Mélisse – Distinguished French Cooking in Santa Monica
1104 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tue-Thu 6 pm-9:30 pm
Sat 5.45 pm-10 pm
casual business attire; expensive
Mélisse is now celebrating its eleventh anniversary. At its location only a few hundred yards from the Santa Monica Pier, it has the feeling of a neighborhood institution, but not the honky-tonk neighborhood of Ye Olde King’s Head and similar establishments along Santa Monica Boulevard and the beach — rather Brentwood and Beverly Hills, to which it is directly linked on its corner of Wilshire Boulevard. Since its beginnings, its founder, Chef Josiah Citrin and his staff have earned it two Michelin stars. The dining rooms have also been renovated into their present elegant and extremely soothing state only a few years ago.
In my opinion a visit to a fine restaurant hardly needs more justification than the state of one’s bank account, but our culinary mission in Los Angeles was given an added piquancy by an urge to revolt against Achim Freyer’s singularly unappetizing application of his mentor Bertolt Brecht’s operatic aesthetics in his production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. Brecht identified a “culinary” quality in traditional opera, which would and should become obsolete in the new society. I have no brief against Brecht, but I do believe that it is counter-intuitive to eliminate the “culinary” qualities in art, although they quickly become cloying, if they are not used in discreet proportions. I shall soon be writing about Hans Neuenfels’ brilliant production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth, which is even more purely Brechtian than Freyer’s Ring, but it proved far more successful, because Neuenfels made it taste good. Hence there was a feeling of mischief and liberation in our visit to Mélisse, as if we were getting away with some harmless crime right under the commissar’s nose.
As we passed through the diminutive foyer. A young woman pleasantly guided us into an expansive space, in which an open area with tables is bordered on two sides by raised rows of booths, which are open and airy like the room as a whole, but they are well spaced, giving their occupants full privacy. On the other hand, the tables themselves were so wide, that we had to raise our voices slightly to converse. Not a serious problem, though, and we got used to the distance soon enough. In any case we had plenty of room for our plates and glasses. The walls and seats were a warm gray with brown pilasters separating the booths and purple panels behind them, on which were hung images of fruits, vegetables, and herbs by Raphael Sloane, Chef Josiah’s stepfather — really striking work. (I recommend a visit to Mr. Sloans’s website.)
The staff were extremely professional, but also relaxed and friendly. We enjoyed real conversations with our server, as well as with the Maitre d’, Matthew Greenberg, and Mr. Citrin himself. His cooking is highly ambitious, and Mélisse is not inexpensive, but it is unpretentious as well. It is obviously not a place where people go to jockey for visible tables and that sort of thing. In fact there is atmosphere of privacy. We arrived early and stayed late, so we had an opportunity to notice that the early diners tended to be more casual, the men tieless, in any case, and those who started coming after seven-thirty favored business suits and dark jackets. Who said Angelenos never wear ties? This comfortable feeling must have something to do with Josiah Citrin’s local origins. He grew up in the Venice/Santa Monica School district, graduated from Santa Monica High School. From there, he went directly to Paris (where else, given his French ancestry?). There he started at the bottom in a serious restaurant and began to learn his craft. He returned to Los Angeles several years later and worked in several top restaurants, before he opened his own restaurant, JiRaffe, in partnership with a friend. A few years later he founded Mélisse together with his wife, Diane, who manages the business side of things. Mélisse won the Mobil 4-star rating after only 18 months and was voted “Best New Restaurant” by Food and Wine Magazine in 2000, and “Best Los Angeles Restaurant” by Zagat in 2006. These are only a few of Mélisse’s official distinctions.
Chef Citrin likes to improvise, and among the various menu options, one can request a menu consisting of whatever he feels like cooking on a particular evening. Other menus are changed seasonally, retaining a few favorites on a more or less permanent basis. Many dishes are offered in small and larger portions, as is current in some high-end restaurants, so that the structure of a meal is quite flexible. You could order a variety of small selections, or a small and a large, and so forth. We opted for the Tenth Anniversary Tasting Menu, which consisted of ten of Chef Citrin’s most successful creations — one for each year of Mélisse’s happy existence ($150). It seemed like a good way to sample the strengths of the kitchen. To explore the cellar, we opted for paired wines, priced at an additional $95. Joanna, as a vegetarian, asked if she could be accommodated in this, since the actual menu included foie gras and beef, and our server most cheerfully offered a few suggestions, and they were indeed excellent.
As an apéritif, we chose a Grüner Veltliner from the Heidler Vineyard in the Kamptal in Austria. This lasted through the excellent amuse-gueule, which was based on a raw partridge egg, if I remember correctly, and returned again three courses ahead — a most welcome revisitation. Brian Kalliel is the sommelier responsible for the extraordinary wines we drank, all of which were French, except for a Mosel.
The menu proper began with Egg Caviar, that is, domestic caviar served in a lightly boiled egg and sauced with lemon crème fraiche. Our server brought this almost casually to the table, with a few words of advice on how to delve into its goodness with the diminutive spoon provided, as if the degree of cooking and temperature in such a dish were no matter. In this case it was absolutely perfect, and I was able to savor perhaps five or six samplings of the various flavors and textures — all very delicate — contained within a single egg shell. Of course the egg was quite special in itself, from a high-quality organic source, like every ingredient used in the restaurant. The wine was MV Delamotte, Le Mesnils-sur-Oger, a very highly regarded champagne, which mediated the sea and land eggs with elegance.
There followed a Duo of Hamachi and Tuna with ramps and cucumber with a truly unforgettable truffle-lime wasabi. With this came a sharper wine, Pierre Luneau-Papin’s Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, 2008. Its delicate sharpness balanced the earthy tang of the wasabi combination.
The Grüner Veltliner returned to support white and purple asparagus with mousseron mushrooms, and a mousse of fava beans and truffles. The favas were so delicate that I barely noticed them at first, but, as I explored the flavors, I could sense their smoky perfume in harmony with the truffles. If I had to pick out a favorite from the menu, this might well be the the one, although it would have heavy competition from what followed directly.
This was Seared Foie Gras with Sequoia Cherries and Pain d’Épice in a reduction of Banyuls. The sweetness of this was no more than a hint to expand the aroma of the perfect pink slices of foie gras — a masterpiece, which called for a 2007 Mosel Riesling Kabinett, from Maximin Grünhauser, Abtsberg, to open up the sauce.
Then came a little knob of Maine lobster, just enough, with sweet corn agnolotti, chicken oyster, and truffle froth. Citrin has an extraordinarily fine sense of texture and density, and in this dish, the combination of lobster, chicken oyster, egg pasta, and corn became a kind of multivalent culinary pun. This was perfectly accompanied by a 2007 Roussette de Bugey from the Domaine Peillot in Savoie.
There followed a third fish course, a selection of the day with wild spinach, courgette and a curry emulsion. This could really be considered the first main course, since the slice of fish stood on its own as the centerpiece. This time the usual Bourgueil was substituted by an unusually robust Chinon, a 2005 Clos du Chêne Vert from Charles Joguet. I’m especially fond of Loire reds, but traditionally made cabernet francs from the Loire, which are light and low in alcohol, often don’t travel well. Clearly M. Joguet intends his wines to travel the world, and it was an excellent foil for the aromatic and spicy fish.
Then came the beef (at least for me), a Prime Beef Strip Loin, with potato and short rib galette, green asparagus, porcini mushroom, and herb jus. The combination proved an intense concentration of the flavors and textures we associate with beef, with the asparagus — a vegetable which was omnipresent in this dinner — providing just the right contrast. If I remember correctly, I continued with the Chinon, since I found it truly excellent. At this point the small portion of beef seemed entirely adequate, and it felt right for things to wind down with a cheese course and two small desserts.
The cheese course consisted of a small tart made with Reblochon, accompanied by a Petite Salade and Honey Pepper Gastrique. This was the only course that didn’t really come off. It was certainly well made, but the combination was not as inspired as in the other courses. Honey with cheese is very much in fashion these days, but I’m not overly drawn to it. The sweetish Coteaux du Layon Chateau de L’Echardière that accompanied it was excellent, but it brought out in the condiment what I was least in the mood for right then.
The primary dessert was a Chocolate and Caramel Fondant with Hazelnut Crumble and Chocolate Sorbet. It was light and just the thing to bring to a close a meal in which the earthy flavors of mushrooms and truffles had been prominent. This brought another dessert wine, a 2000 Banyuls, Grand Cru, Cave de l’Abbé Rous, from Languedoc-Roussillon. An apricot from Regier Farms in a raspberry consommé with black sesame ice cream followed, amazing us one last time with Josiah Citrin’s imagination and daring, which never failed to please us on the basic level of good and satisfying food.
The diminutive tasting portions added up to a substantial dinner. As I mentioned, Chef Citrin likes to improvise, and, although this anniversary menu is still being offered, it has changed somewhat, basically with fewer courses and a lower price, $65. The lobster course on our menu was a spur-of-the-moment substitution for what is apparently an old favorite, Lobster Bolognese, and that is illustrated here. Mélisse is an absolutely superb establishment for all the reasons I’ve described above. Some restaurants with two Michelin stars just sit there without showing any promise of rising to Olympus, but Mélisse’s nostalgic anniversary menu was constantly freshened by Citrin’s sophisticated sense of the qualities of food and his active imagination. He hardly seems like a person who sits on his laurels, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mélisse got its third star in the not-too-distant future. It is certainly one of the finest French Restaurants I’ve dined in.
Our splendid evening drew to a close with a few more words with Chef Citrin and his staff, and we could no longer put off our date with the Santa Monica Freeway.