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My 2009 splurge meal came earlier than I expected, since my Jose Andres lovin' friend wanted to check out Saam on its opening night this past Friday. Despite my DineLA Bazaar meal being a hit and miss affair, I decided to give the place another shot ~ to see if it lives up to the perfect four-stars anointed by LA Times' S. Irene.
Having arrived a tad early, my friend and I went to Bar Centro area to check out a couple of drinks. I got the Jale Berry (blackberry and pepper), which was still tasty though significantly less spicy than I remembered, and my friend had the bartender's choice - a mix of Partida reposado, lime, mint and ginger syrup that went down really smooth and had a nice bouquet of spicy, minty flavors with the slightest tequila edge. After our drink, we checked in with the host stand to be taken into the Saam section of the Bazaar.
Saam, which turned out to be a Baz*aa*r-ish play on SBE owner Sam Nazarian's name, is situated in a private room situated right behind Bar Centro. With its wood-paneled walls and roof, high ledges lined with kitschy books and knick-kacks, and a winebar smack in the middle, it gives off a den or game room feel, I was even keeping an eye out for a dart board or a box of cigars somewhere. But overall, it was cozy and comforting, and a far-cry from the glitzy-bordering-on-gaudy ambience of the other Bazaar areas and much more appropriate for a tasting menu affair than the noisy hub-bub and visual distractions going on in the Rojo and Blanca rooms.
Another surprise is that for an opening night, Saam wasn't very filled -- only about a third to a half of the tables were occupied at any given time throughout our dinner. Then again, the buzz for the opening was kept pretty low (only Urbandaddy disclosed it ahead of time) and the server noted they are in a sort of soft-launch phase to see what works and what could be tweaked.
Soon after we settled into our seats, the waitstaff gave a breakdown of how the meal will proceed and asked about our allergies/preferences, then quickly presented us with a "snack and a cocktail" of their salty air margarita and sweet potato chips with tamarind paste and star anise. The margarita was decent and I do like the soft-and-light foam better than the typical coarse grains rimming the glass, but the tequila's harsh edge (blanco, I presume) was a bit too rough for my personal preference. Their spin on chips and dip was delicious, hitting three flavor notes with the slight saltiness of the sweet potato to the sweetness of the tamarind paste and the sourness of the yogurt.
As we finished our sips and nibbles, we were besieged with a quartet of bites. From front-to-back, we had a “olive oil bonbon” with a touch of saffron, caviar steamed bun with American sturgeon caviar, crème fraiche and “lemon air” on a mini bao, the bagel and lox crispy cone with salmon roe and dill cream cheese, and their cotton candy-wrapped foie gras. Here, the two fish egg dishes were wonderful tasting, with the roe harmonizing well with the other components and carrying it through with its briny, fishy (in a good way) flavor. The olive oil bonbon and the foie gras, on the other hand, seemed more fun to eat than tasty themselves. With the former, it was neat to crack the glassy bonbon in my mouth to flood my tongue with the saffron-infused oil, but ultimately it’s just oil on my tongue, albeit a quality olive oil which made me wish I had bread. With the foie gras, there’s that sweet-savory match going on and the expected richness of the fatty liver, but that was it and it felt single-faceted.
It was here that we also mentioned being interested in a wine pairing, and found out that instead of a traditional pairing, they offer four wine flights (self-explanatory Global, Spanish, Sparkling and Fortified) and essentially let the diners do their own pairings. Depending on your take, this can be DIY fun or a bit lazy on part of the restaurant. I started leaning towards the latter after some of my own pairing experiments went awry and resulted in puckery-cringe facial expressions. Also, I got the sparkling flight, which, despite being two 1.5 oz pours of four wines during the meal, didn’t last very well, since the bubbles ~ particularly for the two Cavas ~ dissipates fairly quickly and I really can’t let them just sit at the table and get flat while waiting for other courses to present themselves. A Spanish or a Global flight would work way better for pairing purposes…
After the four amuses and initial sips of our flights, we were presented with another Bazaar signature, the olive spherication, with olive juice contained in a gellified olive “skin” steeped in olive oil. A playful morsel that tastes like an extra dirty martini minus the alchy (though if you order a standard martini at the Bazaar you will get one of these lovelies in your glass.)
Following the spherified olive is Jose's Ham & Cheese sandwich (on an oddly-cute monkey pedestal tray!) with the deliate "air bread" bread filled with creamy La Serena sheep's cheese and topped with slices of jamon iberico. Pure decadence as all the components melded together, the cured, marbled ham with the creamy-yet-assertive cheese with the crisp, cracker-like bread.
After the monkey pedestal was bussed away, we were served the "canned" uni conservas with flowers and diced vegetables. Since my uni experiences thus far have been in sushi form, it was interesting to see it paired with the more lively veggies, but it worked surprisingly well. The creamy-sweetness of the urchin still came forth, and was nicely contrasted with the crunchy, mildly tart vegetables.
The boneless wing was up next, a 12-hour-marinated and breaded chicken with olive puree and iceplant. I like the mild garlicky flavor that was thoroughly infused throughout the moist chicken as well as the accompaniments that gave it a green-grassy note, but not so much the breading that was soggy rather than crispy.
Next up, their interpretation of the shrimp cocktail, with a Santa Barbara shrimp studded with petals, herbs and sesame seeds, pierced by a pipette filled with cocktail sauce and shrimp-head broth. Simply heavenly, and tasted every bit as colorful as it appeared; the plump, sweet shrimp was cooked to perfection (tender with that almost-crisp snap of firmness) and that broth-infused cocktail sauce tasted like a spiced-up red chowder. Totally could’ve eaten another few (dozen) of these!
Then came our intermission “show” where two servers almost struggled to push their ubiquitous liquid nitrogen cart in front of our table, to do a full on, cold-fog demo of their nitro gazpacho. For our photo-taking purposes, she really loaded up on the liquid N2 for the mad-science-lab effect. Nice!
As for gazpacho itself, decorated with edible flowers and airbread pieces and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, it was competent. All the expected flavor components were there, and I like the frozen sorbet texture, but the taste didn’t wow me and I actually could’ve used a little less of this since it’s very intense-tasting and left a distinct tomato and vegetal aftertaste that I had to drink plenty of water to get rid of before my next course of . . .
Bluefin toro with 63 celsius quail egg, caramelized watermelon, rice puffs and wasabi. Oddly enough, the fatty tuna belly had more of a salmon sashimi look and taste. The egg, whose yolk is still molten, had a nice richness that binded the flavors of the fish and the watermelon, and I liked the little poppity-crunch from the puffs. But again, another good-but-not-great dish – though I was still wondering about the salmon-y tuna for quite a while afterwards.
Following the toro was the Norwegian lobster with a thin slice of toasted baguette atop a seaweed salad, with a espresso cup of lobster broth. We were instructed to eat the lobster and baguette, have a sip of the broth, then eat the seaweed salad – which worked pretty well, the lobster meat was sweet and succulent, and the broth further brings out the savory flavor, and the seaweeds serve as an efficient palate cleanser, so that I can experience it fresh all over again. Definitely an impressive dish since I’m usually not that fond of lobsters.
Finishing off our seafood experience, smoked sous-vide salmon with a tzatziki sphere, chickpea pancake, dill, pressed cucumber, green chickpeas and olive oil. Rich yet refreshing and reminiscent of Mediterranean cuisine, this course was very delightful, distinctive yet familiar, basically a haute-refined salmon-dill-cucumber-yogurt dip. Definitely spoiled me for any creamy smoked salmon-dill spreads that I’ll encounter in the future!
Next is a partially destroyed “Not Your Everyday Caprese” salad because we forgot to take a photo before chomping down. It basically consisted of a liquefied mozzarella sphere with “sexy” tomatoes, airbread pieces, housemade pesto and dots of balsamic. Like the gazpacho, all the flavor expectations of caprese are here, but I don’t necessarily feel it’s an improvement over a traditional caprese and actually prefer a more solid mozzarella.
Rounding off the main courses is the Tournedos Rossini 2009, an homage to the famous composer and gourmand, consisting of a A5 Wagyu beef in a black-truffle gel, topped with foie gras shavings, king oyster mushroom and black trumpet mushrooms (mistakenly called “black trumpet truffles” by our server); between the truffle gel, the shrooms, foie gras and marbled beef, it was an attack of richness all vying for attention from my tastebuds. As such, this dish actually tasted better when I ate one or two components with the jus rather than a combined bite, when everything is just overwhelming one another in an orgy of fatty foods and it wounds up being an unappealing glob of heavy oiliness in my mouth. But it was divine when eaten separately, when the individual ingredients really shone in their unique flavors.
Transitioning our way into desserts, we got the signature and popular dragon’s breath (actually even too popular, such that the Bazaar won’t serve it unless Jose is in the kitchen). A fun, tasty bite of caramel popcorn, especially when the nitrogen vapors go up the nasal cavity and out the nostrils to produce that infamous smoke-out-of-nostrils effect.
Our first dessert is the chocolate biscuit coulant Michel Bras, essentially a molten chocolate-souffle inspired by the notable French chef, topped with gold flakes and served atop cardamom foam. Even if the chocolate-cardamom combo isn’t particularly edgy for me, this was a perfectly delicious sweet and I practically spooned every last bit into my mouth.
Second sweet was coconut-in-a-half-shell with an edible white chocolate-coconut shell, coconut sorbet, caramelized banana, passion fruit sauce with seeds and vanilla. Looks very pretty, and like the chocolate, tasted fine but also felt a bit ordinary on the creative scale.
Wrapping everything up, their petit fours of chocolate lolly with candied orange, saffron gumdrop and earl grey chocolate bonbon. All three were good but the gumdrop (with edible candy wrapper) was the most memorable because of its distinctive flavor and texture.
And for better or for worse, stomach-space-wise I left the meal feeling satisfied and not stuffed, though I will disclaim that my appetite leans on the lighter side. As for the overall experience of the meal? While it definitely is a mark up from the erratic menu landmine at the Bazaar, my Saam dinner felt less memorable than my previous years’ splurge meals at Providence and Spago, which were almost consistently good throughout the meal whereas with Saam I had greater variances, with some dishes being really good (Santa Barbara shrimp, Tournedos Rossini when eaten apart) and some that just tasted OK (gazpacho, caprese, boneless wing). But it was at least a nice visual treat watching many of these dishes being served.
For the sakes of opening day, I’d rather not rate them since there’s bound to be a few significant changes over the next few weeks (for one, they’re trying to give Saam it’s own menu rather than borrowing a few dishes from the Rojo y Blanca one.) And if there’s one thing I’d recommend, it’s definitely to have a sommelier on-site to make appropriate pairings for the dishes. At $120 for the dinner and $40-$55 for the wines, that’s something I’d rather leave to the pros rather than blindly DIYing my way through.
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