SAAM, Beverly Hills and Red Medicine (March 2011)

To put an exclamation point on my vacation, a dear friend, Gloria, was able to secure a reservation–and join us in this camaraderie of vice–at Saam, Jose Andres’ private dining room within the Bazaar. We entered the SLS Hotel for our 7pm reservation and were greeted by Robin, the exceeding pleasant captain of Saam for the evening.

The meal began with an apéritif whose ingredients almost entirely elude me (this will be a leitmotif, I’m afraid, given the intricacy and number of tastes–see the menu below–throughout the night); it was, from what I remember, a sherry and cava amalgam with some citrus components. At least for me–a lightweight neophyte when it comes to spirits–this seemed like a rather harsh drink with which to inaugurate the meal.

Next out were three crispy lotus chips dusted with star anise powder followed by olive oil bonbons, made by using isomal to encase the fruity extra virgin olive oil. A few flecks of Maldon sea salt both magnified the flavor of the bonbon and kept the rich oil from completely coating one’s palate.

Brought out simultaneously were tuna tartare handrolls wrapped in brick dough and “bagles and lox,” which featured a steamed bun topped with salmon roe and crème fraîche. I found that the blimpish bun detracted from the roe and rendered the crème fraîche all but imperceptible.

For this course, my mother was given jicama-wrapped guacamole.

The next two tastes were simply stunning: a thin piece of veal pastrami wrapped around a conical crisp harboring a warm, oozing egg yolk followed by Jamón ibérico de Bellota with caviar; if this can be grouped in the domain of sashimi, it easily bests toro.

Having already described the spherification technique in my Providence note, I’ll focus on the flavor, which was an intense black olive burst with fruity and herbal undertones from the olive oil, thyme and rosemary in which they’re marinated.

This dish had all of the familiar flavors of a buffalo wing, but it was boneless and so very tender.

Anyone familiar with Jose Andres knows he’s a magician with vegetables, and this was a case study therein: a “Caprese” salad with spherical mozzarella, tomato “caviar”, basil leaves, pesto, balsamic vinegar, and croutons.

In place of the salad, my mother received caramelized onions topped with citrus.

Next came a forgettable sashimi of shimaaji (I think) on puffed rice with pickled baby turnip.

There’s really not much I can say about this course other than it was a pretty plate of food with well-cooked squid in its own ink.

It’s not often that a dish with foie can be described as light, but the corn espuma with foie soup was just that.

The two-bite “banh mi” on brioche with wagyu, coriander and jalapeno was delicious, if a tad minuscule; it was at this point in the meal when Gloria and my brother began raving about the banh mi at Red Medicine and broached the idea of stopping by for some after-dinner snacks.

Another play on a classic: “linguine and clams”; I’ll be the first to admit that taking a dashi broth and adding agar agar and gelatin to make noodles is an interesting technique, but they really didn’t taste especially good and granitic clams further enfeebled the dish.

On first bite, I was gobsmacked at how pork belly cooked sous vide for 48 hours could be tough, but it was, and the cold potato espuma did not make any sense to me.

Fortunately, the kitchen redeemed itself with the next dish (a complementary course, actually): a wild mushroom risotto with an obscene amount of black truffles.

Another outstanding dish followed: “Philly cheese steak” with wagyu and cheddar cheese espuma on air bread. As I bit into the sandwich, creamy cheddar cheese coated my fingers, imbuing me with the impish sensation to lick my fingers.

As the only person at the table never to have tried the cotton candy foie gras dish, Gloria was kind enough to ask Bonnie, our bespectacled server for the evening, to bring one out, and it was absolutely phenomenal. The silhouette of the cube of foie gras is faintly noticeable in the photo below, but let me describe it anyway; the one bite of bliss begins with sugary cotton candy that quickly gives way to a dense cube of cool foie gras with notes of vanilla.

The spherical burrata with Japanese baby peaches and hazelnut praline didn’t fit into the meal’s progression, but everything on the plate worked, with the slightly briny burrata merging with the sweetness of the peaches and the praline.

Dragon’s breath popcorn (essentially kettle corn cooked in liquid nitrogen) is more about theatrics than taste; when one pops the morsel into one’s mouth, smoke bellows from one’s nostrils, giving the effect of a fairy tale-esque dragon.

For the penultimate course, we were served a smooth quenelle of clementine sorbet and rose ice cream.

A Thin Minty combo of flexible milk chocolate ganache with eucalyptus meringue and ice cream brought the menu to an end.

For mignardises, Bonnie dropped off mixed berry and passion fruit pate de fui, chocolate tablets and chocolate truffles. The green tea tablet and star anise truffle were good but really couldn’t compare to what awaited us at our next destination.

With my good senses on sabbatical, we next made the short trip to Red Medicine, a “Vietnamese canteen” co-owned and operated by Jordan Kahn, for what I thought would entail maybe a sandwich and a dessert–how wrong I was. We started with a number of savory offerings: banh mi with house made sriracha, Brussels sprouts with fish sauce and prawn chips, and Turmeric curry with sweetbreads, sweet potatoes and a Bouchon baguette (readers will have to forgive me as all of these photos do a disservice to Jordan’s creations).

After meeting and chatting with Jordan, I expressed how excited I was to try his desserts the next time I was in L.A.. To my surprise, he suggested getting a dessert tasting underway posthaste, notwithstanding the fact that dinner service had ended 45 minutes earlier.

We started with a lemongrass pot de creme, red bull pate de fui and sweet potato ice cream. Oh, this dessert put my palate through many permutations of pleasure, as one velvety texture gave way to another.

The slight tartness from the rhubarb, hibiscus and a string of other ingredients I can’t remember proved to be a successful contrast to the previous dessert’s creaminess.

Next, a lime sabayon, cucumber ice cream and one of the tastiest (cashew) macaroons I’ve ever eaten.

There was a quality of desperation in the way I consumed this dessert–a coconut bavarois, bloomed basil seeds, coffee ice cream, and peanut butter croquant–knowing it would be months before I returned to Red Medicine.

For my mother, Jordan brought out a bitter chocolate, soy milk ice cream, brown butter and parsnip composition; he then stayed to talked about, inter alia, his demo at StarChefs, his creative process, and the dinner he cooked for Natalie Portman after her Oscar win. The evening finally came to an end a little after 1am, a mere four hours after my West Coast bedtime.

In Ann Arbor, I’m generally plagued by an inability to get on good terms with pleasure, but this week of hedonism cured that, all while furthering my romance with gastronomy. Over the course of these meals, I became even more entrenched in my adherence to a rather intuitive rule of thumb: with few exceptions, entrust the kitchen with your menu selections.

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