Restaurant Review #53: Melisse, Santa Monica

Some meals are just too good to photograph, and this was one of them. When you're eating food that's so good you occasionally start tearing up, you don't want to interrupt the mood by sneaking out the camera and telling your friend they can't touch their food until you photograph it six times. Besides, the lighting was too dim for any decent shots.

So, French food. Eh. What's the big deal? It's not raw, like sushi. It's not spicy, like every other kind of food I favor. I've even had French food in France. It failed to impress me. And it's always expensive as hell. Yet French cuisine is the gold standard of food, and I like to consider myself somewhat of a food expert, so I decided to try to figure out what I was missing.

Enter Melisse, which is consistently ranked as one of the top restaurants in LA.. I have walked by (yes, I walk places) this French restaurant on Wilshire with the strangely painted gray box exterior many times. Having not eaten at most of the other 50 or 100 or however many restaurants are supposed to be the "best" in LA (I hate quotation marks, but best can be such an arbitrary designation) I cannot, with any authority, comment on this claim. I can, however, tell you that it was one of the best meals that I have ever eaten.

Like the unusual exterior, the interior was strange as well. It was upper middle class early 90's living room meets garden patio meets nice restaurant dining room. In spite of being located right on a busy street, I couldn't hear a single sound from the street while I was inside. The restaurant was quite quiet. Ahh, quiet. In spite of the strangeness, the place felt very tranquil. I like that in a restaurant. And in pretty much everything.

We sat at a table. There are also booths lining the restaurant, and for a party of 2-4, I would recommend a booth. The dining room, surprisingly, never got more than half full, if that, on a Friday night. The tables are all in the middle, so I felt kind of like I was on display sitting out there when almost everyone else was in a booth.

So what did I eat?

Well, this is going to take a while. It took me four hours to eat it all.

First, there was the bread (3 kinds) and two amuse bouches. The bread was quite good, and served with butter that actually came at a spreadable temperature (room temperature). Who wants to eat cold butter? I've never understood this. Butter doesn't even need to be refrigerated. Americans refrigerate things to death, but I'll save that rant for another day. The bread was quite good. The thing about good bread though is that bread, I feel, has been mastered, and I've tasted enough mastered bread (haven't I?) that I kind of expect it to all taste that way. It's not thrilling when the bread is good--just how it should be. Fortunately, this bread was what all bread should be. Unfortunately, some pieces were a bit burnt, and I didn't understand why they were still serving them. Also, the ciabatta slices came in a significant range of sizes, but no effort was made to compensate for this by serving two small pieces instead of one large one, for example. I think this was the only real flaw of the entire dining experience, but it still seemed out of place, and it's important to start the meal with a polished first impression.

The first amuse bouche was a tiny square of something gelatinous on a cracker. It was good but didn't excite me, except that an amuse bouche always excites me. The second was a porcelain spoon with a salmon mousse and a shot of cucumber foam served in a shotglass with a short straw. I am always intrigued by new things, and this was also good, but in general I don't like salmon much and don't want to drink cucumber.

It may sound like I have a lot of gripes so far. Actually, I was completely enamored of the restaurant from the moment the valet opened my car door. I laughed at the purse stand (a small stool on the floor next to my chair), though I had to admit it was nice to not have to dive under the table or worry about someone stealing it off the back of my chair (I can't shake that necessary pickpocketing pursesnatching paranoia I acquired in Europe). I ordered champagne, and delighted in the tiny (expensive) bubbles. (Good champagne has much smaller bubbles, than, say, a $7 bottle of Martini and Rossi).

Then the first course came. We had the tasting menu, but the tasting menu came with options.

Sweet White Corn Ravioli, Smoked Bacon, Clams, Truffle Froth, Summer Truffles (my friend)

Blue Fin Tuna Tartare, Cucumbers, Mango, Avocado Mousseline, Yuzu-Chili Sauce (me)

Why do I keep ordering tuna? I do not like tuna. I shall repeat, for good measure, to myself, you don't like tuna! Stop ordering it! It's just that when I see raw fish on the menu, I'm always drawn to order it.

Not knowing what any of the dishes were supposed to look like, I took a bite of one of the little squares set on the beautifully presented plate in front of me. Dear sweet god I wanted to laugh and cry the instant my tongue enveloped it (the food in my mouth made that difficult). The pasta was thin so that it burst when you put it into your mouth and sweet creamy goodness flooded out. As it turns out, the guy (not our server) who brought the food from the kitchen put the wrong dish in front of the wrong person. I sadly returned the sweet corn ravioli to its rightful owner, but he let me eat another piece later. It also came with clams, which were also good. I'd never had cooked clams before (only giant clam sushi). They have the consistency of mussels, but chewier, and that same odd texture that makes your back teeth almost stick together. Also, the server shaved fresh truffles over the dish right before my very eyes. Having never even seen a truffle in person before, I was dazzled. However, I didn't think the flavor of the raw truffles was anything to get excited about. I think this may be more a show of opulence than anything else. Pop quiz: What's more expensive, truffles or saffron? Leave your guess (or correct answer) in the comment section.

My tuna dish was just okay. It was layered, lasagne style, and rather large, I thought, given all the food that I knew would be to come. I love yuzu, but didn't really notice it, and I didn't think the flavors quite went together, especially the mango. I didn't really care though, because I was completely enraptured by the ravioli. I even ate the bacon. (For those of you who don't know, bacon is one of my least favorite foods.)

Second Course

Maine Lobster, Heirloom Tomatoes, Lobster-Tomato Consomme, Basil Salad (friend)

Sauteed Eastern Black Bass, Oyster-Meyer Lemon Shooter, Champagne-Leek Reduction (me)

I love bass, champagne, and leeks, and I don't like meat, and I'm allergic to shellfish, so this was the obvious choice of a second course for me. Again, I was ecstatic about the flavor of my dish. Fortunately, I was actually tasting my own dish this time. The champagne-leek reduction, which was poured over the plate right at the table, was really what made the fish so superb. The oyster lemon shooter didn't do it for me at all. I squinched my face up at the bitterness and swallowed it away. I can't comment on the lobster, since I couldn't eat it.


Crispy "Liberty" Duck Breast, Figs, Honeycomb, Cous Cous, Verjus Gastrique (friend) (because I wanted it)

Homemade pasta with truffle sauce (don't have the actual description, sorry)

I thought I liked duck. I had it twice in France, and when I was a true vegetarian, I found myself craving, of all things, duck. This dish, however, turned me off to duck completely. I'm sure that this duck was of excellent quality, but the fatty, chewy meat turns me off. My friend, who ordered it largely so I could try both the truffle dish and the duck, didn't like it either. The figs were delectable, but the honeycomb was icky (I feel like I'm eating wax, maybe I'm eating it wrong? I love honey but I've never liked honeycomb). I don't know what the verjus gastrique was and I don't have any recollection of the cous cous. I generally don't like cous cous (too dry, doesn't taste like much) so maybe I didn't bother.

The truffle pasta was good. The pasta was thin and delicate, like the ravioli. The sauce seemed to involve lots of butter and truffles. It had a rich flavor, but after eating this dish, I fail to understand why truffles are such a huge deal. I have a feeling this has more to do with personal preference than with the dish itself.

Fromage Course

Selection of Fine Cheeses

We had eight! We could have had more. Someone come around with a cheese cart, and by cart, I mean giant marble slab on wheels. I almost started crying again when I saw the cheese cart. I love cheese. I usually have about seven kinds in my fridge at all times. (My favorite cheese is a soft Italian cheese called Bel Paese, not featured in this meal, but available at Whole Foods). You get a plate of fantastic, fascinating cheeses tailored to your own personal cheese taste (easy on the goat cheeses, please). The most interesting thing we had was a very soft (like Brie) cow's milk cheese that tasted like a burnt down house. Yet somehow, it grew on me. I ate almost all of it, so fascinated was I that something that looked like an ordinary piece of cheese could taste like this. Served with the cheese were walnuts (cracked fresh at the table), candied/wine soaked peach slices, and candied kumquats (I adore kumquats, but they're better fresh).

Dessert Course

Sticky Toffee Pudding, Mocha Malt Ice Cream, Coffee-Orange Consommé (me)

Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate (friend)

I've never been a chocoholic. What kind of woman am I? Well, not a very typical one. The chocolate dish had a chocolate souffle, one or two kinds of ice cream, and something else. It was all yummy, of course. My dessert did not taste particularly toffee-ish. The mocha ice cream was great (I love it when there are actual coffee beans in my coffee ice cream) and the coffee-orange consomme, served in a shot glass, was bizarre. Alternative uses for shot glasses must be trendy right now. I saw three during my meal, and none contained liquor.

We also ordered the wine pairings, which I highly recommend. There were only a couple that I didn't care for. Most were some of the best wines I've ever had, and were excellent choices for each dish, which my friend and I confirmed by tasting all of each other's wines. The sommelier, a slightly shady looking guy who seemed like he might be a guitarist in a garage band in his spare time (or like he might be a guitarist who is a sommelier in his spare time), clearly knows his wines.

All of the service was friendly, including, unbelievably, the valet, which at many places acts like they have no connection with the restaurant and is not very friendly. Here, the valet welcomed me to Melisse, and remembered by appearance which car was ours when we picked up the car after our meal. I was impressed and pleased that at a place that could have easily chosen to be stuck up, our server instead acted like we were old chums and happily explained how the different tasting menus and supplements worked. Also, the chef, Josiah Citrin, came out and talked to every table. He seemed concerned that I did not like my truffle pasta. I did, but that dish alone was enough food for me to call dinner, and it was course 3 of 7 (does the bread count?), so I had to restrain myself. Too bad Melisse is not really the kind of place where you ask for a doggie bag. Too bad he was gone before I realized he was the chef. I would have liked to talk to him more. I'm not sure about what, exactly, but I have never gotten to talk to the chef before! Excluding sushi chefs, of course.

In case you were wondering about the name, it means lemon balm, which is an herb from the Mediterranean. It is pronounced meh-lee-sah. Very mellifluous, especially when uttered with a French accent.

1104 Wilshire
Santa Monica, CA 90401
You should really check out the wine list. It's insanely long.


Sqrlzrus said...

WOW a great review of one of my all-time fav restaurants! I just discovered your blog today and have been consuming it with my lunch at my desk! Agreed: a booth and the prix-fix menu! Also a Party of four makes it really fun.

Where I come from -what's on your plate I must taste!

Does Saffron cost more than truffles??

ChaCha said...

I gave them my credit card number because this dinner was a gift for 2 friends of mine.

They took 704$ instead of 600$ as I told on the form.

They refuse to refund the difference and I've asked to my legal protection to help me

Take care when it's time to pay !

Cheflaszlo said...

love Mélisse, one of my forite, here are my photos, check them out: http://cheflaszlo-melisse.blogspot.com/