Okay, I'm slow, but better late than never, right? Right? Guys?
Seriously, though, pics are HERE
and my thoughts are below...
“Waste makes waist,” I told Adam. The wine was running freely and so were my thoughts. He looked inspired, and by inspired I mean confused. But I explained: the whole “portion control” fad has gone too far. I feared the evil empire of moderation had somehow gotten to him, too. We don’t tear pages out of books to read better or leave sports games at halftime to more fully appreciate them. Why should food be any different? And frankly, leaving pork belly as succulent as the piece we were served at Providence lonely and uneaten on the plate says a lot about a man’s character. I mean, yeah we had just finished lunch at Pizzeria Mozza an hour before this. And maybe those two pizzas (each) had been a little filling. But where was Adam’s integrity? I thought the man had values.
I tried to help, though. Really, I did. Mozza is only 6 blocks away from Providence. So to digest (or whatever normal people do between meals) after that late lunch, I suggested we walk over to set up a reservation in person. I explained our situation to the host: Adam had a plane to catch later on, but we (and by we, I mean I) wanted the longest menu that Chef Michael Cimarusti could dream up that night. If we came in, say, right when they opened the doors for service that evening, could they just make sure to fill the next several hours with as much good food and wine as possible?
The host was a nice guy, and this scenario is probably not one he sees every day, so I tried not to take offense when he suggested that the 5-course prix fixe could easily have us in and out in under 2 hours. Nor did I put any stock in his warning that we would be the only people in the restaurant if we came in early. This was LA, after all. Maybe he assumed our focus during dinner might actually be someplace other than the 12 inch circle of porcelain in front of us. Still unsure if our goal had been properly conveyed but not wanting to belabor it much more, we made the 5:30 reservation and came back at the appointed hour.
Never much for pre-dinner cocktails, we started instead with champagne — Nicolas Feuillatte Brut. To my slight chagrin, they still brought us menus. We stubbornly didn’t open them, but the waiter began to explain, “So, a bit about the menu: You can order a la carte, or a 5-course tasting, or the 9-course…” But what we would really like, if possible, is the chef’s menu, I said. Adam then asked the waiter what that experience is like, and he replied, simply, “Intense.” Adam looked terrified. I looked like I’d just received news of a job promotion or a new grandchild.
Our first bites were cocktails of the edible variety – greyhound, mojito, gin and tonic
. Served in cute little El Bulli spoons, the spherified greyhound had the slightly bitter pucker effect of grapefruit and the mojito held a refreshing burst of fresh mint and a lingering rum flavor. The gin and tonic was in a little block of sugar-coated gelée, and with a squeeze of fresh lime juice it also kick-started our taste buds for what was to come.
The bread guy approached the table and I knew right way that we would be friends. Only friends bring you warm bacon brioche, chive rolls, and focaccia
along with soft butter and coarse sea salt. The butter wasn’t life-changing, but I’ve turned into a butter snob as of late, so don’t listen to me. But the bread was really great. I understand that me putting butter on the bacon brioche is a bit excessive. But, mmmm… sweet, sweet excess. I had probably 3 or 4 rounds of each type of bread during the course of the meal, as Adam looked on in horror amazement.
A long slate tile held our next three dishes, the first of which was kanpachi, fresh wasabi, umeboshi, yuzu
. The raw kanpachi was of exceptional quality. Maybe not can-we-please-pause-for-a-moment-of-silence quality like Urasawa’s, but still really nice. I loved the salty, sweet, sour, and cold pickled plum granita as a backdrop for the fish, and the wasabi and yuzu sang loud hot and sour notes on the finish. Really a nice combination of flavors and texture.
The simply titled uni egg/caviar
was a cool, smooth sea urchin panna cotta dotted with bright green chive oil and a gel made from soy sauce, gilded with a dollop of Ossetra caviar. When you dug to the bottom of the eggshell, little tongues of sea urchin roe were waiting beneath like treasures on the ocean floor. Granted, I don’t have any pictures of that part. I just don’t have that kind of discipline. But this dish was delicious.
I saved the strongest flavors — hog island oyster, chorizo gelée, lime, cilantro
— for last. The salty combination of the oyster, the gelée, and little bits of diced chorizo was just a bit overwhelming. But pork and mollusks do play together pretty nicely, I must say. The punch of acidity from the lime helped brighten things up. I also enjoyed the texture of this dish, with the viscous gelée giving way to the pleasantly chewy oyster and chorizo.
Next came a compelling rendition of tuna tartare — turnip, crispy soba, red jalapeño, green onions
. Aside from the very fresh and flavorful fish, for me it was the “crispy soba” that made this dish. These little granules of puffed buckwheat had the texture of puffed rice, but with a much nuttier flavor that was truly addictive. Every bite brought me back to my Rice Krispies days as the soba snapped, crackled and popped in my mouth while I chewed through the tender chunks of tuna. But the sweet veil of daikon and the peppery (but not spicy) slivers of jalapeño were enough to remind me that this was no breakfast cereal.
A single, plump diver scallop — summer truffle vinaigrette, baby artichokes, juliet tomatoes
was beautifully cooked. It was caramelized and crisp on the top, but ultra-soft and nearly raw on the inside. The summer truffles didn’t lend much aroma, but earthiness of the warm vinaigrette made a delicious duo with the naturally sweet scallop. The artichokes and the sweet little tomatoes were also intensely flavorful. This for me was a dish that worked on all levels.
Next up was more beautifully cooked fish: turbot — burdock, shiso, lemon
. I had no idea what burdock was before this, but I feel a lot healthier now that I’ve read about its medicinal properties. After biting into this fish, I also felt a lot humbler knowing that the cooks at Providence can cook fish a hell of a lot better than I can. Just like the scallop before it, the turbot tiptoed the line between raw and cooked. Turbot is a relatively firm-fleshed fish, but we were able to cut through this one like warm butter. The burdock, shiso and lemon lent slight sweetness and refreshing acidity to the subtly flavored fish.
Adam’s appetite had long since been faltering, and he had already pushed a few half-finished plates my way (which, it goes without saying, I finished dutifully). Frankly, I was worried. But when he did the same with the pork belly — kyoho grapes, pickled ramps, mizuna
, I think I cried tears of joy. For me this was clearly the best dish we’d had up to this point, and I was glad to help a friend in need by finishing every last bit of it. The pork belly was so tender that it was almost creamy. Hell, it was almost spreadable. Like foie gras, like sea urchin, like butter. I considered rubbing a bit on my face like lotion, but then I got distracted by the crispy skin. Two crispy tiles of it were laid on top of the dish for a salty, brittle contrast. The sweetness of the grapes, the acidic punch from the pickled ramps, and the rich fattiness of the pork belly was an intoxicatingly savory combination. I could’ve easily eaten two of these. Oh wait, I did.
I have yet to mention that the assistant sommelier, Diane De Luca, was just great — delightful to interact with and incredibly knowledgeable. To pair with the next dish, she poured a glass of Kanchiku junmai daiginjo sake
that I thought was very well-chosen. Definitely on the dry side, and frankly not something I would have enjoyed drinking on its own, the sake felt viscous and almost syrupy on the palate. Yet it had none of the sweetness I usually associate with that mouthfeel in wine, and instead had just a tiny bit of residual sugar that barely shined through against the bracing minerality.
I was worried that the previous meat course meant that we were reaching the end of the savory portion of the meal, but much to my delight we went back to more fish: black sea bass — matsutake mushrooms, sake, rosemary
. I bent down toward the plate, eyes closed, and as always I let my nose do the tasting first. The rosemary and the matsutakes (not called pine mushrooms for nothing) filled the air with the aroma of the forest floor — earthy, rich, and piney. The sake foam was warm and buttery. I heard a quiet little crunch as my knife broke through the crispy skin to get to the delicate flesh below. A bite. And a smile.
Diane began to describe the Girlan 2005 Gewürztraminer Aimé DOC
she was pouring for our next course, but suddenly conversation stopped. Eyes turned toward the entrance of the dining room. Donato Poto — GM, co-owner, and maitre d’ — had just entered, wheeling a huge cast iron dish full of salt toward our table. We could hear the quiet sizzle as he prepared our salt roasted santa barbara spot prawns – rosemary, lemon, olive oil
I had specifically mentioned this spot prawn preparation earlier, and they happily obliged my request to work this into our tasting. This dish was depressing on two levels. One, it tasted so damn good that I was somehow able to justify the $11 per prawn supplement. And two, after this dish and the kuruma ebi at Urasawa the night before, I feared that eating shrimp outside of these two restaurants ever again could be a futile and pointless activity. Mr. Poto shook the salt off and split the prawns down the middle. Then they were given nothing but a liberal dose of Castelas extra virgin olive oil from Provence and wedges of lemon. I’m not even sure shrimp shells are digestible, to be honest, but I couldn’t have cared less. From head to tail, these prawns were delicious.
Next up was freshwater japanese eel — crushed potato with truffle, sweetbreads, eel jus
. This dish had one foot on land and one in the water. Or rather, both feet splashing around somewhere in between. The eel was paired with earthy flavors — potatoes and truffles — while the sweetbreads were sauced with the eel jus and coupled with fava beans. I thought both combinations worked pretty well. With the backdrop of the potatoes and the truffle sauce, the eel seemed almost meaty. And the sweetbreads, meanwhile, almost seemed light, a rare achievement with this very rich, fatty piece of offal.
Diane came by again with Craggy Range 2005 Te Kahu
, a merlot blend from New Zealand, to go with the lamb, shoulder and saddle — grilled green apple eggplant, cuisse de poulet shallots, compote of tomato, black olive
. The great fish cookery we had seen so far didn’t preclude them from turning out some great meat, too. The herb-crusted lamb saddle was roasted to a beautiful rosy pink. A small puck of deep-fried shoulder confit had a crispy exterior that gave way to tender strands of meat on the inside. The meat in combination with the eggplant, tomato, and shallot was wonderful, making me forget all about the fact that, in general, I’m not the biggest fan of black olives.
It was about time for Adam to go, but he's a smart man -- he waited until after the cheese selection
. After the server’s explanation of every cheese on the cart, we chose four: La Peral, a cow’s milk blue from Spain; Sally Jackson “Sheep” from Washington; Le Maréchal, a raw cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland; and Selles sur Cher (P. Jacquin) a French goat cheese. I wasn’t really feeling Sally Jackson, though I enjoyed all the rest. The show-stealer was La Peral. Granted, on the plate it looked like a wet brown paper bag with blue crayons in it. But it sure did taste good. It had this kind of pungent hit up front, but finished with a wonderful lingering creaminess. The accoutrements, aside from the way-too-strong black olive marmalade, were also quite nice.
Adam had to leave, but a reliever was ready in the bullpen. A friend of mine with whom I had driven to LA had come to meet me at the restaurant for our ride home. ”Hey, great timing! Why not enjoy a few desserts before the long drive back?”, I urged her. ”To give us some, uh, energy. Yeah, that’s it…” Hell, I wasn’t going to let a lonely midnight ride up I-5 come between me and dessert. You must be kidding.
The pre-dessert (a lovely concept, no?) was raisin, pear, ras el hanout, hazelnut
. With the huge flavors packed into this mini-mug, pastry chef Adrian Vasquez certainly grabbed my attention and would not let go of it until the end of the meal. I alternated between sipping the spiced pear soup and just breathing in its intoxicating aroma. The crispy hazelnut tuile and pear-raisin sorbet, meanwhile, were like an open-faced ice cream sandwich, emitting a cold, staccato crunch every time I sunk my teeth into it. With just these few mouthfuls of food, Chef Vasquez had me at hello.
Moving from North Africa to southeast Asia, our next dessert was mango, litchi-pandan sorbet, coconut soup with thai flavors
. It’s powerful when a chef can play with food in a way that plays with your memory. This dessert brought me back to Bangkok earlier this year. The soup showcased the delicious sweetness of coconut milk but kept it in check with the assertively peppery, anise flavor of Thai basil. Somewhere between taste and smell, I sensed a subtle similarity between the flavor of the sorbet and the sweet aroma of jasmine rice (which, come to find out, shares the same aroma compound as pandan). Several little tapioca balls were chewy and squishy buoys in the soup, adding yet another texture to complement the diced fresh mango and a few shreds of fresh coconut. The combination of everything together was sweet, spicy and herbal all at once.
That was followed with sous-vide jonalicious apple, barley ice cream, pine nut purée, north star dried cherries
. These apple wedges were sweet, tart, and juicy. Just tender enough to dig a fork into, they stood up well to the slow-cooking without disintegrating like other varieties might have. The pine nut purée was smooth and salty, the barley ice cream cold and nutty, and the dried cherry sweet but not cloying. Like the prior desserts, every voice sang well together but none too loud as to overpower the others.
Inspired by Turkish coffee, the pastry chef’s next offering was milk chocolate, banana, coffee-urfa
. You may have seen this twisted chocolate ganache featured in such restaurants as wd~50 or Alinea. An idea originated, as far as I know, by Alex Stupak, you have to admit it is pretty cool looking. Fortunately, it tastes good, too, and Adrian Vasquez gave it some nice friends to play with. The pudding-like milk chocolate got some extra sweetness from the banana slices, but a strong peppery kick in the back of the throat came from the urfa. Taken separately, these two very different flavor elements would have pushed too far one way or the other, but together I really enjoyed them.
I thought we were done, but happily I was wrong: burnt caramel ice cream, chocolate, gingerbread, pears
was yet to come. The caramel base of the ice cream was taken to that magical point where sugar reveals not one flavor but thousands all at once. Bitter, sweet, rich, deep, complex — it was all of these and more. The gingerbread crumbs beneath it added spice and texture to the mix. On the other side of the plate, a moist cube of gingerbread came with chocolate ganache, little balls of poached pears, and a pear foam. Another pair of clean plates were sent back to the kitchen.
One last bite — a white chocolate and kalamansi lollipop
. An explosion of sour liquid hit my tongue when I popped the lollipop into my mouth and bit through the thin white chocolate shell. A small wedge of candied kalamansi peel was on top of the lollipop, a note of sweetness to balance things out in a similar way the shell did with its lingering flavor of cocoa butter.
Whether you look at that one single bite or all the desserts as a whole, the sweet finish of the meal was a clear indication to me that Adrian Vasquez is truly a special talent. And certainly Chef Michael Cimarusti and Chef de Cuisine Yu Min Lin had given us a progression of savory courses that was no less compelling. I can hardly imagine a better weekend of LA eating than what we had just finished — Urasawa one night, and Providence the next. Paradise for raw fish followed by paradise for cooked. I will definitely be back to Providence. Only next time, in addition to the chef’s tasting menu, I think I’ll tack on the full eight-course dessert tasting menu. And maybe eat only one pizza at Mozza beforehand. Maybe.