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.