Melisse, Santa Monica, CA (June 2012)

Every so often a dish–and its concomitant sauce–will have a conversation-halting quality to it. On this occasion it was roasted chicken with a viscous and glossy sauce Albufera that implored you to coat each element on the plate in its ambrosial pincers (as for some of the actual pincers served, in the form of Maryland soft shell crab, they, too, were delicious). 

During this most recent dinner, it was indeed the sauces that astonished. In addition to the aforementioned Albufera, there was a porcini velouté finished tableside with a mushroom consommé. Was it thick? Was it thin? It was both, making for an immensely satisfying bowl of soup. Then there was a frothy indulgence of nasturtium-crab bisque that flirted with the fried soft-shell crab. Tableside pours even permeated dessert with a strawberry water completing a palate-cleansing final dessert. Much to my delight, Melisse has halted its chocolate pandering–an over-the-top quartet of chocolate that I always found to be too heavy a note on which to end–replacing it with smaller, lighter offerings.

And I would be derelict if I didn’t mention the front-of-house, which manages to conduct a seminar on leisure each time we visit, making a great meal move slow like molasses (hmmm, never thought I’d paraphrase RZA): Danica, a new addition to the team, happily pours bottles of wine as if topping off a water glass; Brian, the Gregory House look-alike of a sommelier, ambles over to talk about what he hopes will be a show on the Sundance Channel (“Jackass meets No Reservations,” he says); James, the indefatigable and newly minted maitre d’, exudes an infectious enthusiasm that keeps us coming back; and all of this happens while Chef de Cuisine Ken Takayama in zen-like quietude runs the kitchen.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t room for improvement. After all, Chef Citrin’s motto is “In Pursuit of Excellence.” I think the area that could most use an update is the canapés. Now I’m not suggesting they adopt an EMP or Meadowood-style cavalcade approach, but I do think some change would be good, as we’ve been met with the same amuse for two-and-a-half years. Whether they heed my advice or not, Melisse remains the best fine-dining restaurant in southern California.

Congratulations, James! And thank you for another enrapturing evening!

Goat cheese and pistachio-coated grapes and spherical grapes

Badminton-garnished Kusshi oyster

 Tai snapper, squid ink-onion purée, verbena, cucumber and cucumber consommé

Soft poached egg, lemon crème frâiche, cauliflower purée, American osetra caviar, chives

Porcini velouté, porcini, haricot verts, mushroom consommé

 Duo of foie, blood orange, rhubarb and kumquat

 Soft shell crab, asparagus, carrot, chickpea and crab-nasturtium bisque

 Scale-on tilefish, English peas, fava beans, fava bean purée and sea vegetable broth

 Whole roasted chicken, white asparagus, morels and sauce Albufera

 Cote de boeuf, squash blossom, porcini, spinach and herb jus

Our menu taped on the pass
Cave-aged Gouda, Manchego and Petite Basque

Quince paste and chestnut tree honey

Textures of chocolate and caramel

Black sesame cake, chamomile ice cream, strawberry shards, strawberry water

 Chocolate chip cookies, strawberry-melted chocolate and foie gras macarons, canalés, cherries and golden raspberries
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