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Carte Blanche @ Mélisse, or, Not Quite a 3-Star (Sorry Russ!)


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Carte Blanche @ Mélisse, or, Not Quite a 3-Star (Sorry Russ!)

kevin h | Mar 10, 2009 02:12 AM

Mélisse had been on my culinary radar for what seemed like forever, but for whatever reason, I'd never got around to going, until now. I had the 13-course Carte Blanche menu [$210], along with a couple of supplements. The food:

Amuse Bouche: Grape, Goat Cheese, Pistachio
Sort of Mélisse's signature amuse, we have here a single grape, covered in goat cheese, and coated with pistachio bits. The cheese was the first thing to hit me, with its creamy, slightly sour flavor. This was followed up by the sweet, juicy flesh of the grape, which subsequently gave way to a lingering finish of salty pistachio--an interesting way to kick things off.

1: Ahi Tuna
Yuzu Emulsion. This was a very straightforward looking presentation of ahi, but surprised both of us in terms of flavor. The initial taste was light, clean and fruity, quickly leading to a salty zest. However, the tuna left a surprisingly strong lingering fishiness, which was rather unexpected for the normally mild ahi.

2: Fennel Flan
Orange Gelée, Cashew Mousse, Vanilla Essence. We were instructed to eat this from bottom up, in order to properly embrace all the elements at play here, to experience the transitions from sweet to savory, from warm too cool. The result was quite satisfying: a multi-layered, multi-faceted study in temperature, texture, and taste.

3: Artichoke Soup
Confit Roma Tomatoes, Parmesan Reggiano Croquette, Lemon Essence, Shaved Black Truffle. The croquette here reminded me of a Tater Tot(!) and really complemented the hearty artichoke soup, while the freshly shaved truffle provided an overarching, earthy aroma that tied everything together. The tomato confit, meanwhile, added a marked tartness to the dish to counteract all the richness. Very nice.

4: American Osetra
Arctic Char, Potato Blinis, Lemon Crème Fraîche. The Arctic char is closely related to salmon, and thus unsurprisingly, worked beautifully here. The amalgam of the blini and char formed a delicious combination that was further accentuated first by the tartness of the crème fraîche, then by the salty tang of the caviar. A classic combination, perfectly executed.

Supplement: True Japanese Wagyu Beef "Kobe" Tartare "Potato Millefeuille" [$45.00]
Traditional Garnishes. This was a superb tartare; I loved the contrast between the crunchy potato chip and the soft Wagyu, and how the richness of the beef was further heightened by the creaminess of the egg yolk. The only problem was that the beef wasn't uniquely Wagyu; it really could've been any quality cut of beef--that is, the superior marbling and texture of Wagyu wasn't apparent here.

Supplement: Truffle Egg [$55.00]
Melting Organic Egg, Shaved Black Truffles, Truffle Sauce, Jus de Rôti. An absolutely fascinating dish; I've never had anything quite like it before. The first thing that hits you is the intense, earthy aroma of the freshly shaven black truffle. The truffle then takes a back seat as you taste the egg. The egg "white" had a positively unique texture; it was light, airy, fluffy, ethereal, with a very subtle egg flavor. Inside was the runny yolk, which contrary to the egg white, was a rich, creamy base that integrated the various aspects of the dish, moderating the truffle, egg white, and jus. My dining companion even stated that it was "like eating breakfast."

5: Duo of Mélisse Foie Gras
Pink Lady Apple, Broccoli, Truffle Essence, Tarragon-Sauternes Gastrique. Regular readers will know that when it comes to foie gras, I'm definitely a terrine guy. So imagine my surprise when I actually preferred the seared presentation here. My usual complaints are attributable to either an overly strong flavor of the liver, or to the overt sweetness of the foie's accoutrements. Neither case was present here; instead, the flavor was delicate and subtle, with the essence of foie gras coming to the fore in just the right amount. The lentils, meanwhile, proved to be a superb contrast to cut the richness of the foie. Simply one of the best seared presentations I've had in recently memory. The terrine, on the other hand, fell a bit short, as the foie's natural flavor was somewhat subdued, instead replaced by a salty finish. The pâté was also served warmer than I prefer, with a consistency that was slightly too mushy.

6: Maine Diver Scallop
Arugula, Endives, Fumet d'Oursin. The scallop itself was just about perfectly cooked, with a lovely charred, flavorful exterior surrounding a cool, delicate, sweet interior replete with the essence of scallop. Meanwhile, the fumet d'oursin, basically a sea urchin roe sauce, lent a rich creaminess to the dish that nicely accented the mollusk. A very nice presentation of scallop, though a bit boring according to my dining companion.

7: French Turbot
Sweet Pea, Morels, White Wine Mousseline, Pea Shoot Purée. Turbot is an interesting fish. The example here had a firm, flaky texture that was somewhat dry. The fish can be very delicate, but the morels and mousseline gave the turbot a creamy, buttery, rich flavor that was a bit surprising. The use of peas here was a wonderful and necessary contrast to the gravity of the fish.

8: Trio of Berkshire Pork
Meyer Lemon Stuffed Dates, Braised Cabbage, Sauce Aigre Doux. The trio consisted of pork belly, leg, and loin, as pictured above. The belly was what you'd expect from pork belly--sweet, smoky, fatty, and rich as it should be; it was my dining companion's favorite, though it was perhaps a bit blunt for me. I preferred the leg, which had a much more pleasing herbal and spicy flavor to go along with the sweetness from the agrodolce, while the flesh was noticeably less fatty; it was my favorite of the troika. Finally, the loin was sort of a like a cross between the two, tasty but a bit nondescript. I found the date unnecessary, though I enjoyed the braised cabbage, which was reminiscent of sauerkraut.

9: Prime Beef Filet Wellington
Potato Pavé, Swiss Chard, Perigordine Sauce. Interestingly, the last beef Wellington I had was also prepared under the auspices of Chef Citrin (at the 5x5 Chef's Collaborative dinner at Providence). In any case, this version had a layer of braised short rib between the tenderloin and puff pastry surround. The end result was quite pleasing, with the short rib lending a richer flavor to the subtle flavor of the filet. This was further heightened by the heady Périgueux sauce. My dining companion described the taste as "familiar."

10: Fromage
We had a selection of nine cheeses (chosen by our server on our request), paired with walnuts, red wine candied pears and kumquats, and nut bread:
• Nevat: A medium-flavored, soft-ripened, pasteurized goat's milk cheese from Catalonia. The name means "snowy" in Catalan and is a reference to the cheese's white mold rind; the rind results in a differential ripening, which means variations in texture within the cheese. Subtly sweet, mild, a bit earthy--nice but not particularly distinctive.
• Selles-sur-Cher: A French goat's milk cheese named after the commune of Selles-sur-Cher, where it was first made in the 19th century. It was one of the stronger goat cheeses, with an ashy, tangy, salty flavor that lingers.
• Sainte Maure: A goat's milk cheese traditionally from Touraine, France. The log-shaped cheese had an interesting, dual-faceted texture (young cheeses are soft, but as the mold develops, the cheese hardens), along with mild, nutty flavor.
• Époisses de Bourgogne: A favorite of the Mélisse staff, Époisses is a soft, unpasteurized cow's milk cheese made in the village of Époisses in the Côte-d'Or. Called the "king of all cheeses" by famed gastronome Brillat-Savarin (whose eponymous cheese is one of my favorites), Époisses has a rather strong, funky odor that belies its creamy, sweet flavor.
• Les Delice de Cremiers: A triple creme cow's milk cheese from Burgundy, France. One of my favorites, this had a luxurious, rich, buttery, soft consistency along with a mild initial tang that got stronger with time.
• Old Amsterdam Gouda: Gouda is a yellow cheese made from pasteurized cow's milk, named after the city of Gouda, Netherlands where it was invented (though the name is not protected). The Old Amsterdam here is a gouda that has been matured for 18 months. It had a hard, brittle, gritty texture with a sharp, nutty flavor.
• Pérail de Brebis: A raw sheep's milk cheese from the Aveyron department of France (in the Midi-Pyrénées region). Our server compared it to softer version of Manchego. I thought it had a mild flavor initially, which then increased in saltiness and intensity with time.
• Queijo de Azeitão: Named after a small town in Setúbal, Portugal, this was a sheep's milk cheese with a semi-soft consistency. Lovely, with a mild, creamy flavor with just a hint of tanginess and herbaceousness.
• Saint Agur Blue: Described as the "ice cream of blue cheese" by our server (due to its butterfat content), the Saint Agur is a blue cheese made from pasteurized cow's milk in the Auvergne region of France. It had a great, moist, smooth texture and a strong, spicy flavor. Its intensity rises as the cheese ages.

11: Vanilla Yogurt
Strawberry Sorbet. Yogurt and strawberry--a winning combination. The sweetness of the strawberry is tempered by the mild tanginess of the yogurt. The overall effect was somewhat like eating a strawberry yogurt.

12: Frozen Passion Fruit Parfait
Coconut Sorbet, Lemongrass Tapioca. Very nice; I loved the interplay between the flavors of the passion fruit and sorbet, as well as the interaction between their different textures and temperatures. The use of lemon grass here definitely gave the dessert a Thai-like flavor, reminding me of dessert at Providence.

13: Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate
The presentation here was reminiscent of the themed desserts at Jean Georges. The theme here would obviously be "Chocolate." From top-left, we have: Mascarpone, Coffee (think caffè macchiato), Peanut Butter Crunch, and Soufflé. Overall, the dessert was enjoyable, but really nothing that I hadn't seen before.

I came into Mélisse with pretty high expectations, and much to my surprise, they were met, perhaps even exceeded--it was certainly one of the top meals I've had in Southern California.

I recently came across a post by russkar, from about a year ago:

In it, Russ predicted Mélisse's garnering of a third Michelin star in the next few years. This premonition was met with requisite incredulity from Chowhounders, so I'm wondering if that sentiments still persists, a year down the line.

Based on this experience, Mélisse is a solid two-star establishment, but to gain that one more coveted étoile, the restaurant needs to step it up a notch. I cannot fault the quality of ingredients, or the precision of the preparation. However, what I want to see is a little more innovation, creativity, and risk-taking (especially with regard to dessert). I get a feeling of complacency, of settling into routine. I know Citrin and company are up to the challenge, but how bad do they really want it?

Full review with photos:

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