Thursday, October 16, 2008

Create Your Own Tasting Menu! (a.k.a. Opening Night at Chef Michael Mina's XIV on Sunset)

I first heard about XIV ("Fourteen") a while back, long before it actually opened, thanks to the numerous, informative updates from Eater LA. XIV is a new restaurant collaboration between Chef Michael Mina, SBE, and famous French designer, Philippe Starck. Michael Mina is the award-winning chef and owner of 14 different restaurants across the United States (including Stonehill Tavern in Orange County). His eponymous restaurant in San Francisco was awarded 2 Stars by the Michelin Guide in 2007, and his Michael Mina Bellagio restaurant in Las Vegas was awarded 1 Michelin Star for 2008, amongst numerous other awards for the chef and his various restaurants.

XIV is named as a nod to the chateaus of France during the reign of King Louis XIV which influenced the look and feel of this new restaurant (it also happened to be pure coincidence that this was Mina's 14th restaurant, but they were happy about that other meaning as well, according to XIV's GM).

On the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, from the exterior it looks like a modern, trendy establishment, but upon entering, you're immediately treated to the opulent (and whimsical) decor by designer Philippe Starck. Sitting at the bar, you can see 17th century-style chandeliers, with the columns and other accessories all brought together to match the feel Philippe Starck was aiming for.

I decide to try one of their Featured Cocktails, a Scottish Mule made of Hendrick's, Cucumber, Fresh Lime, Ginger Beer. The Ginger Beer provides a great base and a natural spicy kick to the drink without overpowering it. It's a tad too sour for my tastes, but not bad.

After being seated, a waitress brings by the menu and explains the "social dining" concept of XIV: Essentially, you are encouraged to create your own Tasting Menu(!), choosing from any number of dishes from the full menu (35 selections tonight), and the kitchen will prepare those selections in a quantity and pacing like a Tasting Menu. At $8 per plate for all items (except 2 specialty items tonight (Wagyu and Caviar dishes)), this is definitely an enticing and interesting idea! I'm excited. (^_^) (Note: The entire table is served the same choices you've selected, which makes sense (and isn't too bad, since normally for a Tasting Menu, you get served whatever the Chef has planned for that evening anyways).)

(Note 2: They also have a really nice "mirror copy" of 35 selections available in a Vegetarian version, so you can create your own flexible Vegetarian Tasting Menu as well.)

XIV is headed by Chef de Cuisine Steven Fretz (listed as "Executive Chef" on his business card), formerly of Mina's Detroit-based Saltwater restaurant, and Chef Michael Mina was overseeing all dishes coming out of the kitchen tonight (he'll be at XIV for at least the opening month).

The decor from the other side of the restaurant is even more enjoyable, with a large open dining room (as if from a mansion) type feel. The lighting is low-key and just right, with a great mood and tone established from the moment I stepped inside.

The first dish that arrived was Dungeness Crab Spring Roll, Avocado, Cumin, Charred Jalapeno, Lime. It was beautifully presented in a silver serving tray, with a satin-finish sheet underneath. The Spring Roll itself was lightly fried, crispy and airy. The Dungeness Crab itself was fine, but lacked the sweetness of freshly-cooked crab. The Avocado dipping sauce was beautifully pureed to a thin, clean consistency. Ultimately, however, it was a tad too salty and the lack of sweetness was slightly disappointing.

XIV doesn't offer any formal wine pairings, but I spoke with Sommelier Chris Lavine about some pairings. For the first few courses, he brought out a 1996 Iron Horse Vineyards Private Label Sparkling Wine (made for Michael Mina's restaurants only). It paired beautifully with the Dungeness Crab and the next course, with an extremely clean taste and light effervescence, with slight floral notes.

The next dish was one of Chef Michael Mina's signature dishes, Michael's Caviar Parfait with American Hackleback Sturgeon Caviar. This was another beautifully presented dish, with a mini-towering "parfait" of a Shallot Potato Cake, layered with Smoked Salmon (smoked in-house at XIV), Creme Fraiche, and topped with the Hackleback Caviar. The plate design was also nice with dots of Dill Oil to enhance the dish.

This was a very good dish, engaging the senses visually and taste-wise. The Smoked Salmon was at first a touch too salty for my tastes, but when eaten with the Creme Fraiche and Dill Oil, and a good bite from the Shallot Potato Cake, it helped to even out the flavors a bit.

The next dish was slightly misleading, named "Bay Scallops Tempura, Cauliflower, Passion Fruit, Almonds" on the menu. But what arrived instead was Seared Mexican Bay Scallops, with a Tapioca Tempura Crumble, and Almond Edamame Gremolata. But thankfully it was probably better this way anyways, and delicious!

The Mexican Bay Scallops were nicely cooked, with a good sear, while still retaining the tenderness and suppleness, but they lacked the amazing freshness that I hoped they would have. In Los Angeles, we are fortunate enough to have access to some of the freshest seafood in the world, and while this isn't Sushi, after having tasted so many ridiculously *great* interpretations of Scallops (e.g., Providence's Scallop Sashimi, or fresh Scallops from Mori-san at Mori Sushi, etc.), one can get a little spoiled and disappointed when the Scallops taste less than stellar.

But the dish was saved by the amazing Almond Edamame Gremolata (with Passion Fruit infusion)! The fragrant nuttiness from the Almond and Edamame combination and the subtle sweetness from the Passion Fruit truly elevated this dish to a level it shouldn't have been able to achieve with the average Bay Scallops used. Delicious! :)

Continuing on, their Pumpkin Dumplings, Stewed Cherries, Brown Butter, Sage, arrived next. This was highly recommended by the server and it turned out to be a tad too sweet for my tastes. The Pumpkin Dumplings were cooked open-ended, like a fancy Shu Mai, and the Pumpkin Puree tasted wonderfully fresh and naturally sweet. The Brown Butter Broth was surprisingly light as well. If you're a pumpkin lover, then this is definitely worth trying. :)

At this point, the Sommelier brought out a 2007 Clendenen Family Sauvignon Blanc. This turned out to be extremely light, with a very clean finish, and it paired nicely with the Pumpkin and next course.

XIV's Black Truffle Risotto, Sweet Corn, Castelmagno Cheese arrived soon after the Pumpkin Dumplings were finished (the pacing was really nice throughout the night). I love simple risottos where one or two ingredients can really take center stage, and after the delicious Truffle Risotto at Valentino, I was curious to see what Michael Mina's kitchen could turn out.

Taking a bite, the first thing that hit me was the sharp, clear sweetness of the Corn. It really dominated this dish (not in a bad way, if you like Corn :), but you could barely taste any of the Black Truffles. It was more like ~95% Corn Risotto than a more serious Black Truffle Risotto. Still it was expertly cooked, and was wonderfully light for a Risotto dish.

The next course was a nice surprise and a bit of a disappointment: Black Cod, Spaghetti Squash, Matsutake Mushrooms, Foie Gras Dashi. The highlight was definitely the Alaskan Black Cod, so buttery and perfectly cooked sous-vide, it was wonderful.

However, for a dish touting Matsutake Mushrooms and Foie Gras Dashi, those two elements turned out to be a real letdown: The Matsutake Mushrooms were from Oregon, and lacked any fragrance in them at all. In addition, the Foie Gras Dashi tasted more like it was a Soy Sauce Dashi, with zero hint of Foie Gras. So in the end, it was a beautifully cooked piece of Black Cod, with some underdeveloped supporting elements that took away from the experience.

At this point, the Sommelier came back and brought out a 2002 Thierry Matrot, Puligny-Montrachet, La Garenne (France). This was a great pairing with our next dish (Jidori), with an extremely smooth mouthfeel while maintaining a good complexity.

Their Jidori Chicken, Mesquite, Cornbread, Wildflower Honey, Spinach was another dish with mixed results: The Jidori Chicken was cooked sous-vide, which resulted in a beautifully moist, tender Chicken Breast; there wasn't a single bite of the Chicken that wasn't just as moist and tender, which was great! :) However, there was a really strong Mesquite-smoked flavor that pervaded each bite, and was really off-putting. Whereas in a BBQ dish, the Mesquite can add flavor, here, with just the naked, simple Chicken Breast, the Mesquite-smoke flavor just overpowered the Jidori completely.

The Cornbread was a twice-cooked Cornbread, with the kitchen cooking it once, then layering it with Pudding, letting it soak in, and then cooking it again. This led to a really moist Cornbread, but there was a slightly odd taste surrounding the dish (just on the slightly crisped exterior).

Fortunately, the Liberty Duck, Confit & Prosciutto, Barley, Shiitake and Tamari made up for the Chicken: This was a dish of shredded Duck Confit, topped with a beautiful sliver of Prosciutto on top of a bed of Barley and Shiitake Mushrooms.

The shredded Duck Confit was absolutely delicious! (^_^) It was so unctuous and mesmerizingly good when combined with the Barley and Shiitake base (sadly, the Shiitake Mushrooms were so much more fragrant and delicious than the previous Matsutake Mushrooms with the Black Cod)! It might've been a touch too salty for my preference, but only a touch. Otherwise, it was excellent! :)

One dish I was looking forward to was their Crispy Pork Belly, Pea Leaves, Orange, Salted Cashew. There's never enough good Pork Belly dishes to go around (^_~), so I was hoping XIV's version would excel.

Ultimately, this turned out to be an Asian interpretation of Pork Belly by Chef Fretz: The Orange-Apricot Glaze on the Pork Belly was a bit too powerful, turning this into a dish that was more reminiscent of Sweet & Sour Pork (a much more refined version, mind you :), than something more sublime (like Craft's amazing version). The Pea Leaves turned out to be perfectly cooked Dah Dou Miao vegetables that one often finds at many Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley; it was fine, and added to the Asian theme of this dish.

The next wine brought out is a 2005 Vincent Girardin Volnay Vieilles Vignes (Burgundy, France). This was a really nice balanced wine, with a good minerality and earthiness, and a great pairing with the meat courses arriving.

The Saffron-Braised Veal Cheeks, Chickpeas, Zucchini, Cherry Peppers sounded wonderful and intriguing, and was another dish I was looking forward to. :) The Veal Cheeks turned out to be extremely tender, simply beautiful, however the flavor of the Saffron Sauce turned out to be very Gravy-like, as in straightforward "Mash Potatoes & Gravy"-like Gravy. After having so many wonderful interpretations of Beef Cheeks and Veal Cheeks around town, XIV's version is nicely cooked, but lacks the depth of flavor in the sauce to bring this dish to the upper echelon. It's good, but a little too simple.

The next dish is one of two dishes that doesn't fall under the $8 per plate pricing (it's a $35 supplement): Japanese A5 Kobe Rib Cap, Chanterelles, Haricot Verts. Even though they label it as "A5 Kobe," tonight's Grade A5 Wagyu is from Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. Still, I'm impressed that they imported in Grade A5 Wagyu and am always excited to try some when I can. (^_~)

The A5 Wagyu is from the Rib Eye Cap, which has me worried, because Wagyu is inherently very fatty, and so is Rib Eye in general. Taking a bite, and my worries were confirmed: This cut of A5 Wagyu is extremely well-marbled, too much so, so that each bite you take results in a lot of (delicious, mouth-watering) fragrant Beef Fat as well as the Wagyu Beef itself. To be fair, it was really delicious, but a slightly leaner cut would've been preferred.

Their California Lamb, Salsify, Medjool Dates, Thyme, Walnuts arrives soon after. Lamb is one of my favorites, so I can't wait to try this out. :) It's nicely cooked, medium-rare, and the Lamb is very tender and moist.

While the Medjool Dates and English Walnuts provided a nice foil to the savory Lamb, sodium levels seemed to creep up again in this dish, with the Lamb tasting mainly of Salt more than anything else, and needing a healthy dab/chunk of the Date / Walnut mixture to help offset it.

The dessert courses began to arrive next, with the White Chocolate Cube, Orange Blossom Cream, Coriander, Pistachio, Sake to start. White Chocolate is one of my favorite sweets, and after hearing good things about Pastry Chef Jordan Kahn's creations, I was looking forward to this dessert especially. :)

The White Chocolate Cube arrives in stunning fashion: A handsome, literal Cube of White Chocolate, with a beautifully contrasting Black Sesame Sauce drizzled around the dish. It looks more like a work of art, rather than a dessert at this point (^_^).

Cracking the outer shell reveals the gorgeous layering work, and the lush Orange Blossom Cream, which blends beautifully with the Coriander Caramel, and the fragrant, nutty Pistachio Jaconade and Pistachio Halva(!) and Roasted Pistachios. The Sake Gelee isn't very apparent, but overall this was a *great* dessert, and one of the highlights of the meal! :)

The final dish of the evening is just as stunning: Bitter Chocolate Cream, Ube, Mozzarella Milk Ice, Elderflower, Violet. Besides the wild and exotic ingredients, Chef Kahn tops this dessert with a sauce made from Pure Silver Flake!

The result is a visually arresting dish that catches your eye the moment it arrives on the table! Beautiful and gorgeous, the Silver Sauce, with the dark Chocolate are perfect color contrasts. Taking a bite and it gets even better: The Mozzarella Ice Cream is completely and utterly delicious! (^_^) I was very surprised but it's so light and airy, and has none of the pungency that cheese normally has. The Chocolate and the Ube was perfect backdrop for the Ice Cream. Wonderful!

For Opening Night, service was good, but a bit over-eager at times (e.g., my cocktail was 80% full, and a busboy swung by to ask if I was done with the drink (this was only after sitting at the table for about 5 minutes from time of arrival); or I had only taken 2 bites out of the Risotto (with about ~75% of the dish still there), and another busboy approached the table to ask if I was done and tried to remove the plate). But besides those slight hiccups, the server was wonderful, the Sommelier had great pairings and suggestions, and it was a great ambiance overall.

As aforementioned, XIV's pricing is $8 per dish, for any dish, except the A5 Wagyu and special Caviar. Furthermore, you can have the Chef choose the dishes for you, and put together a Tasting Menu off of his recommendations, and a further discount is applied: 8 Courses for $55, 11 Courses for $75, or 14 Courses for $95. The total tonight (including cocktails and various wine pairings) was ~$240 per person (including tax and tip), but there were quite a few cocktails and wines sampled tonight, that I would forego next time.

XIV is a great concept: Letting the customer create their own Tasting Menu, choosing whatever combination of dishes they want to. Whether you prefer lighter fare and always wanted a few courses of Salads and fresh Vegetables or Soups, or wanted a few more Desserts in a Tasting Menu, the options are here for your choosing. :) And at fair price $8 per dish, in a beautiful, relaxed setting, you can choose to hop in and sample a few plates before heading out for the evening, or create your own "mini dessert Tasting Menu" after a night on the town (especially with their late night hours). (^_~)

I love the concept and the flexibility it gives the customer. Add to this the fact that Chef Mina and Chef Fretz are hoping to have the menu change *daily*(!) (at least a few new dishes every day), and XIV is shaping up to be a viable destination. My only hope is that they can work out a few kinks in the execution of certain dishes, and elevate some of the more mundane ones into something greater. Hopefully the kitchen can continue to improve in the coming months to provide dishes that match the opulent and lush decor already on display at XIV.

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

8117 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Tel: (323) 656-1414

Hours: Sun - Wed, 6:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Thurs - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m.(!)


Epicuryan said...

I was also at XIV on Thursday and quite happy with both the idea and execution.

Kevin and I ordered all the courses while we were there, they call it the gamut and even though I was bursting full by the time they came, I agree with you on the desserts both were exceptional.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi tangbro1,

Oh, I missed your thoughts on it. Glad to hear that you enjoyed your meal (and that's impressive you tried everything :).

I thought some dishes could still use some work / improvement, but the desserts were definitely nice.

Epicuryan said...

I just haven't had time to get my review out. Looking at that list of 35 courses makes me want to procrastinate.

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