Mélisse – Los Angeles, CA
When I lived in Los Angeles, I used to visit Mélisse, one of West LA's most storied fine dining destinations, with some regularity, since it was only a ten minute walk from my Santa Monica apartment. In fact, Mélisse was one of the first tasting menu destinations I visited in my early foodiedom, so it still holds some marvelous nostalgia for me. I loved visiting Mélisse during my generally mentally turbulent LA years, and it became a sort of "pilgrimage" happy place, much like Stone Barns is for me today.
Josiah Citrin, an institution in the LA dining world because of Mélisse, recently shifted his focus to more casual concepts. As the LA dining world evolves generally away from white tablecloth, tasting menu establishments, in the last decade Chef Josiah has been expanding into the more casual world of food, first with meat-focused Charcoal in Marina del Rey, then with Openaire in Koreatown, and finally with the retooling of his culinary temple in Santa Monica into a dual-concept casual spot, Citrin, and a hyper-intimate permutation of his flagship, keeping the name Mélisse.
I had not been to the redone Mélisse since they made the shift, and found myself on a whirlwind "last hurrah" sort of trip out west before the semester started, so figured a dinner at Mélisse was a great way to engage in some LA nostalgia.
The new Mélisse uses the side room they used to have in the old dining space, with a brand new “doorbell-only” entrance on Wilshire Boulevard and a distinct wall between the Citrin and Mélisse spaces. What is even cooler is that they added an entire kitchen to this space reserved just for Mélisse, and all the tables (with a max of 16 total seats) are oriented to get a view of the kitchen. It’s like dinner theatre! Chef Josiah is notably absent from the kitchen these days, having handed off operations to Chef de Cuisine Ian Scaramuzza, and it shows in the food. While likely guided by Josiah Citrin, this is a distinctly different restaurant than the old Mélisse. And I think for the better.
Matt Luczy is the wine director here once again, after taking a break when the hospitality industry imploded. He is one of the most thoughtful, informed, and inventive wine directors I have ever come across in the industry (and also a pretty great photographer), and he and I, similar in age, used to nerd out about wine every time I visited. Matt is also responsible for the oldest thing I’ve ever consumed in the form of a Madeira bottled in 1908. Wild shit. He’s fantastic, and I was very glad to shake his hand again and have him lead me through the wine journey to come. “It’s been a couple eras of human civilization since I’ve seen you” he says. It’s been just over two years, and yet he’s totally right.
Matt brought me an aperitif of Japanese peach, yuzu, almond orgeat, St. Germaine, and vodka to start, which was incredible and tasted like the best Kool-Aid in the world. “I could drink nine” he says as he strolls to the next table, leaving me to enjoy the theatre of the amuse courses being prepared in the open kitchen.
When the amuses arrive, I take diligent notes on my phone, and then, putting it away, forget that my phone also serves as a camera for documenting these things. Fortunately, I only miss the first bite, a tomato tart in the style of Spanish “pan con tomate" with mint. In addition, there was a little sandwich with buckwheat cracker, gouda, and bourbon glaze, and a little savory cookie made with sweet corn and brimming with the flavor of black truffles. The winner, however, was something somewhat similar to an amuse course at Maido in Lima––a charcoal "puff" with beef tartare and green goddess inside, topped with caviar and shiso flower. At Maido, they created the color of the puff with squid ink and included chorizo and banana. Similar, and very delicious!
Matt has done something really cool with wine pairings this time around––instead of offering one pairing for each course, he pours two glasses, and usually for a couple of different bites of food, so that you can experience different wines with different bites and discover how each wine influences the flavors of the food. It's a an approach I've never seen before in the industry and one that I very much appreciated.
The wines were all French tonight. I knew Matt would turn it out regardless of the price point so I saved myself the extra cash on the reserve pairings, and my instinct was spot on. Matt's philosophy was made even cooler by pairing wines you wouldn't expect with the food, sometimes one white and one red––most notably in this instance, he told me he had "been waiting for years to find a red wine that paired with raw fish" and happened upon it in this first pairing. The white, from Vouvray, was chenin blanc, a very clean, food-friendly permutation of a rather versatile grape with some lovely acidity, a nice unexpected body likely owing to its age, and aromatic, floral notes on the nose. The "surprise" red wine was from Chinon, cabernet franc with silky, berry-driven notes on the palate but still with a green pepper vegetal essence that would prove to be a perfect pairing with the upcoming raw fish course (who knew!).
Three small dishes were next, all of which capitalized on the all-too-brief tomato season. I once again took notes and then took a bite from the first of these three before photographing them, realizing my mistake only when it was too late to capture the absolute beauty of the plating. The first was a sort of tomato mousse formed back into the shape of a tomato atop a bed of king crab flavored with XO sauce. Delicious, and the first dish that made me think "this isn't the same-ol' Mélisse." After that I enjoyed a rather disappointing but "fine" tomato broth with black cod, spinach, and shelling beans, which paled in comparison to the flavors of the other two. The third bite, a sawara crudo with tomatillo glaze and sliced radish resting on a shiso leaf "tortilla" was my favorite, and by God, Matt was totally right that the Chinon paired beautifully with it, largely owing to the green vegetal zest of the shiso leaf.
The courses that followed were more spread out, but Matt was still pairing two wines with the three dishes that followed. Here he picked two selections from Champagne, a region which he rightly pointed out gets all lumped together but actually has significant variation. The first was a blanc de blancs from Robert Moncuit, with the brightness and green apple you'd expect from a 100% chardonnay bottle of Champagne, and even a bit extra tang because of the lower residual sugar ("extra brut"). The second, from Bérêche & Fils, was the opposite in style, made entirely from red grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier), so was significantly more amber in color and had a rounder body and more nutty, toasty notes on the palate. My favorite style of Champagne.
"Cromesquis" is a type of French fritter that I'd not heard of, usually made of a mince meat filling enclosed in fried pork. This version was all sea urchin (!). Inside a little fried outer shell was enclosed lobes of Santa Barbara uni, while atop the fritter were smaller, sweeter lobes of urchin from Hokkaido, drizzled with a bit of kombu honey. Y'all already know how much I liked this one.
Next was a dish that was a vehicle for the mound of caviar atop––a roasted potato "soup" for lack of a better word and "flavors of French onion dip"––chives and what I think was a bit of bacon. Really delicious, and obviously the ideal pairing with the Champagne!
"Chicken and rice" was the next course, and probably the first time I'd had a chicken and rice dish on a fine dining tasting menu. The drumstick was stuffed with ham and preserved truffles, and then served alongside a little bowl of chicken fat rice flavored with almond, sunflower seeds, and truffles. A dish that I would never have expected at the old Mélisse, and overall very good, but a shade heavy, and the rice could have dealt with a little more seasoning (though that may be my I-might-have-had-COVID-in-Peru palate still rearing its ugly head). Matt wisely poured a bit more of the Bérêche with the chicken, saying "that chicken loves this wine." He was right!
With the seafood courses, I was thrilled to see Matt bring forth two bottles of Burgundy, of course representing the two quintessential grapes of the region––chardonnay and pinot noir. The chardonnay, from Meursault, had all the glorious depth and complexity of the appellation, with just enough oak for a gorgeous white Burgundy. The pinot, from Givry, sang with red fruit and sexy tannins, but with a sort of vegetal depth that I appreciate from certain appellations in Burgundy. Very traditional wines, and very delicious.
The next dish felt a bit more like the old Mélisse, in the best way possible. Maine lobster often featured prominently in the meals at the old Mélisse, most notably in Chef Josiah's signature lobster tagliatelle, which was incredible. This version somewhat resembled that dish. The lobster was served coated in a zesty fermented red pepper sauce, with little ribbons of "sashimi" zucchini alongside a yellow pepper ketchup, and the entire dish was topped with a sweet corn and curry broth. WOW. A flavor bomb in all the best ways. The zucchini was too small to be a major component, but that would have to be my only complaint. One of the courses of the night, and great with the pinot.
The second seafood main was black bass, topped with a "salsa" of verbena and eggplant, with more eggplant and green tomato beneath the fish, and a lovely, foamy sauce of chardonnay and morels. Eggplant is such a "meh" thing to me so I never really understand its inclusion in much of anything, but the tangy verbena and green tomato carried the acidity of the dish through the flavorful and rich but somehow light broth. Brilliant with the Meursault.
Beaujolais, the neighbor region to Burgundy, is best known for gamay, a lighter bodied, aromatic red wine, but one that has become a bit over-commodified with cheap, jammy Beaujolais nouveau wines. In the Morgon sub-appellation, many more traditional producers are making gamay that much more expresses the potential of the grape. Bramble driven and intensely floral, with a little bit of gamey funk, these wines are really fascinating––Hannah, my favorite som on the other coast, also poured a Beaujolais from Morgon for me the last time I was at Stone Barns. This one was glorious, and paired beautifully with what was to be the course of the night.
In Rouen, northwest of Paris, they make a duck sauce with a silver press that squeezes all of the duck "remains" after it's cooked and carved into a silky, rich sauce called "Rouennaise." I'd never had this sauce before, but they pressed it before our eyes after carving the duck for our next course.
Various plum condiments complemented the 21-day aged duck breast from Liberty Farms in Sonoma, the gold standard of duck farms in the US. The stunning Rouennaise, the pièce de résistance, pooled next to the perfectly cooked breast. As if that wasn't enough flavor, they also layered a roasted onion with duck sausage. The course of the night, for sure.
Another very traditional wine was next, syrah from Rostaing in Côte Rôtie, one of the most famous producers of the varietal in the Rhône Valley. I had a '98 Rostaing at SingleThread, and this newer vintage was more fruit-driven but just as delicious, with the deep complexity of syrah perfectly balanced with blue fruit.
Leaning even further into heavier French-style mains, this slice of veal cooked over charcoal for two hours was served with a sherry-veal jus peppered with black truffles, and some chanterelles alongside. Much umami, but somehow lifted with the slightly tangy sherry sauce. Very good, but a bit heavy after the already-rich duck course.
What a gamut of savory courses! Getting excited for dessert, I was happy to see Matt bring out two very interesting dessert wines. The first is an example of a type of wine called "vin de paille" or "straw wine," where the grapes are allowed to dehydrate until they become raisins to concentrate the flavor and sugar. Intense and somewhat oxidative in style, it reminded me of a particularly intense sherry. The second was distilled from pomace left over from pinot meunier grapes in Chamapagne production, making a viscous, sweet, almost port-like dessert wine. Very cool!
Dessert focused on peaches, one of my favorite flavors of late summer. The first was a delicious peach tart glazed with yuzu and topped with dollops of vanilla bean cream. The second was a peach ice cream, topped with a "white peach," a little truffle filled with white peach mousse, and baby Japanese peaches sliced atop. Much peachy goodness!
Some little snacks closed the meal––a passionfruit gel on a vanilla bean cookie, slices of mango from Palm Springs with lime zest (omg), and a fudge with sea salt. The mango was one of the best bites of the day! Who knew Palm Springs was such a mango mecca!
I really loved visiting Mélisse again. The restaurant is certainly different––the "old standby" dishes you might see every time, like the egg caviar, lobster tagliatelle, or the amazing basil brioche, were nowhere to be found, and the dishes seemed more inventive, particularly those driven by Asian ingredients. But the more traditional French methods are still spotlighted, and the California ingredients, as before, are as perfect as ever.
I will say that French-focused fine dining meals like this, while still very delicious and enjoyable, seem to be a shade out-of-touch with the recent direction of fine dining in this country. Many of the best places in the country are redefining what fine dining can be, and are not necessarily glued to the same parade of traditional "luxury" ingredients and French technique. In many ways that made this particular meal even more nostalgic, since this style of fine dining is exactly what made me fall for good food in the first place (mostly because I thought the "luxury" ingredients were what made a meal "good").
Still, I do appreciate seeing the ingredients and techniques expanding at Mélisse, and very much enjoyed my meal here, especially Matt's very cool approach to pairings. Mélisse will still be a go-to in Los Angeles for a fine dining meal.