Melisse, Santa Monica (December 2011)

Dinner at Melisse has become a holiday tradition for the past three years, and at this point, entering the restaurant is comparable to visiting old friends. Our most recent meal (and third Carte Blanche) hit the six-hour mark and–due to the concentrated deliciousness–reached a parlous level of hedonism. As is custom, upon being seated, a runner dropped off spherical grapes and goat cheese-coated grapes.

With Ryan on vacation in Hawaii, we would be looked after by James, an adept server with an encyclopedic knowledge of food (particularly cheese) and wine. After a bit of badinage about, inter alia, Melisse’s upcoming foie-themed dinners, we decided to incorporate the four available dishes from the game menu into the Carte Blanche.
Starting with back-to-back raw preparations, out came a Kusshi oyster covered by cucumber gelée and finger lime, followed by a duo of Spanish blue fin with a tartare and a slice of sashimi garnished with matsutake mushrooms, sword lettuce mousse and a dollop of reduced citrus.

For the first item from the game menu, the kitchen sent out posh chicken noodle soup, consisting of wild Scottish pheasant consommé along with leg and breast meat, three agnolotti of foie gras and chanterelles. 
The next three courses were all relatively familiar, but ones for which it is impossible to tire. First, there was the palate-caressing soft poached egg with lemon crème fraîche, cauliflower purée and American osetra caviar (a substitution for my mother was made in the form of house-smoked salmon and American osetra caviar on a potato blini). Second, a trio of foie–seared, cranberry gelée-topped terrine and torchon–with both a thin slice of quince and a denser cube, stewed cranberries and walnut crumb; on this day, it was the seared form with flecks of Maldon that stood out. For the third familiar offering, carapaced plates neared, thereby signaling truffles. In unison, all three coverings were removed to reveal a heady truffle foam-topped, age acquerello-based risotto. James then turned to the runner and said, “These are my friends; use a heavy hand,” and that he did, so much so in fact, once he finished shaving just over one-and-a-half golf ball-sized white truffles across three plates, he said, “please enjoy before chef comes out.”

Moving to somewhat lighter fare, the succeeding two courses included (1) (what was once) lobster in a shellfish jus with chestnut-coffee tortellini, black trumpet mushrooms and green cabbage and (2) almond-crusted Dover sole with chanterelles, kohlrabi and a pea-crème fraîche emulsion.

As tasty as the two preceding courses were, they were simple eclipsed by the next three: (1) wild Scottish partridge (a cube of confit and the breast) with white shelling beans, portabella mushrooms and finished with viscous game jus, (2) a florid breast of wild Scottish wood pigeon on black truffle brioche garnished with fried turnip, turnip purée and more game jus; this pigeon preparation is up there with Paul Liebrandt’s at Corton and Julian Serrano’s at Picasso. 

And for the pièce de résistance Chef Citin appeared table-side with a foot-long knife to carve roasted grouse adorned by burnt bread sauce, potato Boulangère, baby leeks and not pictured potato mousseline. As he was carving, we chatted about the unmistakable aroma the birds exuded and Marco Pierre White’s use of bread sauce with game. It’s my understanding that whole bird orders– at EMP or WP-24, for example–net the diner simply the breast meat. After finishing the precise carving of the four grouse breasts, however, Chef Citrin took the pan back to the kitchen and roasted the legs, the flavor of which is tantamount to a distillation of the forest, as a special treat. Among the several hundred plates placed in front of me in 2011, this composition easily cracks the top ten.

Following up on that apogee wouldn’t be easy, but James made sure the slope wouldn’t declined much. He composed a hard cheese plate for me including some of my favorites, such as Comte and Manchego, and a creamier, more pungent plate for my brother. The accoutrement remained traditional: red wine poached pears, orange-apricot compote, honey, jujubee paste and walnuts.

Finally reaching dessert, we started the procession with a classic, mint-studded strawberry ice cream with fresh strawberries and vanilla pudding, followed up by a variation on the sticky toffee pudding we enjoyed in August–this time with caramelized apple, apple chips and hibiscus ice cream–and green tea ice cream sitting in a bed of whipped crème fraîche and green apple consommé. Thoroughly sated, we essayed to make a dent in the mignardises, which included dark chocolate chip cookies, pineapple macarons, canalés and, characteristic of Melisse’s pact with the Santa Monica farmers’ market, strawberries and raspberries.

It’s never easy to part with Los Angeles, and meals like this make it all the more difficult. The next time I return won’t be until June–just weeks before the foie ban goes into effect–but I’ll surely find time to return to my favorite fine dining restaurant in southern California.