As I mentioned in my request for recommendations below, last night a friend and I both went to Melisse. In summary, the food was very good, but I found the experience a bit lacking on the whole. Admittedly, I am being very picky, but I think a restaurant that charges this much should be held to a high standard. Apologies in advance for my inability to express myself more precisely and concisely.
Food: We had the "Carte Blanche" menu ($95pp) -- meaning 7 courses as selected by the chef. Started with a little lobster tartare with cucumber gelatin dish, which was lovely and fresh tasting. Next was the egg with osetra caviar and lemon creme fraiche, which, as everyone had told me it would be, was superb -- the best part of the meal, really. Next was a large scallop, wrapped in a spinach leaf, topped with thinly sliced fresh porcini, and with a porcini sauce. Like everything else, very good, though not particularly nuanced or original.
Following that came seared duck breast and a bit of foie gras, served with a cherry reduction. The foie gras was heavenly, and the duck perfectly cooked. After that was a small beef filet, and a strange little glazed cube of short rib. Both were tasty, but neither was exceptional. And there was something weird about the smooth little cube of short rib.
Next: the cheese course. Unfortunately, our server kind of mumbled and rushed through it, and while all the cheeses were excellent (particularly a sheeps-milk cheese with rosemary, a very soft ripened cows milk cheese and a blue from Australia which I believe was called "shadows of blue" or something like that), it wasn't nearly as pleasant as last time I was at Bastide, where the cheese course was both sublimely tasty and educational -- picking each cheese was like adopting a child. I also didn't find the accompaniments to be anything special -- there were candied kumquats, poached spiced pears, and walnuts crushed to oblivion with their shells. I eventually gave up on the painstaking effort of picking little bits of walnut out of the pile of shells.
After cheese, there was yummy white peach sorbet, and finally dessert, consisting of 4 elements: (1) a brown butter apricot tart (good, not great); (2) poached fresh apricot (eh. fine); (3) a heavily-spiced apricot-spice ice cream (again, eh.); and (4) a light, fluffy mint custard -- the best part of dessert, but strangely out of place on the plate ("one of these things is not like the others..." was going through my head).
In summary, the food was good, and well prepared, but seemed a little uninspired. I found it a bit strange -- especially at this time of year -- that there was so little use of fresh produce. The cucumber amuse bouche was great, but there was nothing else as fresh and seasonal.
Service and Ambience: Here's where I'll get even pickier and a little harsh. Admittedly, I'm comparing to Bastide, where I've had impeccable experiences in the not-too-distant past (haven't been to too many other places of this caliber recently).
- I didn't care for the room -- we were seated in the middle, and many people were seated in the booths along the edges -- I felt a little on display. They also set up some carts and tables right behind us, so we had people coming by and setting down/picking up all the time.
- I would expect a restaurant like this to print menus daily -- or at least often enough that the menu doesn't have to say that certain dishes are "subject to availability," and the waiter doesn't have to tell us that there's no soft-shell crab today. My menu was also wine stained and looking a little tatty.
- the courses weren't well-timed. For example, one waiter came to tell us that the cheese course was next. Five minutes later, another waiter came by to explain that we were third in line for the cheese cart. On at least one occasion we had nearly finished the food by the time the wine pairing arrived.
- The staff was not very polished. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a very formal person -- but they just came off as a mismatched jumble of people. (sorry for another Bastide comparison, but I found the service there just perfect -- each of the staff was friendly, gracious and casual, but incredibly polished and attentive -- the kind of service where you don't even notice what they're doing -- at Melisse they made it look like hard work). There were lots of little things that took away from the ambience: the sommelier rushing by to serve one of my wine pairings while hauling a second bottle of wine under his arm and half a dozen wine glasses in the other hand; the servers, in an effort to serve me and my friend at the exact same moment, discussing their timing while hovering over us -- somehow hearing one tell the other to wait just a second takes away from the effect of serving us at the same time, and so on.
- with respect to both the foods and the wines, when we were served, the descriptions were quickly mumbled out as an afterthought, and we usually couldn't make out what was said. It seemed like the staff was rushing a lot, which was strange, because the room was nowhere near full (which in itself seemed a little strange on a Friday night).
I had a very nice meal, with good company. But I probably will not go back to Melisse except at someone else's request. There are other restaurants in Los Angeles that offer the same quality food, but offer a more pleasant experience for the price. Perhaps it was an "off" night, but these are just my observations from this one experience.