Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Relaxed, Pleasant, Seasonal Cooking (or, Celebrating California's Vibrant Produce) - FIG Restaurant

"Market-driven menu." "Local ingredients."

These catchphrases have been appearing so often in recent years whenever a new restaurant debuts - especially in California where we have an abundance of great, fresh produce - that we've become jaded to these descriptions. Unfortunately, all too often, we run across menus that are supposedly using farmer's market fresh ingredients, but upon tasting the vegetables and fruit, they turn out to be soulless and muted. At FIG Restaurant, Chef Ray Garcia has constructed a menu that truly celebrates the local produce that California has to offer, putting the local farmer's market ingredients front-and-center and letting the inherent flavors speak for themselves. This is *not* a vegetarian restaurant - there are plenty of delicious meat dishes on the menu - but it's a restaurant that isn't ashamed to feature the latest fruit and vegetables that are in-season, in all their vibrant glory. :)

Located in the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, FIG's relaxed, casual ambiance is set the moment you step into the beautiful hotel lobby. FIG's decor is pretty minimalistic (except for the one wall adorned with odd, spherical mirrors :), featuring clean white walls and very low, mood-lighting at night. One of the things that struck me on my very first visit was just how *pleasant* the restaurant felt. FIG was at 100% capacity, and yet my guest and I could hold a conversation without shouting (a far cry from the loud cacophony in places like Comme Ca and Osteria Mozza) (and it's been the same, quiet murmuring on each of my 3 visits).

One of the coolest things on the menu is a section at the bottom listing the key produce Chef Garcia is featuring, with headings of "Just Arrived" "In Peak Season" and "Coming Soon." It gives the diner an understanding of what's in season at this point, and what to look forward to in the coming weeks.

During my 1st visit, I start off with their delicious-sounding Blueberry & Thyme Cocktail (Hand-Pressed Blueberries, Organic Lemon Thyme, Reyka Vodka, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse).

The Blueberries taste wonderful, but unfortunately the bartender uses way too much Vodka and Yellow Chartreuse, overpowering everything else; well short of the amazing cocktails at The Varnish or Rivera.

Bread service begins as soon as we're seated, with each guest being treated to these cute mini-loafs of Bread and Homemade Balsamic Butter.

Chef Garcia's Homemade Butter concoctions are definitely a simple highlight for each of my visits to FIG, changing each time I've gone. The Balsamic Butter is simply delicious: Creamy, delicate with just a touch of the acidic tartness from the Balsamic Vinegar which helps to focus the palate as you take each bite.

Their amuse bouche is an example of their focus on produce, with Fresh Plums, Mint, Creme Fraiche.

The slices of Plum taste fine but don't really work that well with the Creme Fraiche. It's nothing amazing, but it's a decent start.

Our first starter arrives a few minutes later, which is an instant order based on the name alone: Bacon Wrapped Bacon (Early Girl Tomatoes, Arugula, Cocktail Avocado). (^_^)

"Bacon Wrapped Bacon" invokes wonderful possibilities as your imagination runs wild. In the end, it turns out to be thick slabs of Pork Belly wrapped in Applewood Bacon. It's smoky, salty and moderately satisfying, but it just feels like it could've been so much more. The Heirloom Tomatoes, Avocado and crisp Arugula really help to soften the sodium levels and add a good foil to each bite.

From their Charcuterie menu, we try the Foie Gras and Chicken Liver Parfait (Fig Marmalade, Grilled Baguette).

This turns out to be a delightful dish made of Foie Gras mixed with Clarified Butter and Chicken Livers, blended to a smooth, creamy, spreadable consistency. The Fig Marmalade is a touch too sweet by itself, but when mixed with the Foie Gras and Chicken Liver Parfait on their Grilled Baguette, it turns out to be wonderful decadence. :)

Up next is their Young Beets with Pistachios.

The combination of fresh Yellow and Red Beets, toasted Pistachios and a mix of Field Greens sounds pretty basic (and it is), but that's how confident Chef Garcia is in the ingredients. The young Yellow and Red Beets taste vibrant and soulful and earthy. The touch of aromatic nuttiness from the toasted Pistachios really provide a great counterpoint to the flavors of the Beets.

My favorite dish during my first visit is the Squid Basquaise (Forbidden Rice, Nduja, Prosciutto).

A great Squid dish can be hard to come by at times, but Chef Garcia's cooking prowess really shines here: Perfectly cooked Squid comes stuffed with spicy-hot Calabrian Nduja Sausage. That combination alone, with the savoriness from the Nduja and the light chew and slight oceanic tinge from the Squid, is quite nice, but it's the use of Espelette Peppers and the accompanying fiery sauce that really elevates this dish. It gives you a two-part fire punch (in a good way :), and the Prosciutto is icing on the cake. :)

I love a great Coq au Vin, so I had to give Chef Garcia's version a try: Coq au Vin (Crimini Mushrooms, Lardon, Pee Wee Potatoes).

The Chicken is tender and juicy, well-saturated with the flavors of the Pearl Onions, Lardons, Red Wine and Pee Wee Potatoes. While there's some complexity and layering of flavors, it falls short of the stunning depth and excellence of Chef Marneau's version at Marche Moderne. It's not bad at all, and something I'd order again if I was in the mood and dining at FIG. :)

For dessert, their Chocolate Pot au Creme arrives first.

It's a thick, custardy sweet made of 3 different Chocolates, and it definitely indulges the sweet tooth. :) I'm not that much of a Chocolate fan, but I found it pleasing enough without being cloying, and my guest loved it. :)

We also order their namesake FIG Bars dessert, served with Greek Yogurt Ice Cream.

I'm not sure what to expect, but at the end of the day these FIG Bars taste like a cleaner, slightly more refined version of Fig Newtons. :) It's slightly sweet with a clean biscuit-bread exterior, but it really reminds me of the Fig Newtons I had growing up. The combination with the smeared Chocolate Sauce clashes, however, and we ended up enjoying the rest of the FIG Bars without it.

And while the romantic, low-lit dinner was a nice first impression, one of the things that FIG does surprisingly well is their Sunday Brunch. Walking into FIG on a bright, sunny weekend morning, invigorated by the breeze from the Pacific Ocean (just across the street), you'd think you were in a completely different restaurant.

Grab a table by the window, overlooking the hotel pool (and a bit of the Pacific Ocean), or a table on the patio when it's not too chilly (which is almost never in So Cal :), and sit back and relax. :)

I begin with a cup of their English Breakfast Tea.

It's a private blend, made exclusively for FIG, but it's a bit too mild for my tastes. It's fragrant and light, and a gentle wake-up call, but I prefer my English Breakfast with a bit more punch. :)

Being a Croissant nut, I'm eager to try their version of the plain Croissant.

It is unfortunately slightly stale, but exudes a decent buttery flavor; a far cry from Anisette, Bite Bar and Amandine's versions.

But thankfully things are quickly made right with their Lemon-Ricotta Pancakes (with Almond Blueberry Butter).

I've had so many mediocre Pancakes recently that I'd nearly forgotten what a great Pancake could taste like. Chef Garcia's version is slightly crisped on the outside (lovely :), with a fluffy, moist cake-like interior. The subtle textural contrast is already enjoyable, but then you add in the Homemade Almond Blueberry Butter and it's just amazing. (^_^)

Next up is their Eggs Benedict (Poached Eggs, Canadian Bacon, Hollandaise).

The Eggs are poached just right, and the Hollandaise Sauce is a lighter, more delicate take on the traditional version, but the English Muffin is slightly stale and lacks that great toasted crunch you hope to get.

The side of Breakfast Potatoes are crisped, lightly salted and moist, and quite tasty.

During my 2nd visit, there was an excellent thread by my fellow Hounds on Corned Beef Hash, so when I saw this on the menu, I had to order it. :) Chef Ray Garcia's version of Corned Beef Hash is served with Poached Eggs, Hollandaise and Potato Strings.

Visually, it looks nothing like the usual Corned Beef Hash that my Hounds are searching for, but I gently take a bite, and a deep, balanced, slightly salty, savory wave hits my mouth. Looking past the creamy, delicate Hollandaise Sauce, the Corned Beef Hash is quite smooth (finely chopped) with a touch of chunkiness, and it's the closest I've found texturally to many of the Hounds' beloved Canned Corned Beef Hash. :)

Their Grilled Asparagus are a nice touch as well, with the Asparagus' inherent flavors intensified by the grilling.

Their Brick-Grilled Chicken (Rocket and Cherry Tomato Panzanella) is less successful.

The Crisped Chicken Skin is definitely the highlight of this dish, along with the Chicken Breast. The white meat portion is moist and well-permeated with a flavorful salt and herbaceous taste running all the way to the bone. But it's their dark meat Leg and Thigh portion that is surprisingly the disappointment in this dish: The Chicken Thigh and Leg are overcooked and dry. :( It's still quite flavorful, but really overcooked.

But with the disappointment comes an equally positive surprise: The accompanying Rocket and Cherry Tomato Panzanella is absolutely delicious! (^_^) FIG's claims of really utilizing farmer's market fresh ingredients sings loud and clear here: The Cherry Tomatoes are truly bursting with sweet, sunny flavor (like the best farmer's market Tomatoes when they're in season), and the Rocket (Arugula) is peppery, slightly bitter and verdant. The use of Caperberries provides a more restrained piquant flavor than the more commonly used Capers. Finally, the chunks of thick-cubed, crusty Bread has absorbed the fragrant Olive Oil and all the flavors from the vegetables, and results in the best-tasting Panzanella I've had in years. :)

On my 3rd visit, I have guests who've just flown into town and are looking for a relaxed, casual meal.

Bread service begins with a Homemade Arugula Butter, which sports a lovely leafy green hue and has a slight vegetal undertone.

We start off with their Kurobuta and Cavolo Nero Meatballs.

The Berkshire Pork Meatballs feature a delicious porcine flavor that runs through each bite, but it's on the extremely dense side. One would hope that the Cavolo Nero would help to lighten up each Meatball, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The Spicy Tomato Sauce is bright and Summer-like, and overall it's a decent starter.

The Chicken and Prosciutto Croquettes arrive next.

While ostensibly oil-saturated, these Croquettes turn out to be surprisingly creamy and another solid starter, with the Prosciutto providing the perfect amount of saltiness to the dish.

But with the latest batch of seasonal starters, my favorite might be the Three Bean Fritto Misto.

Chef Garcia takes the evocatively named Dragon Tongue Beans, Blue Lake Beans and Yellow Wax Beans, lightly batters and deep fries them before serving the seasonal Beans with a Garlic Aioli. They taste a touch oily, but beyond that there are some great flavors at work here: There's a real vibrancy, with a touch of (good) bitterness, crispness and focus from the three types of Beans on display.

One dish that took all of us by surprise and left me in a state of shock and joy is the generically named Market Salad.

Just like the claims for "market driven menu" or "local ingredients," seeing a "Market Salad" on a menu around town has fallen far short of expectations far too often. FIG's version of the Market Salad is a revelation of what a genuine farmer's market-based Market Salad should taste like. The Mixed Field Greens taste bright and Spring-like. There's a real vegetal essence coming through each bite. The Peaches, Sweet Peppers, Tomatoes, Jicama, Dried Strawberries are bursting with an earnest, pure flavor. It reminds me of a homemade Salad using great ingredients I just bought at the Hollywood or Santa Monica Farmer's Market. This is probably the best "Market Salad" I've had in the past year or so. Lovely. (^_^)

(Note: Our server mentions that the Market Salad's ingredients change daily, depending on what they have in season.)

Our first entree arrives at this point: Seafood Pot (Hand Harvested Scallops, Pacific Mussels, Prawns, Clams, Jalapeno-Tequila Broth).

Chef Garcia's interpretation of the traditional Moules Frites is light and fragrant: The Pacific Mussels, Clams and Scallops are just cooked through, still tender and spot-on. The Jalapeno-Tequila Broth is a much lighter Broth than the heavier versions usually found accompanying a dish of this sort. It's lightly salted, showing a great restraint, and the playful heat from the Jalapenos and uniqueness of the Tequila infusion really complement the seafood. And finally, the use of Black Radish and Cilantro add a nice finishing touch.

The heaviest item on the menu might very well be their Short Rib and Pancetta Meatloaf (Mashed Potatoes, Carrots, Broccoli di Cecco).

I love a great Short Rib dish, and what's not to love about Pancetta? :) Strangely, however, the flavors don't quite meld into that super-powered dish one might expect. This Meatloaf is dense and intense, and there's a mineral-y, Offal undertone with each bite.

The Mashed Potatoes are silky and creamy, and the Yellow and Purple Carrots are a delight, with a real, natural sweetness and of-the-earth quality. The Broccoli di Cecco is perfectly cooked, tender, yet still having a good bite.

One of my guests wants a smaller portion of the Meatloaf and orders the Open-Faced Meatloaf Sandwich (Mashed Potato Aioli, Roasted Tomato, Bermuda Onion Rings).

This is a smaller, more manageable portion of their Short Rib and Pancetta Meatloaf, served atop a thick slice of a sweet White Bread.

Probably the most disappointing item I've tried on the menu is their B.L.T. (Thick Cut Bacon, Avocado Spread, Heirloom Tomato, Green Leaf Lettuce).

To be fair, this has more to do with my expectations than anything. When I think of "B.L.T.," I imagine delicious, freshly-cooked, *crisped* Bacon, along with great Tomatoes and crisp Iceberg Lettuce on Toasted Bread. FIG's version is a hefty, thick slice of Bacon that's grilled, and more like a slab of Grilled Ham. I feel letdown, but those that want a soft, thick, juicy cut of Pork may enjoy this more. I'd rather have multiple, thinner slices of crispy Bacon in my B.L.T.

The Herb Fries are excellent; cooked at the right temperature (not permeated with oil) and only lightly salted.

We finish with another pleasant surprise: Their BBQ Chicken Sandwich (Pulled Chicken, Coleslaw, Smoked Cheddar).

Just like their generically named "Market Salad," the BBQ Chicken Sandwich really blindsided us. Using fresh, hand-pulled-apart chunks of Chicken mixed with Chef Garcia's version of BBQ Sauce, the end result is a sweet, tangy, lightly spicy Sandwich that's just delicious. The Chicken tastes bright and made the same day (versus the more commonly-found, dried out hockey pucks in many Chicken Breast Sandwiches around town).

While there's no real depth of smokiness from a real Barbecued Chicken (e.g., Bludso's BBQ Chicken), the type of Smoked Cheddar Chef Garcia uses, combined with the house-made Coleslaw and the tangy BBQ Sauce create a really satisfying combination. Excellent! :)

We also order a side of Broccoli di Cecco with Fresno Chile and Lemonquat, which turns out to be perfectly cooked through, lightly spicy from the Fresno Chilies and with just enough tartness from the Lemonquat to make things interesting. Some of my guests are hoping for a bit more heat, but I find it to be just fine for this early meal.

Service has been excellent for all 3 of my visits. The 3 different servers we've encountered have been casual while still maintaining decorum, and the supporting busboys have made sure any other needs were taken care of (always refilling the drinks in a timely fashion, etc.). Prices range from $3 - $25 for Brunch, $9 - $24 for Lunch, and $7 -$39 for Dinner. I've averaged about ~$40 per person including tax and tip for each of my visits.

FIG Restaurant is remarkable for its real celebration of farmer's market fresh produce, with an ever-changing menu featuring the brightest Fruits and Vegetables that are in-season at that moment. And while it never reaches the heights of greatness that places like Animal attain, there are enough standouts like the Squid Basquaise with Forbidden Rice, Nduja and Prosciutto, or the delightful Brunch ambiance and the Lemon-Ricotta Pancakes, or the verdant Market Salad to make this a great local favorite. There's something appealing about finding a place that truly features seasonal, local ingredients that are vibrant, in a relaxed, comfortable setting right next to the Pacific Ocean. :)

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10)

(Note: Complementary Valet Parking with Validation.)

FIG Restaurant
(at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel)
101 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tel: (310) 319-3111

Hours: [Breakfast] 7 Days A Week, 7:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.
[Brunch] Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Lunch] Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Tues - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.


weezermonkey said...

I love this place.

Awesome and thorough post!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Thanks. :) Glad you like FIG. Just a comfy, kick-back place to enjoy a meal. :)

Atsuko said...

I love FIG; I can eat there everyday. I need to find a restaurant for a party of 6 with 2 strict vegetarians (they are not vegans). It is a very important business dinner. Do you recall if they have enough vegetarian dishes? Thanks! Atsuko

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Atsuko,

I'm glad you love FIG. :) I really enjoy their vegetables and the stellar treatment they get. :)

"Yes," I think there are enough Vegetarian dishes (and your Vegetarian guests would probably enjoy the vibrancy of the farmer's market ingredients).

I just counted ~19 Vegetarian Dishes, along with an entire Sub-Menu on Cheeses and Cheese Flights, not to mention Dessert, so I think they'll have plenty to choose from. :)


gourmetpigs said...

I like FIG too, I haven't been in a while though I've had his food quite a bit recently at the guest dinners at Melisse and food festivals :)
Time to go back for a real meal though!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Nice. :) Yah, not only do I enjoy Chef Garcia's cooking, but FIG's ambiance is quite enjoyable. I love the dining room (either for Brunch or Dinner). :)

Banana Wonder said...

Reading your posts truly enlightens me! I always wondered about FIG, now I'm craving some pancakes and a panzanella! Good to know the ambiance not only looks good, but also (sounds/hears) good. Funny, I was just talking to someone about corned beef hash here in Portland... my vegetarian ways part for the corned beef hash (bring it!)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Since you enjoy fresh vegetables and fruit so much, you should definitely give FIG a try. :) And their Corned Beef Hash. (^_~) Let me know what you think.

stuffycheaks said...

OMG that pressed chicken is huge. I was underwhelmed when I dined at FIG but that was a long time ago, so i think I must give it another shot. Their keg and eggs brunch sounds good as well

Exile Kiss said...

Hi stuffycheaks,

Definitely. I got the same impression as you for some of their dishes. It's not all winners, and there doesn't seem to be any "absolutely amazing!" dishes, but there are quite a few enjoyable ones. :)

Glennis said...

I know I'm posting at a later date, but I love FIG. I've had 2 dinners and a lunch there. The pork cutlets were awesome. The FIG bar for dessert (and I don't normally eat dessert) was amazing. The meat loaf is to die for.

At lunch my colleague had the BLT and was a little surprised and unhappy with it.

I think the 5 pm - 6 pm half price deal is the most amazing bargain ever!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Aunt Snow,

Thanks for the report back! :) I'll have to try the Pork Cutlets :). I definitely enjoy their focus on seasonal, farmers market ingredients. :)

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