Providence, Los Angeles (March 2011)

Blaise Pascal wrote, “Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” My semester and a half of grad school is calling into question Pascal’s claim that intelligence is the defining feature of our species. Luckily, I’m still capable of making a restaurant reservation, and that’s exactly what I did. When we dined at Providence in November, we ordered the Chef’s Menu and were most impressed by the food. This time I thought, why not call ahead and see if they can extend their lengthiest option, to which they happily obliged. In speaking with the GM, we worked out a food budget and preferences (fish, foie, wagyu, and chocolate); as the confab came to a close, he asked, would you like to see the menu ahead of time? I politely demurred, explaining that he and his colleagues were in the pleasure business, and I’d like to let them do their job–and what a job they did!

Checked in, seated, “super-special menu” noted, wine and cocktail orders placed, on came a cavalcade of both familiar and unfamiliar tastes.

To start, a duo of “cocktails”: a mojito gelée and a spherical screwdriver, made by taking the base of vodka and orange juice mixing it with sodium alginate and dropping it into a calcium chloride solution to encase the liquid in a thin membrane. While it’s a refreshing way to begin the meal, the novelty of the effect is beginning to wane.

Then a trio of viands on a stick, including a tender piece of baby abalone, a nitid surf and turf of squid and chorizo, and a fillet of freshwater eel seasoned with sudachi that flaked away from the skewer as a perfectly cooked piece of fish should.

When food this pretty surfaces this early in a meal, one knows they’re in for an extravagant evening. From bottom to top, there’s a scallop tartare, nasturtium and osetra caviar spiked with a sorrel blossom. A hint of lemon in the tartare and the leafy green mellowed the creamy caviar and scallops.

What I remember most from this tropical crab salad with meyer lemon, pinenuts and coriander blossom was a diaphanous cylinder of grapefruit gelée, resulting in another immaculate pairing of citrus and seafood.

Not only is this dish a study in kalology, but also a study in concentrating flavor; the black truffles were vacuum-packed with olive oil and lemon and gently cooked sous vide before being placed atop quadrates of big eye tuna and mandolined baby radishes all of which sat in a black truffle-laced crème fraîche.

For the first foie preparation of the evening, we were greeted by a terrine with figs macerated in port and a port reduction. Alas, the grilled brioche accompanying this dish lost much of its moisture through the cooking process. It really didn’t matter, though, as I allocated my attention to the foie and the figs. 

Several dishes throughout the night forced me to recalibrate my all-time favorite dishes, and this is one them: a piece of brioche slathered with uni butter, topped with several pieces of Santa Barbara uni and a generous amount of shaved black truffle. Having placed the uni under a salamander, it was beginning to weep, giving the sensation of biting through several inches of buttery bliss.

Bread service was a bit chaotic since Providence is in the process of introducing a new pastry team. There were three on offer–Nori foccaccia, bacon brioche, and sourdough–and when they arrived fresh from the oven, it was worth burning one’s fingers for. Our server for the evening, Molly, made sure “the bread man” stopped by our table so that we would be equipped to sop up the sauces of hot entrées. Getting through this Russian novel of a meal required asectic bread consumption. By the time the last savory course was cleared I mowed through three pieces of bacon brioche and two pieces each of the nori foccaccia and sourdough.

Not pictured here–because excitement got the best of me–is a roasted spot prawn with champagne sauce, more osetra caviar, celery leaves and the sweetest imaginable spot prawn roe. Shame on me.

Turbot with English peas and black truffles was the only “meh” dish of the meal mainly because the fillet suffered from an anvilic texture.

Here again, the accoutrement–arugula, black pudding-potato hash and broken balsamic reduction–overshadowed the center stage ingredient, which in this case was Spanish octopus.

The final fish course was superbly balanced: just barely cooked through King salmon, espelette pepper foam, and toothsome baby turnips and carrots. Due to overuse on Top Chef, foams have been considered passé; for this dish, however, it was totally appropriate as the hint of heat from the foam tamed the fatty fish.

Ever the fan of offal, I was happy to see this nicely caramelized sweetbread, parsnip purée, mizuna and cranberry reduction, although I must say I remain partial to the variant at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco.

For the second foie offering of the evening, we were presented with a seared preparation alongside a meringue, a reduction of blood orange juice and beets. This could be the most amazing peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the syrupy blood orange juice and warm butter texture of the foie.

While certainly delicious, what amplified this pork belly wrapped in brick dough with grainy mustard and red cabbage cooked in bacon fat was the coarse sea salt that I liberally seasoned each bite with.

When Molly marked our table with “big boy knives,” I knew the Australian wagyu was on the way, and it was even better than I remember, served with bone marrow, a duo of potato and–what else?–a chiffonade of black truffle.

Unprepossessing in portion, this palate cleanser of lemongrass granita, cucumber, ginger foam, sake gelée and satsuma orange packed a stunning array of harmonious flavors.

For the penultimate dessert, I enjoyed one of the most enchanting flavors I’ve ever tasted: banana-cilantro ice cream along with shiso leaves, roasted pineapple and banana caramel.

After finishing the second foie dish, I–recalling Heston Blumenthal’s osetra caviar sorbet–wondered aloud: do you think they’ll make a foie ice cream for dessert? Not quite, but I was right in general spirit–foie gras for fucking dessert! For the third and final foie preparation of the night, we savored it three ways: a foie-chocolate cremeux with white chocolate-shiso chips, foie powder and a foie gelée. Forget bacon-based desserts; this was revelatory, coup de foudre, a dish that will remain etched in my memory whenever foie gras gets placed in front of me henceforth.

The meal came to an official end with a tray of mignardises: lime-mint pate de fui, dark chocolate-cherry macarons and Thai caramels.

Let me end by saying, last night at Providence, after five hours and fifteen minutes, I experienced the best meal of my life!

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