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Monday, October 10, 2016

Gravlax - Culver City

I am so confused by this cafe. The ambiance is indescribable, a mix of familiarity and anonymity. It's like the Life Cafe from Rent crossed with the TV show Cheers, both boho-chic and shabby-chic; a guy on a laptop working in a dark corner, a couple guys playing cards at the bar. Shaken AND stirred, with a dash of the best of the West coast.

The food is different. I've only had Scandanavian in small glimpses, a hint here and there, or a whiff of inspiration. The Gravlax is their namesake, and it's easy to start with the most familiar. But this isn't really familiar. This the gravlax of gravlax. The salmon is superbly smooth, and it's hearty without being heavy, potent without being fishy, and raw without being overwhelming. We opted for the special, which places it over a bed of creamy potatoes and dill instead of toast. Best. Decision. EVER.

Gravlax goes over easy, but tread lightly around the Pickled Herring. This is one fish that can go very, very wrong. And when it's wrong, it's really, really wrong. A sigh of relief is breathed for the Gravlax iteration; this one is quite right, a visceral white with a palatable splash of brine.

The Ost & Et is a foreign name for meat and cheese, but I find nothing foreign about it. The Aged Gouda is GOOD, the Manchego is full of sheep, and the salami tastes like salami. Bresaola billows in thinly smoked sheets, and the duck prosciutto is half lavish lard, worth the extra charge. Solid stuff, no novelty here.

I have a few favorite fishes, and I'm a sucker for trout. The Smoked Rainbow Trout Spread is as smooth as the ice they probably fished it from, and it spreads on seamlessly, seafoamy and sweet. The house-cured red cabbage is a mouthful of my new favorite pickle.

The cafe still confuses me, but I cannot regret giving it a try. It is delightfully different, and when I opened this door, I opened a window of opportunity. My first taste of Scandinavian will not be my last, and considering Gravlax is LA's best...and LA's only, I will not be lax on my consumption of gravlax.
Gravlax Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

FIN - Culver City

How do you spell Asian fusion? B-a-d. Anything that's good has been done to death, and anything that hasn't been done has probably been done very poorly and died a deserving death. This is my mentality as I walk into FIN.

At first glance, FIN seems fine. I start at happy hour, and nothing puts a smile on my face like one heck of a deal.

I start carefully, with a neutral Baked Crab Roll, curls of clean crab wrapped simply in soy paper. It's not my favorite, but I also find no fault.

The Japanese Ceviche sounds fun, and it gets an A for Albacore.

Encouraged by the ceviche, my meal gets a little more raw, and wow, that sashimi has some sass.

Spunky citrus breathes life into expertly-sliced Yuzu Yellowtail Sashimi.

Each slice of the Citrus Truffle Salmon Sashimi is skillfully slim, but the flavor is anything but. The salmon is sweet and smooth, punctuated by shavings of pungent black truffle. The citrus strikes a balance, adding a new dimension of taste.

Tuna Jalapeno Crispy Rice is a fusion staple, and this one sets the standards high. The shell lets out a satisfying crackle as it gives way to soft center, meshing with the malleable chopped tuna on top. The rice mollifies the spice, a salve for a jalapeno burn.

The ambiance is appealing, the cocktails make you converse, and the food is can keep you coming. I had serious doubts about FIN, but maybe I was wrong. After all; all cynicism aside, FIN is just pure fun.
FIN Culver City Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant Miura - Lomita

Rough start. They're out of my beloved monkfish liver. No ankimo mean no bueno, but with options like $70 for a many-course omakase and $55 for 12 pieces of sushi, I'm sure I can make do...

First decision made: no fried stuff and palate-warmers for me. I'm cutting to the chase with just the sushi. The Salmon settles into a thick, slick sheet, sweet as always. The Squid is tougher, a little too tough. It earns a low score, though it is precisely scored to help you chew. There is something called Golden Ice Snapper by its side, and if it looks like a red snapper... yeah, it tastes like snapper. Then the Halibut, bright and white, brightened a little more by a vinegary ponzu. The Snow Crab is pre-frozen and bland, and the Scallop is just okay, even with an accent of spicy yuzu pepper.

.. And then there was nothing. We waited... And we waited. The table next to us had sat down later, but their plates were never empty. They ordered the same omakase that we did, and they kept up their lively chatter as they paid their check. We waited some more, until most of the restaurant had cleared out. Then the server and chef apologized...because they had forgotten about us. They had forgotten about one of the six tables in the entire restaurant.

The Toro better be good after such a long wait. I literally stuff it into my mouth because I'm starving. It tingles as it melts, with its usual fatty fabulousness. But it's clearly not the best cut of belly. Yellowtail is generic, and the Mackerel is meaty and fleshy. I really don't love mackerel, but the fishy aftertaste of this piece was actually pretty tolerable. The Salmon Roe is a decent preparation. It's salty, but without even the slightest hint of fishiness, definitely one of the superior variations. My favorite Uni is next, and even that is ruined. I wait for creamy, and I get grainy-smooth. Close enough. But then there is a horrible bitterness that paralyzes my mouth, stops me in my tracks. I can only hope there is something to salvage this disaster.

There is a final course of sweet shrimp, and I hope it balances out the bitter uni, but they're out of that too. Instead, we get to choose an extra piece of nigiri, but I chose the uni before I knew. The extra piece is just as bitter, and the only thing the forgettable Tuna Roll can do is take some of the aftertaste out of my mouth.

I am more than ready for the Miso Soup with Clams by the time I finish my roll.

The soup signals the end of the meal, but we stay for the Strawberry Banana Crepe. It's light and not too sweet, and the crepe is so thin, a perfect al dente texture.

The Banana Fritter is uplifting in its deceptively straightforward, yet fun flavors. The banana goes gooey in the fryer, and the strawberries and ice cream highlight it well.

The desserts are better than the sushi, but they're not enough to save this meal. Miura may be cheap, but order the sushi and you'll know where they cut some corners. The prix fixe meal is better because there are other items, but there is truly nothing that could bring me back.
Restaurant Miura Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The French Laundry - Yountville

Thomas Keller: Craftsman, pioneer, MASTER. French Laundry? Legacy. Legacy and LEGEND. I tried for days to score an 11 AM reservation for 4, their least desirable seating. With three friends in tow, I drove all night, Napa or bust.

I started feeling starstruck before we even hit the Yountville border. I don't think I even blinked between the side street parking spot and the back door of a historical house.

I could barely pronounce my own name when the hostess asked, and my feet never felt the ground as we floated to a stair-side 4-top set with napkins clipped in iconic clothespins.

I ordered a glass of not-quite-cabernet from Chateauneuf du-Pape - I'm still old world over new. I swirled it in a glass the size of my face, and as it breathed its last, I took the first breath I could remember that day.

The amuse bouche came shortly after the wine, a unicorn-horn Cornet of fresh tuna tartare over lemon creme fraiche. I've never met a cone I didn't like, and this one continues the trend. Meaty tuna springs to life with a zest of lemon, and the creme fraiche fills every airy corner to make the tuna linger and melt. A bourgeois Gougere is to follow, and it is impossibly flaky and thin as it launches forth a geyser of melted gruyere.

The first course commences, and it is every bit the meal that I dreamed it would be. A stew-like take on sabayon is the Oysters and Pearls, centered around an Island Creek oyster poached so soft and sweet that even the belly no longer tastes of briny deep. The tapioca pearls stay softly firm as the white sturgeon caviar punctuates the creamy broth.

Royal Kaluga Caviar is worth the upgrade, a generous goblet of bubble-bursts, luxurious silk on the tongue. The lobster gelee is smooth and sweet, and each small shred conveys the flavor of an entire Maine lobster in suspended animation.

Selections of the sea turn toward the land, as the Slow Roasted Garden Squash showcases Keller's green thumb. Here he plucks out the very soul of ripe, roasted squares of eggplant, pepper, and squash. Their flavors are full, earthy and pure, as they sing the sweet songs of summer. They are somewhat blunted, however, by a bed of chickpea "hummus," an unfortunate slurry of salt.

The Elevages Perigord Moulard Duck Foie Gras "Torchon"  is quite the upgrade from a half-hearted hummus. The foie is a rotund liver-butter, and it melts in decadent fat.

Sweet highlights savory atop a crusty brioche, which accompanies the tarter plums, toasted pecans, crisp belgian endive, and woodsy black winter truffle coulis. Together they are a refreshment to interrupt the mouthfuls of butter.

It is details like the petals of assorted salt that make French Laundry the stuff of legends. Each salt highlights the foie gras at the slightest different angle, but I would have held off, had I known how much salt was to come.

It becomes apparent that the highlighting of vegetables is a rare occurrence in the meat-heavy meal. The Wild Scottish Sea Trout "Chaud-Froid" features a dense slice of salmon trout, a thick, pressed patty that tastes half-raw, half-soft, and pleasantly half-smoked. The crisp cucumbers bloom with delicate flowers, a much-needed palate cleanser from foie gras fat and salty trout.

The Charcoal Grilled Alaskan King Crab sits its throne, a leg-log of the sweetest of the sea. But its steamed preparation leaves it so heavy, a texture channeling pulled-pork-like texture, lost at sea. The bean and sweet pepper stew is murky and as salty as a sip of seawater, and the basil emulsion, however impressive, fails to save this supersaturated solution.

The food seems salted for a much older palate, and the crab and Devil's Gulch Ranch Rabbit "Porchetta" are where it really shows. Even a poultry-like rabbit turns to pork in a thick shroud, and the more delicate "other white meat" disappears when the salt turns it to bacon. I would have liked to taste the airy, mountainous potato puree a little bit more, but the starch doesn't stand a chance against the overpowering salty, gravy mess.

Keller may be the Jiro Ono of the veg, but it's not so easy to see his skill and range on the non-vegetarian tasting menu. It seems that the main meats leave no room to appreciate the finer features of things fresh from the earth. The "Peas and Carrots" leaves little room for peas and carrots, a lightly-steamed orange log and a few little leaves don't count. The Japanese wagyu is seared crispy, an unfortunate medium well with a center more gray than pink. The wagyu gets a bit dry here, and the "sauce bordelaise" is so heavy it drowns.

The wagyu is not worth a single penny of the upgrade fee, and there's no need to upsize when the Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb is the most perfect lamb. Just the slice will suffice, no need for the bitter black mission fig jam abutting the baby beets. Each bit of rare-red lamb is gamey yet gentle, well-rounded and robust, oozing a bold, bloody juice.

By now, eating even the greatest lamb I've ever had, has turned into a chore. The portions are just too much, and even the token male was struggling long before we got to the Meadow Creek Dairy "Grayson." "Pain perdu" is French for lost bread, an aptly-named cheesy French toast here. The nuances of delicate fondue on an impossibly, perfectly flaky, entire-stick-of-butter brioche is lost on my salt-assaulted palate by now. The sweet, skinless garden tomatoes and sharp shards of romaine were a welcome break, however brief.

Dessert is a godsend, switching from savory, over-salted solids to creamy and sweet, but it starts to feel like an atonement as the table is weighed down by dish after dish. There are more desserts than courses on the menu, and they deserve more description than "Assortment of Desserts" to capture the bounty.

I am beyond satiated by the sumptuous meal, but this is not the good kind of full. I eye the dessert spread with trepidation, uncertain how I will stomach it all. But the Pretzel Ice Cream is easy, a lightly-salted pretzel with a refreshing splash of sour sop puree. It puts my stomach on reset, a purifying ninth course to wash away the sinful eight.

The Chocolate Torte goes right back to decadent, a heavy solid of dark decadence on a marsala wine pop tart that might as well be a cracker.

The Strawberry Tart brings back the light with its olive-oil-cake consistency and barely-there sour cream panna cotta. It finishes with a whimsical sugar lattice, a melted fruit roll-up only for adults.

I ordered the Espresso so bitter could balance the sweet.

But there is no need for coffee once you have their Cappuccino Semi-Fredo, a sorta-brew in milky ice cream form.

Neon Raspberry Vanilla Macarons infuse fruit into a crisp shell, a textbook iteration of a classic pastry of mastery.

A small bowl of light Cherries from the garden bring back the fresh, earthy theme, with a tiny tidbit of tart.

Take bites of those cherries between the Brioche Beignets lest you get dragged down by the sugar and the grease.

The Cocoa Macadamia Nuts catch me off guard. The nuts are savory, but they are unexpectedly large, their sheer size occupies much of the brown ball. Size matters, as the nib shell shatters with a bitter contrast to revitalize a palate minced by meat.

We welcome the check at this point. We are sweaty and sluggish and stuffed that at the end of a meal at what once was the best restaurant on earth feels like only relief. Only a box of artisan truffles stand between us and the door, but a creamy chocolate Pistachio drives me nuts and a luxurious burst of Green Tea Passionfruit keeps me in my seat.

It seems there was one menu of only meat and another for just the vegetables, but the dichotomy needn't be so clear. The portions were huge, and the pacing was off. The meal started heavy and progressed from heavy-heavy to heavier, until there was no place to go. Usually, that's when dessert comes to the rescue, but there were two more courses after the rabbit sank like a rock.

Turns out Yountville no longer has the most Michelin stars per capita, and I feel that this meal foreshadows an imminent fall from grace. A French Laundry lunch will always be a dream-come-true, but the way it is now, this dream needn't come true more than once. 
The French Laundry Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato