Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Community Building through Food: 5x5 Dinner at La Terza

Almost all of the tables were cleared and silent, a clear contrast from the commotion of earlier in the evening. The hordes of diners who had made service a nightmare were no where in sight. However, even though the upstairs dining room had cleared out, the commotion had just moved to the bar and transformed into banter and camaraderie. A successful night had finished, raising money for Special Olympics, and now the chefs celebrated the last of their 5x5 series.

More after the jump...

The 5x5 dinner is about fostering a sense of community among chefs and restaurateurs in the Los Angeles area. I met up with Tangbro and his two friends who often eat together at some of the best restaurants in LA and OC. These three knew how to eat, having a dining list that is my dream dinner wish list. We talked about future dinners, including a night at Urasawa and other big events. Eating with them, I felt comfortable, not ostracized for taking notes and pictures before each first bite.

Artichoke in casserole, octopus with fava bean puree and squid ink gelatin, scrambled egg with summer truffle – Gino Angelini, La Terza



Scrambled Eggs

Artichoke, octopus and eggs, three ingredients I’m never that excited about. In fact, outside of breakfast, I typically hate eggs in any form. Even at breakfast, I can only have a few eggs before I start feeling sick. These three little bites were a gentle introduction to the marvels ahead. My first taste, the artichoke, reminded me of a wonton. The leaves of the artichoke were soft, and the olive oil added a slickness that felt like pulling Chinese dumplings out of soup. The octopus was very tender, so much so that I could hardly recognize it as octopus. However, it was strangely fishy, not the best attribute for this cephlapod. My redemption came from the unlikeliest place—the scrambled eggs. A crispy square of toast held the fluffy eggs elevated by the presence of summer truffle. I don’t know how Gino made his eggs taste this good, but I would love to try a La Terza breakfast one day.

Hamachi crudo, heirloom tomato sorbetto, celery and blood orange oil – Walter Manzke, formerly of Bastide

Considering this dish took an hour to arrive, I had high expectations. It was a crudo after all, how much preparation can go into it, but my first impression upon seeing the plate put me at ease and silenced my complaints. Beautifully composed, balanced in symmetry as well as color, this dish exuded gaiety in plating. I eagerly snapped several pictures before picking up my fork, somewhat distraught at the thought of having to break up this masterpiece. The problem with a dish like this, there were so many components to keep track of that I wasn’t quite sure if I got the right combination of tastes all at once. Therefore, what follows was a confusing array of sweet sorbet, oily hamachi, acidic tomato, and fruity olive oil. On the texture side, there was not nearly as much contrast considering most of the ingredients were the type to dissolve on your tongue. While I had high expectations because of the impressive plating, the flavors were too unbalanced and scattered for me to form a coherent taste. However, I do commend Chef Manzke for trying to creating flavors following form; but while his colors blend together to make a symphony, the dish left a discordant flavor in my mouth.

Roasted scallops, Montbazillac and pistachios emulsion – Alain Giraud, Anisette

Though the scallops were listed third on our menu, the waiters accidentally brought it out second. Disgruntled, we told them that our crudo hadn’t arrived yet. With an apology, the scallops were gone as quickly as they arrived. At this point we felt that we should’ve kept the extra scallops as reparation, and when we finally did try them, we definitely would’ve asked for more. Easily my favorite dish of the entire night, I adored every aspect of this masterfully crafted dish. Admittedly, a large sea scallop seared in a little butter is one of my favorites so Giraud had it easy. But the things he did with the wine and pistachio sauce and his superb technique in judging the doneness of shellfish brought my understanding to a whole different level. I judge a good chef to be one who can introduce me to a new food; I judge a great chef to be one who can take my love of a food to a whole new level. The scallop had the strata of a beautifully grilled steak—rare and delicate in the middle and crisp and browned on the surface. Big specks of sea salt added to the texture of the crust as well as bringing out the natural flavor of the shellfish. The creamy sauce makes my mouth water now recollecting it. Often times I wonder how well I can actually perceive umami in a dish, but there was no doubt for the scallops.

Sweet corn agnolotti, cockles, guanciale, rosemary and matsuatake mushrooms – David LeFevre, Water Grill

Having just had a shellfish course, I was surprised to see another so soon. After all, looking at the picture, you can hardly see the agnolotti, a type of ravioli, and only see the large shells of the cockles, a type of clam. I’ve always been a fan of foams; even though they have no real substance, they convey much flavor and playfulness. What LeFevre did here was inspired. Using the foam, herbs and shells, he created a beach scene on my plate. The shells of newly discovered clams with lapping foam of the sea…and pork. Who said a beach scene can’t be improved by a little porcine discovery as well? Guanciale is a strongly flavored Italian bacon similar to pancetta and in this dish played the major savory role. The counterbalance to the intensely salty bacon was the sweet corn, gently wrapped in sheets of pasta. I detected hints of ginger too that combined well with the rosemary, which contrary to my initial concerns, didn’t overpower the dish.
At this point my companions and I had the pleasure of meeting Food She Thought at the neighboring table. As she astutely points out in her entry, the staff did seem to conveniently tuck us away out of sight and out of mind. However, it gave us a chance to connect and talk over the differences between clams and cockles. Finding out she was also on Foodbuzz, we traded blog info and favorite restaurants while waiting for our next course.

Wood grilled Hawaiian Big Eye tuna, fresh cranberry beans, squid, basil and munak ranch tomatoes – Michael Cimarusti, Providence

The most underwhelming dish of the night was still much better than anything at most restaurants. I felt that the tuna had not been seared at high enough temperatures and there wasn’t opportunity for crisp enough crust to form. The result was not as favorable as a sharper delineation between browned exterior and rare interior. I don’t know much about cranberry beans, but they tasted no different than fava beans which didn’t belong with the fish. The squid was limited to a single tentacle that seemed out of place in both presentation and taste. My favorite aspect of this dish is the green moat surrounding the tuna. My companions and I had the hardest time figuring it out until the waiter finally explained that it was parsley derived. No wonder, who ever eats parsley? It was a flavor that was so familiar to all of us yet ultimately unidentifiable.

Lamb loin and shank, eggplant-potato “parmesan,” lamb jus – Josiah Citrin, Melisse

For those of you who have been with me to Mediterranean restaurants before, my love for lamb is no secret. I would choose this fluffy creature over any other terrestrial creature on any menu. Therefore, you can expect my delight in seeing this course on the menu. Meeting Chef Citrin, I could easily see how his bold personality came out in his dish. The three pieces on this plate all had strong flavors, any of which could be the dominating flavor of the course. The loin was remarkably uniform in doneness and slightly gamey, but I love gamey. Our waiter described the eggplant-potato as a terrine. My impression was that it tasted like a hash brown. The sweet onions inside of it were a delightful surprise though. For the shank, I would’ve liked to taste other notes rather than just the overwhelming lambiness.

Before our dessert, a lone fellow wanders over to our table. He saw Tangbro and I snapping pictures and immediately recognized us as bloggers. Apparently, he follows food blogs including Oishii Eats and even flattered me by telling me that he had heard of GildedPalate before. We discussed our impressions of the dishes that night, comparing our favorites and universally complaining about the service. I gave him my last Foodbuzz business card and invited him to e-mail me if he would like to meet up some time for another dinner.

Babá with rum and strawberries – Gino Angelini, La Terza

I was mildly confused by our dessert. What was this massive cake that looked like an elongated muffin but glistened with a wet sheen? The menu description didn’t say much, but I suppose I was just uneducated in the realm of French desserts. A babá, or baba au rhum, is a rum soaked cake made from a batter of eggs, milk and butter. This thing sitting in front of me was massive, easily the largest item of the night. Sticking my fork into its side, I prayed it wouldn’t have any density, lest I die immediately from a heart attack after eating it. To my amazement, the flavor was intense, and the texture thankfully light. In fact, biting into it I could only imagine this was what it felt like to eat a cloud heavy with rain and about to pour. Each mouthful had slight rum flavor but without any harshness of alcohol. The cinnamon sprinkling and candied lemon added more dimension, but ultimately it was still too sweet and much too large for a dessert.

Event after event should have soured my mood for the night. Our waiter forgetting our second course, taking an hour between courses, promising to make it up to us with a bottle of Pellegrino (wow!), and being stuck in a deserted corner of the restaurant. I should have left disappointed, even furious that I had paid $150 to be treated more like a nuisance than a customer. But at no time was I unhappy. We came down the stairs after paying for our meal and wandered into the spontaneous after-party for the 5x5 series. Chef Citrin waved us over and asked how we enjoyed our food. He introduced me to the firm handshake of Chef Cimarusti, looking happy if not a bit haggard. Chefs LeFevre and Manzke were the quiet ones, but they responded positively to hearing our applause for their food. Walking out of the kitchen, Chef Angelini could have been a stern disciplinarian at work, but he greeted me with amity. Most notably, Chef Giraud made the most impact on me that night. He personified the garrulous French chef, talking happily about the success of Anisette and inviting us all over. Having met the people who designed me food, I had another layer of appreciation for my dinner.

I walked out of La Terza having met all the chefs, another blogger, two new fellow diners, and a blog reader. The dinner didn’t just create a community producing food, it created a community consuming it too. This is one instance where the food actually inspired me to write great things about it, even for the dishes I disagreed with but could still appreciate. For the total experience more than the food alone, the 5x5 dinner at La Terza was the best meal of my life to date.

From left: Me, Angelini, Giraud, Citrin, LeFevre, Manzke, Cimarusti



H. C. said...

I'm glad you got a good overall experience and a wonderful sounding meal despite the service mishaps (I, too, can overlook the hiccups if the food wounds up being tasty and if I have good company -- which I'm certain you would with a bunch of other food enthusiasts and bloggers!)

I heard one more 5x5 might be down the turnpike to make up for the Bastide cancellation. *crossing fingers on that*

Anonymous said...

there must have been something in the air that night because despite the tremendous lack of service I left the meal feeling great. The food was excellent but that night was about more than just the food and your review expresses my thoughts perfectly. I was that lone fellow that wandered to your table and it was great meeting you and your friends. While I don't have a blog of my own I am an avid reader and I can't tell you how great it is to add 2 more blogs to my list. looking forward to the next review.