Monday, June 14, 2010

Providence: Playing stowaway at one of the finest restaurants in LA

Situated on a nondescript stretch of Melrose between Highland and Vine Street, Providence stands out like a yacht in a harbor of dilapidated sail boats. Even if one isn’t aware that they are driving by one of the finest seafood restaurants in the country, the majestic architecture suggests that something special is going on inside.

For years the Michelin-starred restaurant’s boarded up exterior that resembles the base of a ship taunted me with what in my mind had become a sign of inaccessibility rather than grandeur. The price points of the three tasting menus ($85, $110, $160) and $40+ entrees that can be ordered a la carte seemed prohibitively expensive for my rather modest budget. I thought I needed a grand occasion, a sugar daddy, or my real daddy to justify a visit to Chef Michael Cimarusti’s seafood oasis.

As it turns out, dining at the elusive restaurant doesn’t necessarily require a knight in shining credit card armor – at least not this month. In honor of its five-year anniversary, Providence is offering diners their 5-course tasting menu for $65 instead of $85. It’s all the occasion I needed to make a reservation with my good friend Danny of Kung Food Panda for Saturday, June 12th.
I have no idea what to expect when I stride through the door in a sheer lavender blouse and charcoal tulip skirt on Saturday evening. I’d changed clothes five times before deciding on the ensemble – I wasn’t sure what was appropriate for the refined, elegant setting that is the antithesis of most restaurants people my age frequent. In a way, I feel as though I’m the one who has something to prove. I’m confident that the kitchen will blow me away, but I’m less confident that I truly deserve to be there – that I really deserve to be wined and dined by Providence’s army of proficient servers.

A quick glance at the wine menu eases my diner’s tension. I smile at the familiar Craggy Ridge Sauvignon Blanc Te Muna Road from New Zealand ($12/glass). Armed with my favorite varietal of wine from my favorite region for the grape, I feel instantly at home in the formal dining room. I dissolve into my seat, ready to enjoy my three-hour ride on the Providence ship. I’m ready to play the role of a well-heeled diner. Or, at the very least, a diner who can appreciate the nearly flawless plates set before her.

I’d heard rumors about the restaurant’s epic bread basket, so enthusiastically request both a brioche bacon roll and a slice of the olive focaccia when the bread attendant comes by Danny and my table. While both provide ample reason for a diner to spoil their appetite, the bacon brioche is particularly noteworthy. Buttery, salty, sweet – it’s the type of affair that could make one reconsider the cupcake as the preeminent carbohydrate indulgence.

To further whet our appetites, we are presented with a trio of amuses that include a gelee of gin and tonic with lime, a margarita ravioli and a small glass containing cured trout, trout caviar, wasabi marshmallow and crisp colored balls that I can’t even pretend to identify. All three are delightful – each a microcosm of intense flavors that electrify the senses. Despite its size, I ultimately consider the cured trout amuse as notable a bite as my favorite courses in our tasting.

We start the five-course menu off with the Japanese Kanpachi with crispy rice crackers, coriander and soy crème fraiche. While I don’t typically have an aversion to sashimi, the meaty texture of the kanpachi is off-putting to me, and I have difficulty eating more than one piece. The flavors are solid, and the fish is certainly fresh, but I can’t get past the amberjack’s hearty composition. I am happy to move on to the next course – the Hokkaido Scallop with Japanese eggplant, ramps, reduction of vadouvan and sauternes, and cashews. The aromatic dish accosts my nostrils with curry upon its arrival at the table. I know before even tasting it that I will love the sultry curry paired with the silken flesh of the jumbo scallop. Everything about this dish sings to me – the crunch from the cashews, the lush bed of eggplant – it’s beautiful in both composition and appearance.

I am similarly enthralled with my first taste of sea urchin in Danny and my supplemental order of the Spaghetti alla Chitarra with Santa Barbara sea urchin, spot prawns and basil ($26). While the Italian flavors of the dish are almost too familiar to stand out from the other courses, the textures of the various elements elevate the plate to fine-dining status. The al dente, slightly irregular spaghetti noodles offer an addictively substantial bite that pairs well with the sea urchin that Danny aptly describes as “sea butter.” I love the way the two seemingly foreign items bind together so effortlessly.
For the third course of the tasting, we receive Wild Day-Boat Pacific Halibut with summer squash, black olive, dried apricot and crunchy basil. It’s a fine dish that is strongest when eaten with all the ingredients intact. Danny laughs at me as I mix everything together to ensure that each supple piece of halibut is partnered with a briny olive, sweet apricot and dusting of basil. The basil is the magic fairy dust in the equation – it’s an unexpected staccato that punctuates all the other flavors on the plate.
We finish our savory courses with a fish substitution for the tasting’s veal tenderloin. The kitchen happily accommodates our request with a Striped Black Bass served with almond paste, almonds, sweet peas, maitake mushrooms and finish of balsamic glaze that is ultimately my favorite dish of the evening. The bright peas, acidic vinegar, lush almond cream, and earthy mushrooms are disharmonious at first glance, but come together as easily as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As I tear my fork through the shreds of supple fish, willing the portion size to multiply in front of my eyes, I catch a glimpse at what it must be like to be a judge on “Top Chef Masters.”

In a word, heaven.
The word is similarly applicable for our dessert course – Yuzu Curd with meringue, blackberry sorbet and jasmine. The sorbet is intoxicatingly tart and sweet – the perfect relish for the sultry custard beneath. The light dessert is the ideal ending to our feast from the sea, and I find myself enthusiastically nodding at Danny when he mentions returning again for the full dessert tasting.
To seal our evening off with an appropriate kiss on the cheek, we are served a tray of delicate white chocolate macarons, nougats and chocolate marshmallows. It’s a sweet garnish to a spectacular evening and another of the little details that make playing stowaway at Providence such a delightful and worthwhile dining experience. Even though I still feel like I’m not worthy of the grandeur, the entire staff goes out of their way to make all the diners in the restaurant feel worthy of their attention.
Chairs are pulled out. Napkins are refolded when one retires to the restroom. Water glasses never dip below half full...

And when a self-conscious girl in a sheer lavender blouse and charcoal tulip skirt asks for another bacon brioche roll, she gets another bacon brioche roll.

5955 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038-3623
(323) 460-4170


yutjangsah said...

Sounds magnificento! I wore capris but a lilac skirt sounds much nicer!

Gastronomer said...

How lovely! Glad you had a great night with the KFP and Providence. LA's lucky to have this place.

Esi said...

Wow! I'm not sure if I'll have time to check it out this month, but this is now a contender for birthday dining.

Jenn said...

Such an elegant meal. I'd love to check this place out!! The brioche was enough to sell me on it. hehehe...

Anna A. said...

Oh thanks for sharing TALF. Looks like you had the true seafood yatching experience. And damn, baby, that black bass looks smokin hot!

weezermonkey said...

YAY!!! I'm so glad you had such a good experience! We loved our meal at Providence, too. :)

Diana said...

Sook - I don't know... capris are pretty sexy! Especially if you call them clam diggers.

Cathy - So lucky! What a treasure! :)

Esi - Definitely consider it! It's a dining experience everyone should have at least once.

Jenn - Hah, the brioche is pretty darn tasty...

Anna - It was great! You were missed!

Weez - Ohhh gonna have to check out your review now! :)

stuffycheaks said...

looks great! Do they still offer bacon bread?!? Glad you tried sea urchin. uni pasta is my favorite pasta dish. If you want a cheaper version of it, Blue Marlin on Sawtelle has it on their menu, albeit not as elegant as Providence's but it'd do the trick.

Kung Food Panda said...

Great times D! Can't wait to eat with you again!

kevinEats said...

Sounds like you two had a great date. ;)

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