Saturday, November 3, 2007

Third Time's the Charm at Ortolan

One lovely Friday evening, when the air was just starting to turn crisp, we left the house directionless and hungry. We ended up at Ortolan on Third. We had been there previously twice, both times enamored of the decor but less so with the food. The decor really draws me, it is like dining in Marie Antoinette's private apartments. And the food, appropriately, is French. This is a modern style French that really appeals to my California sensibility. Chef Christopher Eme has cooked in Los Angeles at L'Orangerie and alongside Joel Rubichon with Philippe Braun and at famous French restaurants Taillevent and Auberge de l’Eridan. We dined at Ortolan when it first opened out of curiosity about the remodel of the Lynq space, then again about a year later for our wedding anniversary and haven't been since. It is definitely a special occasion atmosphere, which worries me for the longevity of the restaurant. Wildly successful restaurants in Los Angeles tend to be more casual and easily adaptable for any occasion, like a Lucques or a Jar where you are as easily comfortable in jeans as a suit. And I feel even more concerned at this writing because our food Friday was phenomenal. The third time was the charm, everything was beyond delicious, flavorful and presented with whimsy. What a joy.

The service was also stellar. Every person who approached our table seemed genuinely interested in our comfort and pleasure and they all seemed like they were enjoying being there, something I love to see in a wait staff. The sommelier even chose a wine by the glass appropriate for our orders, and did so in a professional manner 100% unconcerned that we were not going to order an entire bottle. I have no clue what he chose for either of us, save that each was French and utterly sublime. White for me, red for him. I should call him and see if he remembers because I would love to try and dig up a couple of bottles. Chef Eme came out toward the end of the meal and we had a lovely conversation about upcoming events, the obligatory beaujolais nouveau coming November 15th, and the unfortunately missed white truffle menu of mid-October. Le sigh.

We ate in the bar area/lounge which feels a little more casual. I love this bar area. Above the room is a massive skylight, which makes for no particular impression in the evening, but during the daytime provides them with enough sunlight to host a gorgeous tiered herb garden hanging from the west wall. It looks so beautifully striking in the candle light and runs the entire length of the room.

To start, the chef sent out a lovely autumnal amuse-bouche. There were two soups to share in these funky little test tubes he loves to use. One was a pumpkin and the other was a roasted red bell pepper, both soups were so intense and infused with evggie richness. Both were also topped with a trace of the omnipresent foam that all contemporary French restaurants use prodigiously. A lovely mix of textures.

Also served was a little dish of eggplant caviar surrounded by pesto. Eggplant caviar is one of my favorite things, although I rarely see it on a menu these days and have only made it myself a few times. The pesto gave it a nice kick.

To start, we ordered one course of Heirloom Tomato Five Ways. What amazing tomatoey goodness. Let me count the ways: a small mound of tomato ratatouille, two small lumps of tomato puree encased in a light aspic, one part of the plate looked like a small cigar with something vaguely pink but delicious in the middle, another was akin to a tomato mousse thinly wrapped in cooked kale, and the fifth seemed to be a tomato puree that we swirled around the plate and used for dipping. It was truly lovely.

The second starter was a ceviche of bay scallops with osetra caviar. These were wrapped in thin little sheets of browned sugar so they would keep the shape of a neat little circle. I loved that Chef Eme is so dedicated to presentation. I am always happy with anything that tastes good and I am not a stickler for presentation. But how fun to eat the food of someone who is. It is an art form to be reckoned with. I love watching the French food competitions like the Bocuse d'Or, where the presentation is clearly more than half the battle.

For main courses we tried poached turbot with lemongrass and ginger with pumpkin gnocci, and there were also lovely chunks of okra, red grapes and red bell pepper on the plate.

The second main course was a cod wrapped thinly in cooked kale. This seems to be a theme. I like it because it gives shape and color to the food using something slightly uncommon on most restaurant menus. In my memory, I have only seen this done in one other restaurant, Monet in Ashland, Oregon. This dish was strongly suggested by the server (Chef Pierre Verger's wife) and it was basically a melange of veggies overcooked into a slightly mushy but dry texture and then wrapped in kale. I was not overly pleased with that dish, but I loved my cod at Ortolan. The cod was accompanied by clams in their shell, julienned potatoes, and a lovely light sauce lightly flavored with truffle. Honestly, you could put truffle on the most horrifically prepared and conceived crap on Earth and I would gobble it down. I love the truffle. This dish would have been delicious even without.

We declined dessert and dove into the little plate of petite fours they sent around with the bill. These are always cute and fun. Two of them looked like little sugar hamburgers, two of them were simply homemade marshmallows, one was a little chocolate football and the sixth was mysterious. I always love these little plates because I am not a huge dessert fan and these fill the need for just a taste of sweet.


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