Monday, June 13, 2005

Dinner Happens

Downtown LA is where pedestrians go to ride cars and on an early Sunday evening the lack of nearly any movement, even autos, gives the closed skyscrapers a post-neutron bomb feel, especially with the June gloom hazing out the sun as if it was hidden behind the world's largest theater scrim. This setting, with the fiercely bright yet diffused light, makes Café Pinot even more of an oddity of an urban space, one of those indoor-outdoor buildings that SoCal has down, plonked alongside the Los Angeles Public Library, itself a weird mix of Byzantine, Spanish and Egyptian styles, for, after all, the ultimate LA style is stolen-hyped-sold. Still, Café Pinot, even on its surprising grand scale (the interior's ceiling space must be 20 feet high) is welcoming, hushed, perhaps just a bit pleased with itself. But it's willing to share that pleasure with you, and it seems all sorts, from famished from shopping mother-daughter teams to tattooed dating hipsters, look good on those green-striped banquettes.

Our server, this evening, has to hope he's not one of LA's infamous actors-in-waiting, for voice projection isn't his strength. Indeed, even his phrasings and intonations seem oddly off, as if he's reading lines for the starring role in that Cripsin Glover biopic: "Let me tell you...about tonight's...specials...." He does deftly handle the wine we've brought, as the place kindly has no corkage fee, and throughout the meal we can never get close to dry glass bottom before he pours again. The free corkage is one of the things that most has attracted me to the place, for I: 1) have too much wine in the house; 2) like my wines, 3) hate the mark-up at most restaurants, since knowing wine makes you know prices and know exactly how much you're getting ripped off. But Café Pinot makes no fuss about the free corkage, just does it, and that ease leaves me with little to whine about. What's more, their wine list isn't on their website, so there was no way to check if what I was bringing (all the way from Santa Barbara) was something they had, a no-no, I know. Of all things, the wine was on the list, but at least I had a 2001 Sea Smoke Southing Pinot Noir, and not the 2002 they had. What's more, theirs cost $120 (thanks, Wine Spectator, for giving such a good rating to a hard-to-find wine and driving the price up). It sure felt good to be ahead $120 before even ordering dinner.

My guess is the chef took a writing course with me back in the day (you might remember me with my slate out in the fields like on Little House on the Prairie), for he/she seemed to know the old saw: the points of emphasis are the beginning and ending, and if you want to hide something, put it in the middle. Our first courses did the taste bud wake up trick just fine, my peeky toe crab cake almost all deliciously crab, crisp-fried golden so the outer crunch gave the soft meat some texture punch. Amy's deconstructed Caesar salad came as a Jenga style stack of fresh Romaine drizzled with a tangy dressing redolent of garlic and anchovy and other reasons to live. A two inch toasted bread slice was big enough to make crouton finger food.

The main courses were main mostly because that's the spot of the meal they occupied. Amy's roasted halibut had just edged past its proper roast, and if it were a middle-aged man it might be suffering its first pangs for a sports car to make up for what was just its fine firmest flesh. (Fish cooking is a split second thing, if you ask me.) Its accompaniment proved vegetables could be more than sides--roasted potatoes, carrots and best of all morels all offered their finessed flavors of earth. But we both must ask: O restaurant the beautiful, why must your dishes come flecked with foam? The sauce for the dish, hinting at butter and citrus, but frothed as is the fashion, merely then seemed mostly like air. The things chefs must do to be au courant and prove they've heard of El Bulli.

I had John Dory, because I like to be introduced to my fish by name. Seriously, it had a lilting pan sear to give it a hint of caramelization, and its mild sweet flesh played match the tastes with the salt sting of the Serrano ham slice above and the avocado smear flecked with pimenton below, something not really guacamole, if for no other reason than there wasn’t enough of it (guac needs mo to be as fulfilling as it must be). Still, these numbers never quite added up to the combo click that would open the safe into the world of ultimate food treasure. The same can’t be said for the seppe on the side, the tenderest of calamari cousins, that did match terrifically with the Marcona almonds atop. Overall the plate had its moments, but it often felt like five major ingredients in search of an author.

For dessert we shared a crème brulee, because we were getting full, don’t like to be too much pigs, figured something very straightforwardly café-esque had to be a good call, and have often wished we could kiss the first chef who figured the dish out. This was a classic version, with the thin hard sugar to skate on and a still chilled, vanilla-bean enriched custard well worth making a last stand over. And someone had the vision to get lots of almonds and just the right spritz of Chinese five-spice into the accompanying biscotti.

To top it off, we got a 10% discount as Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum subscribers, so our bill, with no bar charge and that discount, but with tax and tip, came to a mere $110. Not too bad for some elegance, food that was almost always as good as we wanted it to be, and a timely, pleasant waiter, even if his…speech timing was…often off.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Better than Sirene Verbila, illuminating, funny, erudite, arcane, but down-to-earth--I'm forwarding the review to the News-Supress and emploring them to hire George as the restaurant critic instead of the nippy fiancé of it's "brainiac" owner.


2:26 PM  

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