Per Se, New York (July 2011)

I came to New York looking for transcendent meals–the kind of transcendence one gets the first time reading Bellow, Nabokov or Amis–and was lucky enough to have three in five days. Normally, on a gourmandizing trip, I try to ease my way into a city’s restaurant scene, building up to the pièce de résistance. Four days in New York didn’t permit such a strategy, however, and I would have to begin with the titans right from the start.

In 2005, Michelin published its first U.S.-based guide of New York and awarded four restaurants with three stars, of which Per Se was one, and it has maintained that status ever since. Another reason for wanting to dine at Per Se centered on several people, whose opinions I value, telling me that it was the best dining experience in the country. Few restaurants can ever deliver on such lofty expectations. Per Se did.

Sidestepping the nonfunctional cerulean doors, I entered my first three-star Michelin restaurant and was met by Alex, a smiley young woman, who would be my server. Noting my request for an extended tasting menu, she didn’t bother bringing me a menu–eating at a restaurant like Per Se is, after all, about submission–but instead started me off with an applely glass of champagne.
@font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

Having read The French Laundry Cookbook, I knew several dishes were bound to surface, starting with two gruyère gougeres, a salmon cornet (a salmon tartare wrapped in a little cone filled with red onion crème fraîche) and “oysters and pearls” (sterling white sturgeon caviar, tapioca, an oyster juice sabayon, chives, and Greek and Massachusetts oysters)@font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } . And even though I knew these dishes were coming, they still floored me. The gruyère flooded my mouth as if it was marrow. The cornet contained the most nicely seasoned tartare that it has ever been my privilege to taste. And the “oysters and pearls” sent me into reverie as I closed my eyes, bursting the smooth as satin caviar on the roof of my mouth. One of the great things about this dish was, not surprisingly, the quenelle of caviar, which held together as if it was in solidarity, allowing me to cut it in half, yielding two exquisite mother of pearl spoonfuls.

Continuing the leitmotif of lusciousness, out came a turnip velouté with mejool dates, spinach purée and olive oil and a diamond-shaped sea urchin panna cotta enhanced by a carrot granita, coconut foam and micro basil.

Next, a silken sashimi of citrus-cured hiramasa with a charred shisito pepper, supremes of orange and two pimentón-honey gelées.

We returned to The French Laundry Cookbook with the white truffle-infused custard topped with a black truffle ragout and a chive potato chip. The reduced veal stock, black truffles and musty custard made for a playground of decadence.

In hindsight, this tartare of 100-day dry-aged American wagyu with marble potatoes, romaine lettuce, shaved parmesan, a caper mayonnaise, dehydrated capers, and a crisp potato tart probably explains why I found Le Bernardin’s tartare to be a letdown, for this one had a wallop of salt coming both from the capers and the parm.

Two kinds of butter were on offer, one from Animal Farm in Vermont and one from the Loire Valley, both of which I used on the cooked proteins. I tuned out the bread tray, but did allow a white country roll, which went untouched, to be placed on my bread plate.

The corn velouté with basil oil, soppressata, Espelette pepper and whipped buttermilk foam was delicious enough to drown in. Intense and with a long peppery finish, it is the best version I have ever had.

It was followed by a celeriac-glazed terrine of Hudson Valley foie served alongside a beet gelée, peach marmalade, toasted brioche (again untouched), and six salts: maldon, two grays from Brittany, a Hawaiian sea salt, a black salt and a 40 million-year-old salt from Montana. Fortunately, the portion of foie was large enough to allow me to sample each one. Having consumed my champagne, Alex brought out a honey and apricot-laden glass of 1996 Sauternes.

Moving on to the fish and crustacean courses, there was a striped bass with compressed honeydew and cantalope, Armando Manni extra virgin olive oil, radish and Castelvetrano olives. This was the one dish where I felt the main ingredient wasn’t allowed to radiate, as miniscule pieces of cilantro shoots proved to be too harsh for the barely cooked bass. In twenty-plus courses, it was the only foible I could find; those are the kind of positive returns that rival Bernie Madoff! Anyway, I forgot all about it when the magnanimous portion of butter poached Nova Scotia lobster with thompson grapes, celery leaves, celeriac purée, applewood smoked bacon and smoked bacon vinaigrette came out.

In the last three years, a handful of dishes have etched themselves in my memory: Guy Savoy’s colors of caviar, Picasso’s roast pigeon and Providence’s uni-topped brioche with black truffles. This pasta course joins that short list. In The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller shares the following philosophy: “[of foie] serve just slightly too much. Go overboard with truffles and caviar too, so that people who have perhaps only eaten truffles in stingy quantities can taste them and say, ‘Oh, now I understand.'” That’s what this caramelized potato gnocchi was all about. Sure there was a delicious duck gizzard ragout. But the real treat centered on the truffle, which Alex unveiled from what looked like a treasure chest. I then looked on as she shaved the soft ball-sized Australian black truffle until the gnocchi were almost entirely obscured, and for the next who-knows-how-many-minutes?–it’s almost as if I blacked out and journeyed to some paradisal wonderland–I simply wandered around the plate with fork in hand and allowed the ingredients to seduce me.

How does one even conceive of a follow-up? Well, conceive they did, first, with a sous vide poulard with creamed morels and glazed turnips followed by a rib of baby lamb with navel orange confit, pickled summer squash and a separated gremolata. Back during the foie course, I engaged in a little mischief, placing little piles of the salts on my bread plate, and used them to great effect on both proteins. And the wine paired for these two courses was simple amazing, a 2003 Recioto della Valpolicella Classico, with a finish that seemed to last for days.

A runner then placed the cheese course in front of me, a Pennsylvania Pipe Dreams goat cheese with San Marzano tomato marmalade, and a bean salad tossed in a whole grain mustard vinaigrette, punctuated by a little good-natured, marijuana-based innuendo–I guess I’ve yet to shed my Berkeley-ish manner. As for the cheese, it had a runniness around the perimeter and firmed up to the consistency of cream cheese as I grew closer to its center.

Finally entering the dessert portion of the meal, the first one, a ginger sorbet encased in plum purée and topped with a sake granita and tiny plum meringues, reminded me of a concentric concoction at Coi in San Francisco, except better. It was quickly followed up by an equally august dehydrated strawberry-coated parfait with a jasmine custard, a jasmine tea foam and a strawberry sorbet.

And to finish dessert proper, a chocolate cremeux with caramelized puff pastry and a bourbon-maple syrup ice cream as well as a cinnamon-dusted brioche doughnut, replete with a churro-like interior (in contrast to the pachydermal preparation at Forest Grill), alongside a cappuccino semifreddo.

Then, what was modestly called “mignardises” began. I was swarmed with sweets–house-made chocolates (vanilla, raspberry, passion fruit, cashew, kona coffee and crème fraîche), butterscotch caramels, hazelnut guanduja, cassis macarons, white, milk and dark chocolate truffles, pulled sugar candies, shortbread cookies–and while I tried most of them, I would end up passing some along to friends the next day.

Per Se isn’t just a restaurant. It’s a civilizing institution. There are few reasons that merit donning slacks and a jacket, but eating here is one of them. Now I cannot imagine what the servers made of my wrinkled shirt, facial hair-clouded face, unkempt hair and Oxford Handbook of Political Economy open to a notationally intensive page. In the end, it didn’t matter because I was happy, having just eaten what may well have been the perfect meal.


Corton, New York (July 2011)

With a mere four hours between the end of lunch and my reservation at Corton, I was left trying to figure out some way to amass an appetite. Walking from Brooklyn to Tribeca and getting lost definitely helped, but I was still thirstier than I was hungry by the time I arrived for the most anticipated dinner of this little jaunt, and the food didn’t disappoint. Entering, I was met by the maître d’, a red-haired, bespectacled young woman, who once worked at, and strongly recommended, Eleven Madison Park. She walked me to a table, where for the next three hours I would remain largely unbothered by the all-too-close tables.

I started by ordering a glass of Grand Cru champagne–more to relieve my thirst than to enjoy–and asked my server how best to extend the very reasonably priced eight-course tasting menu. She suggested just picking the extra dishes from the seasonal menu, and Chef Liebrandt would incorporate them accordingly. I went with the foie, guinea hen and smoked caramel dessert; but when the server mentioned an off-the-menu mangalitsa dish, I had little choice but to tack that on as well. Now I don’t generally talk about prices, but it would be just $55 for those four courses, a veritable bargain at any quality restaurant, let alone a two-star Michelin recipient.

Dinner began with a litany of amuse: a crumbly almond-herb-black sesame financier, a potato cracker filled with mornay, a fresh-from-the-fryer potato croquette, a sweetish corn pudding topped with black bean espuma, and finally a not pictured skewered cube of big eye tuna with a garlic chip and charred lime that one is instructed to squeeze over the fish. The warm lime juice glazed the fish, imparting a burst of fresh acidity.

With amuses cleared, out came a gentleman with a selection of breads, including olive-rosemary (pictured below), cranberry-walnut, smoked baguette and one or two others served with sweet cream butter and a seaweed butter.

The first course was a hodgepodge–asparagus spears, sour cherry pate de fui and hazelnuts–tied together by a yuzu-summer truffle mousse and a not pictured (I swear this was my last lapse) buckwheat blini topped with shaved asparagus. I have to say, the summer truffle, a lightweight compared to its hiemal incarnation, got lost amid the other pronounced flavors.

This next course–cherry glazed torchons of foie, pistachio tuile, apricot-black olive butter, brioche and a cloud-like foie chantilly with cucumber gelée and chamomile–was truly a work of art. There are a number of chefs who can make food look good, but not all of them can make it taste good consistently. Chef Liebrandt doesn’t have that problem. I loved everything about this multi-plate offering: the element of trompe l’oeil, the flavor and the accoutrement. Dozens of foie gras dishes have been placed in front of me over the years, but none had made me as giddy as the one at Corton.

As good as the ayu with huckleberry purée, osetra caviar, a spinach roulade and shaved Japanese soy salt was, I think I was still smitten by the foie to the point where I seriously considered ordering a second portion just so I could experience that impish joy once more. 

The next course seemed to be a pantry raid of sorts: variegated beets, morels, purple basil, chive chips, romanesco, eggplant caviar, saffron purée and a saffron meringue. Some of the greens were a tad unwieldy, but all of the component parts made for a satisfying salad.

Next out was the vadouvan-spiced monk garlanded with sweet potato gnocchi, a morel, red wine-hibiscus gelée, an abalone and squid amalgam with burnt flower meringue and cippollini and a flaky herb-fava-sea-bean tart. The coarseness of the spice blend imparted a wonderful contrast in texture, but also happened to render the flavor of the gnocchi indistinct.

@font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }@font-face { font-family: “MarkerFelt-Thin”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
Chef Liebrandt has a unique genius for persuading proteins into poetry, and that was on full display with the first of three meat dishes: squab breast wrapped in double smoked bacon and sauced with young coconut, turnip and miso. Like the foie, this is just one of those dishes one dreams about, the meat’s uniformly florid complexion, its perfect cylindrical shape and the flecks of salt on top. Oh, and lest I forget the accompanying plates of a kimchi gelée with dots of kimchi mayonnaise, foie mousse and a cocoa chip as well as an eggplant-sardine-basil skewer.

Following the squab would be another clever use of transglutaminase (an enzyme that binds proteins):  leg and breast of guinea hen studded with lardo and served alongside ruby red shrimp ballantine, braised cock’s comb, romanesco purée, anise-hyssop sauce, a pork trotter croquette with a deliciously gelatinous interior offset by the crepitation-textured exterior and an anise-infused cherry.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet but probably explains why I was so taken by the protein preparations at Corton centers on just how aggressively they season. More broadly, this liberal use of salt may account for why I enjoyed Corton, Daniel and Per Se so much more than Le Bernardin. The last savory course of the evening was a mangalitsa pork chop with a citrus-pork jus, asparagus, corn custard, sesame crusted beet, king oyster mushroom and a potato fondant hollowed out and impregnated with buttery potato purée.

Moving on to the cheese course, here was another beautiful composition, as never before have I seen a slice of cheese used as a canvas; Liebrandt decorated the tomme de cherve (a raw goat’s milk cheese from France) with shaved orange cauliflower, pea purée, peas and a pistachio crisp on the side.

Desserts at Corton are a textural playground, starting with the fennel sorbet, a sphere of fromage blanc, blueberries, cheesecake and blueberry tapioca, then the delightfully salty smoked caramel sabayon with caramel corn, brown butter crumble, blackberries and caramel corn ice cream coated in popcorn and finishing with the layered vanilla-saffron fudge with apricot purée, crystallized violet, salted chocolate encased summer truffle, matcha green tea sablé, green tea powder and vanilla bean purée.

The mignardises service continued the theme of deliciousness with the largest pear canalé I’ve ever seen, strawberry-lemon verbena and passion fruit pate de fui, mojito and pimm’s cup (a gin-based cocktail) macarons and four house-made chocolates: palet d’or, Mexican-spiced chocolate, salted caramel and espresso.

In my mind, what might keep Corton from achieving four stars from the New York Times or three stars in the Michelin Guide is the restaurant’s ambiance. With the cramped table set-up, it gives off a neighborhood restaurant aura, in contradistinction to the grand destination dining rooms of Daniel or Per Se. And the one detraction from my overall experience resulted from diners being far too close to one another. For the last thirty minutes of my dinner, a yet-to-be-indicted finance fucktard was seated next to me and insisted on making stentorian declarations trying to impress his date all while proving he knew nothing about the food being placed in front of him. This happens everywhere, I know, but not everyone should have to hear it.

Le Bernardin, New York (July 2011)

For over twenty years, Le Bernardin has been one of the consistently best restaurants in New York, maintaining its coveted four-star status from the New York Times across four critics. And when a friend told me it merits mention in the same breath as Per Se and Daniel–it most certainly does not–I looked at their website and saw that they were open for lunch. I immediately emailed J and convinced her to join me.

Perhaps it was because lunch at Le Bernardin was bookended by two exceptional dinners. Or perhaps it was because I hadn’t seen J in over two months and was far more interested in catching up than in focusing on what was in front of me. Whatever the reason, as I sat down to write this, I noticed the primary feeling I held toward Le Bernardin centered on insouciance. Nothing was bad. Nor, though, was anything at the let-me-put-down-my-utensil-and-appreciate-what-just-got-put-in-front-of-me level (for the sake of comparison, that happened three times at Per Se and twice at Corton). There just weren’t the moments of excitement that I had experienced elsewhere on my trip. I’m usually apologetic when the photos don’t do justice to the food–as is the case with both Corton and Daniel–but with Le Bernardin I don’t think the food did justice to the photos.

Arriving at noon for our 1pm reservation (miscommunication on my part), we were greeted warmly at the reservationist stand and walked to a table without delay. For whatever reason, I was under the impression that the only option for lunch was three courses. Upon opening up to the first page of the menu, I spotted the eight-course option, which J seemed amenable to. With our order placed, a runner brought us a bowl of salmon rillettes with chives interspersed throughout and rounds of toast; unless I count that as the amuse, there was no welcome from the kitchen. It was eight courses, bereft of all of the little supplementaries one comes to expect in restaurants of this caliber. As for the rillettes, the one taste I had signaled to my palate that they were nowhere near as good as the clarified butter-topped preparation at Bouchon.

This first course stood out among its peers when I looked at the menu weeks before the meal: a tartare of Nebraska wagyu beef topped with a tartare of sweet shrimp, which is then topped with osetra caviar, garnished with three little potato crisps and a black pepper-vodka crème fraîche and paired with a glass of 1998 Champagne Dom Ruinart; it would be my only glass of alcohol during lunch, but the first of eight for J, and she mentioned ex post that it had quite an effect. When I took my first bite of this three-layer tower of luxury, alas, no one flavor stood out.

The second course, a seared langoustine with shaved foie and a white balsamic-tossed mâche and mushroom salad, would be a vast improvement. It was a balanced meeting of the creamy foie and sweet crustacean’s delicacy, both of which were skillfully offset by the tart vinaigrette. @font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

Several breads were on offer, none of which I tried, but J said she liked the rosemary-olive.

The next course, grilled octopus with little leaves of purple basil, was all about the sauce, a pungent fermented black bean-pear sauce vierge. If I had even a modicum of the saucier’s talent, I would incorporate this accoutrement into my repertoire posthaste.

In my mind, the Alaskan salmon mi cuit (half-cooked) with asparagus “risotto” (basically pieces of asparagus cooked as if they were grains of rice) finished tableside with a smoked pistachio pesto, salmon roe and a parmesan foam begged for salt. I realize the parmesan foam was intended to fill that lacuna, but it was too diluted to do so. 

@font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } Just as was the case with the octopus, what enchanted me about the “crispy black bass” certainly wasn’t the bass, nor was it the mini pork bun, but rather it was the sauce, and the aromatic warmth of hoisin and plum juice that it emitted.  My one problem with the dish involves its description, particularly the use of the word “crispy.” This, my friends, was not crispy. Crispy is the wonderful scale-on sea bass served at Guy Savoy. This was merely skin-on.

For the final savory course, we were served olive oil poached escolar with sea beans, potato crisps, and a red wine-tarragon sauce. J made the comment, “it’s amazing that fish can be so meaty.” Indeed, when fish is this robust, one isn’t left longing for meat (except when Corton’s Paul Liebrandt is preparing that meat, in which case, forget what I just said).

The first dessert, a lime parfait with a lime meringue, avocado purée and grapefruit-tequila sorbet, was perfectly satisfactory as a palate cleanser. But what was really the standout in this course wasn’t even on the plate. It was the pairing, a pear cider, that perfumed the table with its sweetness.

And to end, a dense dark chocolate cremeux, a little sliver of candied orange and Earl Grey Tea ice cream along with a bundle of pistachio financiers and almond madeleines.

I think Le Bernardin is a great entry-level fine dining restaurant. One will get to observe flawless service and a nonpareil respect for ingredients. But if you’re looking for an unforgettable experience, you’re not going to find it here. In all honesty, I’ve had better meals in one and two-star Michelin restaurants all across the west coast.

Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor (July 2011)

The early wake-up and underwhelming dinner the previous night left me feeling peckish when my flight touched down in Detroit. Not two minutes after I made my way outside, Laura pulled up to the curb and as if she was reading my mind, suggested lunch at the Roadhouse. It had been over ten months since my last meal there, and I was craving hearty comfort food.

We decided to create our own little three-course meal and made it clear that we didn’t want all of the food delivered at once. To start, Laura suggested Hood Canal oysters, which we finished with a dollop of horseradish and a squeeze of lemon. Laura gave me a short description of Washington oysters and explained that the Hood Canal variety should be firm with a bit of a chew to them. These were tenderer than I expected and really quite good.

On to the first course. We were treated to what I thought to be a faultless buttermilk fried chicken with a mustard-based slaw. It’s a dish that is really all about the strength of simple pleasures. As for the BBQ pulled pork with mash potatoes and braised collards, the flavor fell flatter than a pancake. I guess I expected a salty, viscous sauce, but instead all one could taste was gradations of acidity. Laura, an experienced pulled pork preparer, chalked it up to a heavy hand with apple cider vinegar. The side order of rigatoni-based macaroni and cheese is really about all one can eat before self-loathing sets in.

Moving on to the penultimate course, this is where it got interesting. Zingerman’s Roadhouse and its chef Alex Young are James Beard award winners. Surely they know how to cook a burger medium rare, right? No, I’m afraid not. The first attempt was painfully overcooked. As our embarrassed server whisked the burger back to the kitchen, we nibbled on what Laura referred to as sweet potato “daggers” and enjoyed the well-cooked catfish po’ boy topped with a roasted red pepper relish. The side of grits with Vermont cheddar is creamy while remaining toothsome, but like the macaroni and cheese, after a couple of bites, one is forced to concede defeat. Attempt two at cooking a burger to a lightish pink, alas, ended much like attempt one. With an ancillary server standing over my shoulder with anticipation, I cut down the center of the patty to reveal, once more, an anemically gray interior. At this point, I was expecting to hear Laura’s idiosyncratic “oh, no,” but I think we were both dumbstruck. When our primary server came back to check on us, she was incredibly apologetic and insisted we allow the kitchen to try a third time. Laura and I were both rooting for the kitchen to get it right and acceded. As politely as possible, I told the server, “I think the problem is melting the cheese under a salamander,” which she seemed to find plausible.

With both of us approaching satiation, we ordered lighter desserts, and to my surprise they were prepared with remarkable finesse. The scoops of vanilla and chocolate-strawberry-balsamic ice cream were devoid of any ice crystals, and the chilled espresso mousse had an airiness that one doesn’t usually associate with Zingerman’s food. Midway through dessert, our server brought out a third burger, this time with American cheese, and cooked closer to medium, verging on medium well, but we said it was perfect and allowed her to put it in a to-go box. After settling the modest tab, we departed, full and with dinner in hand.

Providence, Los Angeles (June 2011)

I suppose I was a bit naive in thinking the amazing service would return with us from Vegas. Back when Ruth Reichl was restaurant critic for the New York Times, she penned a review of Le Cirque that involved a comparison of a meal in which she was not recognized by the restaurant’s staff and one in which she was. That dichotomy captures our recent meal at Providence, which Sunset Magazine recently adduced as one of the top four reasons why LA is a better food city than San Francisco (don’t even get me started on what a fucking joke that is!).

The over five-hour dinner started inauspiciously enough, as a smug receptionist, who couldn’t bother to say welcome back–this was, after all, our third dinner there in seven months–walked us to a table that left both my brother and me pinned up against a wall with little mobility. When I politely asked if we could sit one table over, we were told that table was for four people only, even though we had sat in that exact spot on two prior visits. The unwarm welcome continued with our initial server, a bespectacled German fellow, who seemed to suffer from a pathological inability to listen.

What ensued was the most unpleasant experience trying to place an order I’ve ever had, for the server seemed intent on getting us to order the five-course menu. When I made it clear that we had had the chef’s menu as well as an extended chef’s menu as recently as March, he still insisted on peddling the five-course menu, so much so in fact that he actually came around the table to point out the starred items that were included in that option as if I didn’t understand him. After more back and forth, I managed to convince him that we wanted the chef’s menu, at which point he then questioned me when I requested the salt roasted spot prawns as a supplement, asking, “are you sure you want to do that–it’s a lot of food.” When I insisted, he then said, “but there’s already a spot prawn dish on the chef’s menu.” Not wanting to argue, I bit my tongue and simply asked him to add the terrine of foie gras. To this, he queried, “would you like it to be substituted in lieu of the cheese course?” I stared at him, nonplussed. That doesn’t even make any sense, I wanted to say, but restrained myself to a stern “no.” Having finally placed the order, I couldn’t help but wonder if this cretin was trying to make the kitchen’s life easier with five courses on a Sunday instead of delivering a dining experience with the chef’s menu.

With that clusterfuck out of the way, the same tired amuses (mojito and screwdriver “cocktails,”  abalone a la plancha and chorizo and squid), which generate about as much excitement as Viagra tablets past their expiration date, arrived along with the evening’s bread offerings: a nori foccacia and bacon brioche.

Fortunately, at that point Atila, a Hungarian server, recognized us from our previous visit. My mother took the opportunity to explain, in Hungarian, just how irritating the past twenty minutes had been. From there service improved considerably, as he and Tavis, a boyish gentleman fond of colloquialisms, did their best to make service as seamless as possible, but for the first time I can remember in a meal at Providence, a foul odor of mundanity plagued several dishes, starting with the overgarnished New Zealand oyster topped with jalapeno, chive flowers, cilantro and lime (this isn’t fucking Project Runway) and followed by an unmemorable kampachi with pickled cucumber, red shiso and tapioca.

As displeased as I was, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that the next five courses were stunning: (1) a mille-feuille of scallops and nasturtium with mandarin orange, honey-sherry-whole grain mustard, egg salad and a brioche crisp, (2) a terrine of foie gras, red and white port gelée, candied walnut, purslane and tokyo turnip (3) a champagne butter-cooked egg with osetra caviar, uni and chervil (4) a beurre monté-coated spot prawn on almond-nori streusel, shiso and celery leaves in a sauce of brown and smoked butter and (5) a veal sweetbread sitting on sweet pea purée with white asparagus, black truffle and a balsamic reduction.

The series of successes couldn’t be sustained, though, as a bone-filled fillet of unagi with asparagus, bone marrow, sunchoke and parsley oil came out. What made it especially frustrating was the fact that we weren’t warned there would be bones, nor were we asked if we’d prefer to have a sea creature devoid of bones.

To some extent, the last two savory courses–king salmon wrapped in pork belly and feuille de brick with morels, cherries, a cherry purée and a salmon skin chip and a strip loin of wagyu with bordelaise, porcini, roasted tomatoes, favas, tokyo turnips cooked in dashi and dashi foam–helped me temporarily ignore the previous peccadillo. But that didn’t last long when bacon-infused, sesame-crusted, grilled strawberries came out alongside the cheese course. And it didn’t get much better with dessert proper.

The first two desserts–a pink grapefruit sorbet with yogurt foam and tarragon and a mochi cake topped with blackberries, lychee and soy milk sorbet–were to deliciousness what Goldman is to probity. This was no star, insipid bullshit. And the final dessert, a milk chocolate-whisky panna cotta with Bailey’s ice cream and a coconut raviolo was the same dessert we had three years ago.

In no sense satisfied, we agreed we couldn’t possibly leave on that note, so we ordered another savory course, the tableside-prepared salt roasted spot prawn with a fruity olive oil and lemon–a dish so teeming with flavor it’s as if I’ve never tasted crustacean before–as well as three quality desserts: (1) vanilla-mascarpone mousse, strawberry sorbet, strawberry powder and strawberry purée, (2) a chocolate-peanut butter ganache with chocolate covered pretzels, beer ice cream and beer foam and (3) a cucumber “cheesecake” bound together by agar agar with cucumber sorbet.

Along with the yuzu macarons, chocolate-strawberry marshmallows and citrus pate de fruit, we were given three boxes of Adrian Vasquez’ artisanal chocolates, which were a nice touch, but it reminded me of a recent South Park episode in which Eric Cartman, whose efforts to obtain an I-Pad are continually thwarted, tells his mother he wishes to borrow a bit of lipstick because that way he’ll look pretty the next time he gets fucked. Similarly, the chocolates were pretty–and those who tasted them said they were delicious–but by that point we had already been fucked.

Playa, Los Angeles and Red Medicine (June 2011)

Having made the short trip home from the Burbank airport, I was met with a note on the door from my brother: “let me know if you want to have dinner at Playa ASAP.” On the heels of two consecutive 10+ course dinners, I didn’t think I would be able to do a third. After resting for a bit, though, I told my brother I would join him; in addition to getting a chance to catch up, it seemed like good training for what awaits me in New York a couple weeks from now.

Playa is a John Sedlar restaurant, but the kitchen is run by chef de cuisine Kevin Luzande, once a classmate of my brother’s in elementary school, who I first met while having dinner at Mezze a month earlier.

Arriving right on time for our 6pm reservation, we were seated at a two-top amid the closely spaced tables, which conduce to conversations with neighbors, and handed menus to peruse. In the minutes that followed my brother tried to get a hold of Kevin but couldn’t do so quickly enough. Karen, our gray-dress-donning server, came by to explain the menu. As we stalled, waiting for Kevin, Karen must have deduced that we were unaccustomed to eating in respectable establishments and proceeded to not only tell us how to order, but also made a point of leaning over my shoulder and reading her favorite dishes off of the menu. That was unusual, I thought, for never before have I been pegged as illiterate. In her defense I was dressed in clothes that looked as if I had slept in them, and my hair was more straggly than usual. Fortunately, Kevin then appeared at our table with superhero-like swiftness and assured Karen that he would be making the menu selections for us. To accompany the food, my brother ordered a Granny Smith apple-tinged 2007 Casa Marin Riesling.

Kevin started us off with a series of maize cakes, each more delicious than the next: (1) fresh burrata, salsa verde, arugula, amaranth and pepitas (2) wild mushrooms, olive-black garlic-mushroom “soil,” porcini foam and l’explorateur cheese, (3)  caramelized, oven-dried and pickled cauliflower with a curry vinaigrette and (4) pork belly, chile-lime jicama, mango pickle, masala, chana crisp and raita. The plates were streaming from the kitchen with such alacrity (and my brother and I were dithering on how best to share) that Kevin exhorted us to “hurry up–pick it up and eat it like a taco.”

Next out were (1) spicy chili rellenos brimming with a sweet amalgam of crab and corn in a flavorful soy-ginger-scallion sauce and (2) a satisfying salad of arugula with grapefruit supremes, grilled endive, haricot vert, toasted pinenuts and a cumin vinaigrette. When Kevin came by our table, he apologized for the latter, saying ” I sent that out by mistake.” We both assured him that there was nothing for which he needed to apologize.

After giving us a ten minute break, Kevin continued the procession of plates with three outstanding dishes: (1) an octopus salad–the cephalopod is braised, gently poached in duck fat and finally grilled–with arugula, palm hearts, scallions, oven-dried cherry tomatoes, oven-dried red onion, (2) a crisp-skinned sea bass with a warm panna cotta and five sauces–romesco, chimichurri, verde, ají amarillo, ají panca–and (3) delicious, if slightly messy, arepas filled with grilled shrimp, mangoes and chilies.

The final savory course was a beef tenderloin with wild-mushroom duxelles dumpling and a chipotle béarnaise along with a side of oven roasted cauliflower. I thought the beef was overdressed, but that comes down to preferences, as I err on the side of finishing proteins with a few flecks of Maldon rather than a viscous sauce.

After all of the spice and acidity, I found myself craving something sweet and Kevin delivered with (1) a brûléed bread pudding with tropical fruit, (2) a vanilla cake with strawberries, pomegranate and strawberry-anise sorbet in a cava consommé and (3) a cherry coke sorbet.

Having finished dessert, we headed back to the kitchen to thank Kevin and to watch him run the pass for a couple of minutes before heading off to Red Medicine. There, we pulled up stools at the bar, struck up a conversation with Chris, one of the friendly bartenders, and culled the menu for new dishes. My brother’s eyes gravitated toward a foie gras dish with, inter alia, beets, green strawberries and chicory that Chris described as “like a torchon,” while I settled on a Muscat-based dessert and an old favorite, the bitter chocolate. As all three plates arrived in quick succession, we both plunged our forks into the artful foie gras. With my first bite, however, my mouth filled with discontent as there was an astringency so off-putting that I refrained from a second bite. I’ve since learned that I am distinctly in the minority in disliking this dish as chefs across the county from Rick Bayless to Wylie Dufresne and at least one yelper have lauded it; that’s fine with me, for there are plenty of other items at Red Medicine to keep me thrilled for days.