Monday, August 18, 2008

The IRON CHEF Tasting Menu - Providence

Providence has been one of my favorite standby restaurants in Los Angeles for years now. The relaxed dining spot on Melrose featuring modern American Seafood has been providing interesting and creative dishes since the day it opened, under the direction of Chef-Owner Michael Cimarusti (formerly of Le Cirque, Spago, and Water Grill fame). Last year, it was awarded a Michelin Star (and in 2008 it was just awarded 2 Michelin Stars).

So it was a nice surprise when I caught an episode of Iron Chef America a few months ago, and discovered that it was featuring two of my favorite chefs battling it out: Iron Chef Japan, Masaharu Morimoto versus Providence's Chef Michael Cimarusti! I was rooting for both of them to win (^_~), but in the end Chef Cimarusti defeated the Iron Chef in "Battle Blackfish" (the secret ingredient for that evening). Happy and intrigued, I called up Providence and arranged to have the full Iron Chef Menu that he beat Chef Morimoto with as a Tasting Menu. Chef Cimarusti was flattered and more than happy to do this, and I was honored and excited! :) The only change he requested (and I was more than happy to agree to it) was that Blackfish be swapped out with another fish of his choosing, since Blackfish is not a pleasant fish to eat.

We arrived 20 minutes early, and ordered one of Providence's signature cocktails at the bar while waiting for our table: The Lyone was refreshing and clean, made up of Grey Goose de Poire, Green Chartreuse, Fresh-Squeezed Lime and St. Germain liquor. Upon being seated, our server arrived within a few minutes, greeting us and letting us know that the Iron Chef Tasting Menu was ready to begin.

We began with an Amuse Bouche of three of their signature Cocktail Spheres (chilled "gelee" versions of traditional cocktails), which were outstanding: The Mojito Sphere, with Rum, Cane Sugar and Mint was delicious and refreshing as usual. These are so dangerously delicious - little gelee spheres of alcoholic beverages in a charming, candy-like form! :)

The Gin & Tonic Sphere was equally delicious, accented by a squeeze of fresh lime, with the tartness bringing the flavors together.

Finally, the Greyhound Sphere was like a super-focused, evolved version of its namesake drink. It should be noted that the plating design was outstanding, with the Spheres being served with interesting utensils atop classy hewn stone plates.

It turned out that that was only the first wave (probably Chef Cimarusti "greeting" us with some of Providence's signatures :), as another Amuse Bouche plate arrived, this time, in a savory theme. We began with Kanpachi (Greater Amberjack), with Shiso Leaf and Salted Red Plum. It was an excellent piece of Kanpachi, and the Red Plum lent a sweet, tart aroma and paired perfectly with the Shiso.

The middle item was a cute plating of Uni Custard, Ossetra Caviar, Soy and Chives. It was all served within an egg shell, and the Custard was cooked perfectly, light and airy. The only disappointment was the Uni, which was just a touch too briny for my tastes (it was about a "~90% freshness" rating for me (just a touch too much of the unpleasant flavors of the ocean)), but the Ossetra Caviar and Custard were excellent.

And on the right was a Hog Island Oyster Shot, atop Chorizo Gelee(!). The Hog Island Oyster was so fresh, and the entire shot exuded a beautiful fresh brininess (as opposed to the Uni), and light, fragrant porky flavors from the Chorizo Gelee worked like magic.

We opted for a wine pairing, and our first course arrived soon after:

2006 Encostas do Lima, Vinho Verde (Portugal)
Blue Fin Tuna Tartare, Heart of Palm, Quail Egg, Wasabi Creme Fraiche, American Caviar

The Blue Fin Tuna Tartare was encapsulated in a beautifully cut round of Heart of Palm. Breaking the Quail Egg Yolk and mixing it with the Tuna, it was fun and interesting trying out a bite of this Tartare by itself, then with some of the Caviar, then working in the Wasabi Creme Fraiche (which was an excellent pairing), and even the Pickled Heart of Palm pieces on the side were simply wonderful. The plating encourages you to try the flavors and adjust to your liking. :) The housemade Brioche was fine, but something less dense and thick would've probably worked better. Still, a great dish!

The 2006 Vinho Verde was really nice, almost like a Prosecco, very crisp and effervescent, and a good pairing.

Our next course was paired with a nice Japanese Sake:
Kan Chiku Junmai Dai Ginjo (Nagano, Japan)
Scallop Quennelle in Matsutake Broth, Scallop Sashimi with Lime Zest and Freshly-Grated Wasabi

This dish showed some of the fortuitous timing involved in scheduling between Chef Cimarusti and myself: Today was literally the first day of Matsutake Mushroom season, as Chef Cimarusti found his first batch of Matsutake Mushrooms the morning of our meal! (^_^) The Scallop Quennelle was resting gently in a wonderfully fragrant broth of Matsutake Mushrooms, Spring Onions and Celery Leaves. The thing I love most about Matsutake Mushrooms are its beautiful aroma, so unique amongst the mushroom family. The Scallop Quennelle was fresh and so light, not overly dense, and matching nicely with the slices of Matsutake Mushroom and the Broth itself.

And while the Scallop Quennelle was tasty, it was nothing compared to the *perfection* of Chef Cimarusti's Scallop Sashimi (from Hokkaido, Japan)! The fresh Scallop was served with a touch of Lime Zest, and fresh-grated Wasabi, and it was easily the freshest Scallop I've had in the past year. The texture and cut, the inherent sweetness of Hokkaido Scallops... it was one of the highlights of the evening! Chef Cimarusti mentioned that he's fallen in love Hokkaido Scallops recently, and their texture and taste is completely different from the East Coast Scallops he's been using for years, and I totally agree.

The Kan Chiku Sake was a decent pairing, with the Japanese Sake being floral, sweet, and yet having a clean finish. It doesn't match up to my favorite floral Sakes, but for a pairing at a non-Japanese restaurant, this was a good choice.

Our next course arrived:
2005 Simmonet Febvre Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons (France)
Halibut, Burdock, Shiso, Lemon

The simple name of this dish belied the masterpiece that Chef Cimarusti created: Imagine Steamed Halibut cooked to *perfect* tenderness, gently bathing in a light, dreamy Lemon-Butter Sauce, juxtaposed with a playful crunchiness of Burdock, and refreshing fragrance of Baby Shiso Leaf. I don't mean to sound hyperbolic, but this was probably the best Halibut I've ever had in my life! It may not be the same next time, but at this time, with that piece of fresh-steamed Halibut, with the flavors and ingredients Chef Cimarusti put together, it was ethereal perfection. This was the highlight of the evening.

With fish that good, I found the 2005 Chablis to be more of a distraction to the dish than a complement; I found myself wanting to block out everything else around me and just savor the suppleness of the Halibut.

After the amazing Halibut course, I was worried that everything else would be a letdown, but luckily Providence didn't let me down :) -

2006 J. Hofstatter Meczan Pinot Nero (Italy)
Loup De Mer, Chorizo, Sweet Peppers, Cipollini

The Loup De Mer was beautifully cooked, broiled for a great, crispy skin. The meat within was moist and the Loup De Mer's flavor was a great match with the Piperade, and wonderful Chorizo Chip. The sweetness of the Piperade, with the Tomatoes, Sweet Peppers and Onions, and the smokiness of the Chorizo Chip worked nicely with the Loup De Mer.

The 2006 Pinot Nero was really smoky and tart by itself, but paired with this dish, the intensity was softened and I was left with the enjoyment of the fruity notes of this wine.

The final main course of the evening arrived in dramatic fashion:

2006 Peljesac (Croatia)
Grilled Black Sea Bass, Red Curry, Assorted Shellfish

The Grilled Black Sea Bass arrived whole, and was carved tableside by our captain, deboning the fish in the process. The Black Sea Bass by itself was (like the other fish), perfectly cooked, moist and tender. However, what was interesting was that Chef Cimarusti added very little seasoning to the Black Sea Bass itself, but dabbing each bite with made-from-scratch Red Curry Sauce, and it was elevated to something absolutely beautiful! The Black Sea Bass came alive with the unique Red Curry Sauce (which tasted nothing like the "Red Curry" one associates with Thai food). This was a bit sweeter, with a strong, very refreshing note of Lemon Grass and a touch of hot spiciness.

And the bed of "Assorted Shellfish" turned out to be perfectly cooked Squid and Mussels, soft, tender and inherently sweet from the freshness! What would normally be an afterthought at most restaurants was done with the utmost care by Chef Cimarusti, and the Squid I had with the dish was stellar!

I've never had Croatian Wine before, so it was nice getting a taste of this 2006 Peljesac, made of Plavic Mali Grape according to our sommelier. My companion thought it was a nice pairing, but I felt this was the weakest pairing of the evening. It didn't clash with the Sea Bass, but I felt it didn't complement it, either.

Our Cheese Course came next. What's always nice about Providence is their extensive Cheese selection, always brought tableside via their Cheese Cart. Our server introduced each Cheese they had available that evening, and allowed us to choose as many as we wanted. We opted for 5 different cheeses, but in hindsight, it was probably too many, as we were so full! :)

2004 Palazzo Della Torre Allegrini (Italy)
Queso Leonara (Spain), Tomme de Berger (France), Reblouchon (France), Berkswell (Great Britain)

The Cheese selection was also served with some nice candied Walnuts, Dried Figs, a beautiful Apricot Marmalade and an Olive Tapenade, as well as a few pieces of a fresh Walnut Bread. I found most of the cheeses to be a bit too pungent for my tastes, except for the Queso Leonara from Spain, which was a pure Goat's Milk Cheese that was so pure and clean in its taste and aroma, that it was completely addicting. :)

The 2004 Palazzo Della Torre was similar to a Ripassa, but I found the pairing to be lacking. To be fair, we had a lot of pungent, stronger Goat's and Sheep's Milk Cheeses, but the Palazzo didn't hold up for me, despite the smooth taste.

Continuing on, was a nice foil to the Cheese Course:

2006 Charles Hours Jurancon Uroulat (France)
Yogurt, Cucumber, Orange Flower Water, Mint

The frozen Cucumber Yogurt was so clean and light, and the tiny chunks of Persian Cucumber provided a nice contrast of texture.

The 2006 Jurancon had a slightly herbal aroma, but the taste was amazing! Almost Ice Wine-like, the sweetness of the Jurancon caught me off guard, but it was a nice pairing with the Cucumber flavors.

Our final Dessert Course arrived soon after:

McGrath Farms Strawberries, Red Bean Puree, Shiso, Black Sesame Soy Milk Ice Cream.

It was nice tasting this Japanese-influenced Dessert, with the Red Bean Puree working nicely with the Mochi cubes. The McGrath Farms Strawberries were roasted slightly, and they were a match made in heaven with the Baby Shiso Leaves. (^_^) The Black Sesame Ice Cream was also a nice option. It was better served with the Mochi than the Strawberries but overall it was a nice finisher.

We finished off the meal with Petit Fours: Olive Oil Pate de Fruit, Coconut Green Tea Chocolate Truffle, and Black Olive Caramel. The Olive Oil Pate de Fruit was a bit too overpowered by the Olive Oil, tasting more like a pure Olive Oil Gummy Candy than something lighter and more refined. The Coconut Green Tea Chocolate Truffle was nice, with Shredded Coconut working surprisingly well with the Green Tea-infused Chocolate. Finally, the Black Olive Caramel reflected the type of refinement one would hope candies from Providence would be like: A beautifully smooth Caramel, with fragrant notes of Olives, but never overpowering.

Providence's decor is modern and simple, with an interesting aquatic theme with custom-made pieces resembling sea shells or barnacles adorning the walls of the main dining area. It's relaxed, yet sophisticated. Service has been consistently professional and spot-on for each of my visits over the years, and tonight was no different. Our total with Wine Pairing for the Iron Chef Tasting Menu was $268 per person (including tax and tip). In hindsight, sans a couple of the pairings, we both felt the choices were decent, but not very standout, and would forgo the Wine Pairing next time (which would bring the Tasting Menu experience closer to $200 per person).

Note that the Providence Iron Chef Tasting Menu is By Request Only, and is not on the regular menu. Providence also provides three regular Tasting Menus: a Five Course, Full Tasting, and Chef's Menu for $85, $110, or $155 per person, respectively, before tax and tip.

Chef Cimarusti has been at the heart of the innovative and excellent creations at Providence since they first opened. With an understated, classy dining room, great service, and most importantly, creative and delicious dishes on their Tasting Menus, Providence continues to shine as one of L.A.'s better restaurants. With the addition (By Request Only) of the creative Iron Chef Tasting Menu that Chef Cimarusti used to beat Iron Chef Morimoto, Providence continues to provide delicious, progressive cuisine that's become even more interesting and engaging, which is impressive considering the stiff competition in Los Angeles. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

5955 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tel: (323) 460-4170

Hours: [Lunch] Friday, 12:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon- Fri, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sunday, 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.


ila said...

reading your photolog about the most lavish restaurants makes a great escape from work - thank you! sigh, some day, one day!

kevinEats said...

Do you know how long the Iron Chef menu will be on offer at Providence?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Thanks for your kind words. (^_^)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kevin,

Chef Cimarusti didn't give me a timeline, but he said he'd be willing to do this by request "for a bit," since all the ingredients he needs / wants are in season right now (like the Matsutake Mushrooms).

Charlie Fu said...

What kind of camera do you use? I couldn't get nearly this good of a picture at Providence!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

Just a basic Canon, no special add-on lens.

Anonymous said...

Just ate here for dinner this Saturday. We had the chef's testing menu w/o the wine pairing. The food was sublime. The creativity and preparation were appealing both to the eyes and the palette. The meal was a 4 hour extravanganza!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Very nice! :) Glad you enjoyed your visit to Providence. Chef Cimarusti's Chef Tasting Menu has always been delightful and delicious. I can't wait to see what he creates next time.

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