Monday, December 22, 2008
A.O.C.: Something to Talk About
A.O.C. Even the name sounds prestigious. Like it's an exclusive diner's club that only A-list celebrities and well-pocketed VIPs can access. I can see them pulling up to the West 3rd Street restaurant in their black town cars, decked out in chic Audrey Hepburn dresses and Emenegildo Zegna suits that have been firmly pressed and steamed by someone else's hand. They approach the muddled sand-colored building with an air of belonging on their shoulders -- this is a typical Friday night for them, an inconsequential event in the greater scheme of their week. The experience of dining at one of LA's finest is nothing out of the ordinary for these men and women of Hollywood who don't understand the meaning of the phrase "on a budget."
Or so I imagine in the scene that plays out in my head.
Of course, the real experience of dining at A.O.C., Chef Suzanne Goin's famous tapas and wine bar, is decidedly less surreal. While it is one of the tougher reservations in town and the price points on the small plates do lend it an air of exclusivity, the restaurant is still accessible to the "lay" folk who want to pretend for at least one night that they too can whittle away their rent money on little bites of exquisitely prepared food.
This past Friday evening, my roommate and I were lucky enough to be the pretenders.
Dressed in tall boots and stylish wrap dresses, we descended on A.O.C. primed for bacon-wrapped dates and bold red wine. We'd been planning the evening for the past month and were excited to have a "Girl's Night Out" to celebrate the holiday season. We didn't care that we couldn't really afford the $17 duck or the $14 arroz negro with squid; on a night like this, the prices weren't the point. We were there for the shared experience of enjoying good food and wine. The memory was the point.
In the spirit of recklessness, I started out the evening with an assertive move -- I tried one of the black olives proffered alongside the somewhat questionable harissa that accompanied pliant slices of yeasty bread.
Despite my best intentions to expand my foodie horizon, the putrid black orb soured my mouth like curdled milk, and I was immediately reminded why it is I loathe olives. While some might find the offering a delightful way to pave the way for the impending meal, I much preferred marinating my mouth with the fresh bread which was a worthy way to absorb the alcohol from the Hocus Pocus Syrah my roommate and I selected to drink.
The engine of the evening's food train came in the form of tender slices of speck, dressed up on a plate with apples and unruly pieces of arugula. The decorative arrangement was reminiscent of a Pollack painting, but without the sensational impact. The oversized pieces of arugula were distractingly large, and my roommate and I struggled to wrap it around our forks as we fought through the weeds for each succulent slice of speck. The apples were merely superfluous as well, and the effort of consuming the dish in a tidy, lady-like fashion did not seem worth the rather ho-hum performance delivered to the tongue.
By the time we'd reached the half-way point in our battle with the greens, the most-hyped dish of the evening had arrived at the table. The bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with parmesan glistened like the stars that they are. The sweet-salty combination delivered on every level, and my roommate and I eagerly devoured three each.
The seafood courses followed -- sand dabs with cauliflower, raisins and Sherry, and my favorite dish of the evening, the arroz negro with squid and saffron aioli.
While the sand dabs were texturally pleasing with their crisp-fried surfaces juxtaposed against the Sherry creme fraiche and cauliflower, the flavor was less impactful. The dish is well-executed, but lacked the "wow" factor that I would expect from a restaurant of such high acclaim. The role of show-stopper belonged to the arroz negro -- a dish that neither my roommate nor I could stop eating. Even now, I struggle to come up with the proper words to describe the bold combination of flavors. My last memory is of the serving spoon, still blanketed with a few stray kernels of tender rice. I wanted nothing more than to scrape it clean with my tongue, but in interests of decorum, restrained my animalistic urges.
The waiter-recommended kabocha squash gratin with poblanos and queso fresco announced itself upon arrival. Still sizzling from the oven, the bubbling casserole held the promise of a bold statement. The poblanos attacked our taste buds with ferocity, nearly compromising our ability to taste the chunks of supple squash and luscious cheese. The dish --which can be considered the antithesis of the sand dabs-- depleted the level of my water glass, but was a welcome addition to our parade of plates.
Nothing, however, was more welcome than the final dish of the evening, the liberty ranch duck with roasted grapes and abbamele.
"It tastes like steak!" My roommate enthused, as we both marveled over the juicy morsels of pan-seared flesh.
With the crisp crust of fat, rosy interior and blanket of jus, the duck made me happy to be a carnivore.
At this juncture in the evening, my roommate and I were hearing the persistent calls from our stomachs to put an end to the revelry, so our glances to the dessert menu were more out of curiosity than interest in consuming its contents. We made the nod for the check and strolled to the exit, warmed by the contented feeling of eating something worth talking about.
It is restaurants like A.O.C. that make food fun. And make pretending to be a VIP all the more authentic of an experience.