Thursday, April 1, 2010

XIV by Michael Mina: A feast fit for a king, but made for the people

A couple months ago my former roommate asked me to recommend a nice restaurant where he could take a friend for a celebratory dinner. I bombarded him with a deluge of options in Hollywood and on the Westside – Grace, Fraiche, Osteria Mozza, Lucques, AOC, Jar, and, as such, was a little appalled when he told me where he had decided to go.

XIV!” He announced with pride, clearly happy with himself for picking a restaurant without my assistance.

I half-recoiled at the mention. “XIV!” I thought in horror. “Doesn’t he know that’s a…. a… scene restaurant?! On… on… Sunset Blvd! Owned by… by… SBE!”

At the time, I was still under the impression that the scene at XIV was far superior to the food. Because I (typically) care more about the contents of my plate than who is rubbing elbows (and more) at the table next to mine, I had never even considered Michael Mina’s restaurant a viable option for myself or for my friend. Especially considering the price of the tasting menus -- $64 for 8 courses, $88 for 11 courses, and $112 for 14 courses. Even though the restaurant also offers an a la carte option that wasn’t available when the hot spot opened in October 2008, I still couldn’t stomach the thought of spending $27 for a Kobe burger (the least expensive entrée on the menu).

But I plastered a polite smile on my face, and told my roommate, “I’m sure it will be wonderful!” (Secretly I was thinking, “Don’t come whining to me when you leave broke and hungry!”)

Even when he reported back that it was, indeed, “wonderful,” I still wasn’t convinced I wanted to bust out my little red dress and fancy lipstick to try it.

Then, last Tuesday evening, a serendipitous opportunity arose for me and a friend to enjoy a sneak peak of XIV’s new $40 six-course tasting menu (debuts Monday, April 5th) courtesy of the restaurant. While the tasting is normally Executive Chef Steven Fretz’s choice, the kitchen graciously accommodated our request for six savory courses so that I could continue honoring my dessert-free Lenten sacrifice. It was, as they say, an offer I couldn’t refuse – and one I didn’t want to refuse either.

As soon as we were seated at our table for two in the middle of the stately dining room (complete with animal fur and well-manicured fireplaces), we were served the restaurant’s signature flat bread and goat cheese spread. I am always grateful to a kitchen that makes an effort with the bread basket and was especially impressed with XIV’s offering. The pliant bread and tangy cheese were an auspicious way to begin the evening I had never imagined I’d be having.

To start our tasting, we received what at first appeared to be a standard interpretation of Ahi Tuna Tartare with crispy strips of Melba-type toast. While I had trouble scooping all the tiny chunks of fresh fish onto the toast (my hand-eye-coordination has always been an issue), I loved the different flavors that were delicately saturating the tuna. The sesame oil, ancho chile, pears, mint, and pine nuts were in such perfect collusion that no single taste overpowered the others. I was sad to leave the bite that fell on the table uneaten.
Like with the tartare, I was also initially skeptical when our next course arrived – the XIV Caesar Salad with shaved parmesan reggiano and a single white anchovy laced over the top. “Caesar salad?” I thought. “How can that possibly be exciting?” At first taste, the crisp chunks of lightly-dressed romaine were exactly what I expected from the familiar salad, but the briny kick from the anchovy transformed what could have been a very ho-hum plate into something considerably more interesting. It was a pleasant way to transition into the subsequent dishes.

The Nantucket Bay Scallop Tempura with cauliflower, passion fruit and almonds exemplifies what makes dining at XIV so fun. Chef Fretz takes traditional dishes and ideas and transforms them into something special with unexpected flavors and textures. I loved this deconstructed take on tempura – the fried bits and crunchy almonds playfully accentuated the buttery texture of the scallops. I can see why this dish has been a standard on the menu – it’s delightful to eat.

I was similarly delighted by the Tapioca-Crusted Tai Snapper with broccoli rabe, and white soy vinaigrette. This is a dish that I would happily eat as a full entrée with a crisp glass of white wine. Like the tempura did with the scallop, the tapioca-crust played up the supple white flesh of the fish, and the sweet soy broth further livened up the plate. It was my favorite course of the evening.
To continue the light to heavy progression that is typical (and desirable) for tasting menus, we were served a Jidori Chicken “Tajine” with eggplant and baby carrot puree, and baby fennel. I have always opted against ordering chicken for an entrée at a restaurant, but the succulent strip of white meat was far superior to any of the dried out boneless, skinless breasts I eat at home with Anderson Cooper on in the background. Prepared in this manner (sous vide, perhaps?), the chicken seemed to be an entirely different protein. I wasn’t as crazy about the accompaniments – I desired there to be a little more sweetness to the overall dish, but the bite I had with the single date was very well-balanced.

We concluded our tasting with another playful take on a traditional favorite – the Piedmontese Filet Mignon with pardon peppers, creamed corn, chanterelles, and a single fried onion ring. I loved everything about this plate – the satisfying char on the pepper, the supple texture of the pink meat, the creamed corn that tasted nothing like the casserole my mom makes for Christmas, and the onion ring that seemed to serve as a reminder not to take life so seriously. In a swanky restaurant like XIV, it was refreshing to see such a blatant display of humor.

Despite my preconceptions of what dinner at XIV would be like (i.e. expensive, underwhelming and rife with Kristin Cavallari and Speidi sightings), I ultimately enjoyed one of the finer tasting menus I’ve experienced in terms of progression and satiety. I didn’t feel overly full at the conclusion of the meal, and the dishes were fun to eat, impeccably presented, and thoughtfully executed with a pleasing array of flavors and textures. The affordability is just the icing on the cake.

With the new $40 six-course tasting menu that debuts this Monday, April 5th, XIV has created a dining opportunity that is, appropriately, fit for a king, but made for the people. I won’t be so disinclined to drag out my red dress and fancy lipstick the next time I want to enjoy a nice meal out. Yes, for an evening at a scene restaurant. On Sunset Blvd. Owned by SBE.

XIV by Michael Mina
8117 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 656-1414

For another affordable dining option, XIV also offers “the people” a Terrace Happy Hour from 5 pm – 8 pm, Monday – Saturday nights. Appetizers and signature cocktails are available for 50% off, and well drinks and beer are available for $5.


Gastronomer said...

You're a lucky girl! A Speidi sighting would MAKE MY LIFE!

Esi said...

Awesome. Glad you had a good time. When I used to work next door, I would always see the chefs running across the street to McDonalds for lunch!

Ravenous Couple said...

nice post! definitely will keep this in mind for date night.

weezermonkey said...

I'm thrilled to hear you had a good experience.

My last meal at XIV...did not make the blog. I didn't want to totally slam it. :(

Diana said...

Cathy - Maybe we should start stalking her plastic surgeon's office?

Esi - Hah - hope that doesn't mean they were running away from the food!

Hong & Kim - It would be a great spot for date night - especially if you score one of the tables by the fireplace.

Weez - Yikes! That bad? You'll have to spare some details when we finally manage to grab a meal together!

bagnatic said...

the tasting menu option and happy hour gives a point of access for these hard knock times.

Charles G Thompson said...

Wonderful write up and a great opportunity. I haven't tried to go -- despite hearing raves -- for many of the reasons you mentioned before you went. I may have to reconsider after reading this. Nice to see you at the Tillamook Event last night.

LetMeEatCake Eat With Me! said...

You lucky girl! Looks like a fantastic meal!

Kung Food Panda said...

Nice, looked like you had a blast D!

XIV is a place I wanted to try for awhile, though I guess with your impression, I don't like eating in that area or paying $14 for the valet.

SinoSoul said...

Remember when XIV started, and they only offered something like.. $100 tastings? And some bloggers hit it up so fast? 2 years later, (hopefully better food), 60% off. Can I get an LOL?

Damn, that was a BARGAIN Di. Basically $100 worth of gratis. Who needs the C-celeb sightings?

Diana said...

Bagnatic - Yes! It's so nice that restaurants are conscious of that and creating special deals for those of us that need to follow a stricter budget.

Ashley - I think you, Cathy and I need to work on this. Maybe start by following them on Twitter?

Charles - It's a beautiful restaurant and was definitely a cool dining experience. The portions could have been a touch bigger, but I was full at the end of the tasting. I think it's worth checking out!

Nastassia - It really was! Just wish I could have ended with dessert!

Danny - I actually found a spot on the street about 1 block away -- not too shabby!

Tony - I was pinching myself! Sometimes I can hardly believe that I get to do these sorts of things. Totally bizarre and humbling.