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.

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