the turophiles, my brother and I found ourselves in an embarras de choix as the cheese cart arrived at our table; we sampled eight, but I allocated most of my attention to three–Roquefort, Comte, and Pico–and made frequent use of the macerated pears and kumquats to help with the stinkier selections.

The twelfth course was strawberry-rhubarb ice cream and compote atop vanilla bean yogurt. More panna cotta than yogurt, the first dessert served its function in cleansing the palate.

For our first Carte Blanche experience last December, “Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate” concluded our meal, and I was convinced it would do so again. It turns out, however, that both James and Ryan, our captain for our two previous meals at Melisse, told the chef that it’s a heavy-handed way to finish. The aptly named penultimate dessert includes, a Valhrona chocolate soufflé, a chocolate-peanut butter mousse, a white chocolate-coated milk chocolate bon bon, and a thickened coffee topped with whipped mascarpone and espresso grains.

Ending on a lighter note, then, the kitchen sent out textures of green apple–fresh, frozen, nitro-ed and ice cream–pomegranate and a dandelion-burdock soda.

A trio of mignardises–canelés, three different cookies (raspberry shortbread, peanut butter and chocolate chip) and fresh berries–brought to a close yet another memorable meal.

As we approached the exit, James greeted us by the door and enthusiastically suggested the next time we come in, we consider Carte Blanche Plus, something in the range of eighteen courses, and I must say that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

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