Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Marching to the Beat of His Own Drum - Orris

In the ultra-competitive dining scene in Southern California, trends are almost a given. When a new dish or ingredient resonates with the populace, you can expect to see something similar at competing restaurants around town. We've seen it with ingredients like Pork Belly, to copies of Kogi's Tacos or the Father's Office Burger. So it's nice to find a restaurant where the Chef isn't in a hurry to just mimic or improve upon a current fad, but instead decides to create dishes at his own pace, according to his imagination. And that's precisely what you'll find with Chef-Owner Hideo Yamashiro at Orris.

I remember first trying Chef Yamashiro's cooking years ago, when a Pasadena Hound took me to his first restaurant, Shiro, in South Pasadena. Back then, his cooking already displayed some standout dishes and unique flavors, tucked away in the unlikeliest of places in a quiet corner of South Pasadena. At Chef Yamashiro's newest restaurant, Orris feels like Shiro modernized and simplified into a Small Plates format, and this is where Chef Yamashiro (who worked under Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison) spends most of his time nowadays. Along with the streamlined, but creative menu, comes sleeker, simpler decor, all wrapped up in a smaller, cozier establishment compared to his original restaurant. And while I appreciate the simplicity, there's something slightly off about the pallid lighting and tight space between small tables that undermines Orris' ability to achieve a really great ambiance. It's not "bad" by any means, but it's not totally comfortable nor a place where I feel I can really relax and enjoy a long meal.

During my very first visit, my guests and I enjoy their Burrata and Tomato Bruschetta Bites (Tomato Tarragon Bruschetta, Fresh Burrata Cheese and Anchovy on Toast) to start things off.

It's an interesting take on the usual Burrata and Tomato combination, with the choice of Anchovies and Tarragon helping to add a less commonly found layer with the star ingredients. It's a bit salty, but enjoyable. But after having the ultra-creamy, silkiness of Burrata Basilicata at Osteria Mozza, I've become spoiled. :)

Their Bell Pepper Goat Cheese Bites (Sweet Marinated Red Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Basil Goat Cheese) is another fun starter.

The hollowed-out Red Piquillo Peppers are naturally sweet and exude a delicate aroma, which only adds to the pleasantness of the entire dish when combined with the Basil Goat Cheese filling and Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It's delicate, visually engaging and delicious. :)

Next up is their Dungeness Crab Salad "Nest" (Freshly Hand-Picked Dungeness Crab served with Julienne Cucumber in Light Ginger Dressing).

On paper, the dish sounds great, but in reality it disappoints on multiple levels. First, there's the plating. I'm used to eating at random Taco Stands and plating doesn't need to be a big factor, but as pictured (above and below), the plating is really sloppy and messy. To make matters worse, the pallid lighting and lack of wiping down the plate allowed us to see what looked like fingerprints and unappetizing greasy streaks all over the plate. :(

Overlooking that, the Crab itself tastes bright and fresh, but it's marred by bits of Crab Shell that almost cut the inside of my mouth. :( The Light Ginger Dressing is a great pairing idea with Dungeness Crab and makes it quite enjoyable (after spitting out the Crab Shell pieces), but then the final flaw quickly rears its head: The Cucumber "Nest" makes this dish a total mess to eat. Since the Julienne Cucumbers are quite long (and covered in the Ginger Sauce), and the Crab Meat is loose, trying to properly eat this is a huge chore and the dish literally falls apart as you try to pick it up.

On this evening, Yamashiro-san is featuring a special dish of the day: Kibinago Tempura ("White Sardines") from Kyushu, Japan.

The Kibinago is clean, bright and fresh, with just a touch of the ocean breeze. He finishes it off with a sprinkling of Herbes de Provence and a simple Sea Salt dip, and transforms this into one of the more enjoyable items on the menu. :)

Another welcome surprise is their Basil Marinated Black Cod (Filet of Black Cod Marinated in Fresh Basil and Garlic, and served over Basil Mashed Potato and Squash).

I love how Yamashiro-san takes your expectations of what a typical Gindara (Black Cod) preparation might be, and infuses some of his French training into the mix, along with other influences. The Black Cod gets a strong boost from the prevalent, aromatic Basil and Garlic marinade, and the execution is flawless with super-crisped skin and buttery, moist Fish underneath.

Things get a little mundane with his Duo of Prime Australian Lamb Chops with Au Jus and Potato.

The Prime Australian Lamb Chops arrive medium-rare, with a nice crust and char. They're a little more chunky and firm than what I'm used to, but still tender enough to be enjoyable. The overall flavor is what you'd expect from a decent Grilled Lamb Chop; nothing more, nothing less. The side of Potatoes Gratine is sufficiently creamy, but rather one note as well.

But the absolute highlight of Yamashiro-san's menu at Orris would have to be his: Foie Gras with Japanese Eggplant (French Foie Gras, Pan Seared and served with a tender Japanese Eggplant, topped with a Sweet Soy Reduction).

Foie Gras is inherently buttery, but Yamashiro-san's creation is just pure genius. :) It begins with a top quality Foie Gras from France: It's perfectly cooked, bursting with an intensely clean and luscious taste, and the Sweet Soy Reduction gives this dish a playful finish. The skinned Japanese Eggplant is even silkier and softer than the Foie Gras to really add to a sexy, velvety mouthfeel. Outstanding! (^_^) It's so good that I can't resist ordering it every time I visit Orris.

On a recent visit, Chef Yamashiro is featuring Beets with Basque Sheep Cheese (Thin Slices of Roasted Beets topped with Etorki Cheese, finished with a drizzle of Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil).

The use of the Etorki Basque Sheep's Milk Cheese is brilliant, as it's quite mild, but strong enough to stand up to the sweet Roasted Beets. And just when you think you have the dish figured out, Yamashiro-san's use of Fresh Dill, with a touch of Balsamic and Olive Oil really adds this unexpected Spring-like, herbal fragrance that makes this one of the most unique and enjoyable dishes on his new seasonal menu.

The Grilled Australian Jumbo Prawns (Sweet Australian Prawns, Split and Grilled with Garlic Olive Oil and Parsley) arrives next.

Sadly, these are burnt. Grilling can yield some char, but these were flat-out burnt, with every piece of Prawn giving off an acrid, bitter aroma. :( Trying to look beyond that, the flavors that we could parse out of the dish are very straightforward and basic.

I love Lamb dishes, so I can't wait to try their Lamb Loin Carpaccio with Arugula and Manchego Cheese.

While the portion is generous, it's also really messy. Buried underneath a huge mass of Manchego Cheese and a pile of Arugula are the slices of Lamb Carpaccio. When combined together the flavors are lovely. :) The tender Lamb slices with a pleasing gaminess are met with an equally bold Arugula and Manchego Cheese.

But it's quite messy to eat, and if too much Manchego Cheese or the Arugula hits your mouth first, it really alters the dish (for the worse) as opposed to when you get a bite of the Lamb first, and then the Arugula and Manchego. Besides that, the Lamb Loin has a bit too much gristle at times, but is otherwise another interesting dish.

While similarly named, their Snapper Carpaccio (Thin Slices of New Zealand Snapper, topped with a Shallot Ponzu Olive Oil and Toasted Almonds) features a completely different flavor profile than their Lamb Carpaccio.

But sadly, like their Lamb Carpaccio, the trend of sloppy plating continues here, but this time, it's more manageable since the only toppings are thinly, finely chopped ingredients. The New Zealand Snapper is fragile and fresh-tasting, and the choice to pair it with Yamashiro-san's blend of a Shallot Ponzu Olive Oil is without reproach. The Toasted Almonds add just the right amount of that earthy, nutty aroma to give each bite this irresistible quality. :)

And one of the biggest surprises is their Stuffed Squash Blossoms (Large Squash Blossoms filled with Shrimp Mousse and Pistachios, Lightly Fried, Tempura-Style, and topped with a Kalamata Olive Salsa).

Reading the description, this dish sounds like some horrible fusion creation belonging to some superficial establishment on the Sunset Strip, but it works completely. The Squash Blossoms are fried just right, and the sweet, delicate, airy Shrimp Mousse is the essence of all you love about Shrimp but without the intense brininess of most preparations. The Kalamata Salsa is verdant, mild and has this vegetal sweetness that just brings a smile to your face. :)

And it's this Salsa that really shows off Yamashiro-san's creativity: You'd think using Kalamata Olives would really add a heavy salt, pungent intensity to the dish, but all you get is a faint tease of the Kalamata Olives with a beautiful balance between the Olives, Tomatoes, Herbs and the Shrimp Mousse.

Service has been consistently decent during each of my visits. It's a small restaurant so there are very few servers, but the result is having each server cover each other's stations. If you want refills or more drinks or anything else, you'll need to wave and get someone's attention because your server usually won't come back until the next dish is ready. And this is what brings Orris down a notch from a potential "modern semi-fine dining establishment" to something much more informal. You can see little touches here or there that seem to show that Yamashiro-san wants Orris to be nicer and more fine than it actually is. Prices range from $1.75 to $17.50 per Small Plate. We averaged about ~$43 per person (including tax and tip) over multiple visits.

With inventive French-Californian dishes with a nod to his Japanese heritage, Chef Hideo Yamashiro brings a refreshing, engaging style of cooking to Orris. It's not perfect, however, with plating issues, a few faltering dishes like the Lamb Chops and Grilled Australian Prawns, and their dismal lighting and tight tables. But if you can get past that, you'll be treated to some inventive, interesting dishes that are light and subtle at times, and a good place to stop in for a quick dinner if you're in the neighborhood.

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

2006 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tel: (310) 268-2212

Hours: Tues - Fri, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Closed Mondays.



Anna A. said...

You eat at the most interesting places! I really want to go here now - from the carpaccio to the squash blossoms (avoiding the "nest" and some others, of course). But what about drinks and desserts?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

It's definitely worth checking out once at least (if you've never tried Chef Yamashiro's cooking before). There are some standout dishes and especially the Foie Gras if you like that ingredient. ;)

Drinks... they have a good Wine List and a decent Sake List. Desserts are quite limited (only 3-4 that are pretty basic). Enjoy~ :)

stuffycheaks said...

oh oh, pokey crab shell, bad.. do they still offer the ravioli in mushroom sauce? that was always my favorite.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi stuffycheaks,

Yah, it was a bummer about the Crab Salad. The Ravioli? They had it on the menu last time I went. I keep forgetting to order that but I'll try it the next time I go. Thanks for the rec! :)

glutster said...

Ahhh...Orris is what started it all for me ;)


I remember that lamb loin carpaccio and those stuffed squash blossoms like if it was just yesterday...

Exile Kiss said...

Hi glutster,

Nice! :) Definitely an enjoyable little spot on Sawtelle. Glad you liked it as well.

Food, she thought. said...

The squash blossoms (a favorite) and the foie look amazing. I ate a tasting menu at Shiro recently, and was served foie gras topped seared scallops. They were phenomenal. MUST get across town to Orris.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

Thanks for your thoughts. :) I haven't been to Shiro in years, but I'll have to go back and try it out.

Definitely give Orris' Foie Gras a try. Must order! :) Amazing.

nelehelen said...

i love orris and i love how close it is to my apt (walking distance)! And yes, you must get the ravioli with mushroom sauce next time! it is heavenly. The foie gras and eggplant is another one of my favorites!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi nelehelen,

Nice! :) Thanks for the recommendation on the Ravioli. :)

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