I should hate other people’s birthdays. I should dread them like the rest of the world that considers the whole dinner charade a loathsome and broken societal practice that inevitably ends in resentment and anger over splitting an oversized bill. I should be enraged by it, glaring at the birthday boy or girl while internally steaming, “How dare this aging person compromise my ability to get pedicures and cute summer dresses from Anthropologie?”
But, regardless of the cost, I’ve never been enraged by spending money on my dear friends – not even a little bit. Not even at all.
While I’m not particularly keen on birthday parties that involve bars, shrieking and people spilling drinks on me, I love other people’s birthday dinners. I love having an excuse to get dolled up for a meal at a fancy schmancy restaurant I would otherwise avoid, and I secretly love being chosen as one of the people my friend wants to be with on their birthday.
“She likes me! She really really likes me!” I think with Sally Fields-esque glee.
This was my exact reaction when my friend Sarah said she wanted to have dinner at XIV by Michael Mina with Sook from Yutjangsah, Lauren from Harb Knock Life and little ole me on her birthday last week. I happily slung on a chic Ted Baker black dress and pair of black pumps that I hadn’t worn since early 2009 and strode into the trendy space eager to celebrate Sarah’s special occasion.
While Sarah and Lauren opted to do the 8-course vegan tasting menu with dishes of their choice ($64), Sook and I zeroed in on the regular 8-course tasting ($64) with the carnivorous dishes of our choice. It was also our choice to manhandle not only our servings of flatbread with yogurt curry dipping sauce, but the servings of our companions as well.
Sook and I began our post-carbohydrate feast with the Hamachi Tataki presented with puffed rice, pickled shallots, Thai flavors and the big selling point for me – peanuts (I have an affinity for legumes). The fish was fresh, but, ultimately, the dish didn’t stand out for me like others during the course of the evening.
A Corn Chowder with lobster and fancy foam arrived at the table next. Sook immediately likened the soup to the experience of drinking creamed corn from a can. I have never engaged in such an animalistic activity (I prefer eating my soup with a teaspoon like a lady), but aside from the chunks of lobster, the chowder did share the same flavor profile as my mom’s creamed corn casserole.
We were both more taken with the subsequent plate – a Fried Green Tomatoes salad with burrata cheese, mustard frill, and sherry emulsion that better exemplified the fun of dining at XIV. I loved the textural juxtaposition of the crispy tomatoes and silky cheese and the physical appearance of the thorn-like nest of mustard frill on top. I could have easily eaten a full-sized portion in lieu of the preceding dishes.
Our next course, the Nantucket Bay Scallop Tempura with cauliflower, passion fruit and almonds, was one I enjoyed on my previous visit to XIV. On this occasion, however, the scallops projected a distinct fishy aroma that was so off-putting I didn’t feel comfortable eating the dish. Our waitress didn’t hesitate to bring me the Grilled American Wagyu Skirt with Moroccan spiced vegetables instead. The steak had a nice rustic char that paired nicely with the spritely pickled carrots and tomatoes on the side.
The Tapioca-Crusted Tai Snapper with crispy rice, broccoli rabe and white soy vinaigrette was another dish I enjoyed on my previous visit, and a dish that I continued to enjoy on my second visit. I would still like to return to have the full-sized entrée portion – the crispy fish and crispy rice are a winning combination that confirms the belief that (most) things taste better when fried. It, again, left me wanting more.
Fortunately, the Wild King Salmon with cavatelli pasta, fava beans, spring onion, and pickled ramps was the perfect pinch hitter for my case of empty mouth syndrome. Our sommelier for the evening had told us it was his favorite dish on the menu, and despite my affection for the Tai Snapper, I had to agree with his consensus. The sweet caramelized salmon, nutty fava beans and al dente pasta were a highlight for me and a reminder that salmon doesn’t have to be a boring or “safe” choice for diners.
For our final savory course of the evening, Sook and I received a Kobe Burger Slider with Farmhouse Cheddar, “secret sauce” and fries. It was my first cheeseburger since my first cheeseburger at Rustic Canyon in February, and I inhaled it with the heady appreciation of a girl who has gone burgerless for four months. As I masticated the tender pink flesh hugged by a supple brioche bun, the lyrics, “Reunited and it feels so good,” played in my head. It certainly had me rethinking my decision to pair my brioche buns with a chickpea and quinoa burger the weekend prior.
Sook and I diverged from our tandem dining with different orders for dessert. She selected some strawberry shortcake nonsense that she silently devoured on her side of the table, and I selected the – in my mind – highly superior Bourbon-Glazed Doughnuts with caramelized cashews and banana ice cream. After a disappointing gourmet doughnut experience at Grace in the spring, I was overjoyed to get my doughnut-eating mojo back with XIV’s version. The three doughnuts holes were clearly fresh and joyfully yielded to pressure from my fork. Each tender, yeasty bite sang by itself and when combined with the mild banana ice cream and crunchy cashews.
While the meal was an extravagant one, the occasion was worth the splurge and the subsequent neglect to my chipped toenails. It was an honor to share Sarah’s birthday with her in such a festive, fun ambiance – especially since it gave me the perfect excuse to eat burgers and doughnuts instead of quinoa and vegetables after my usual Monday night Bar Method class.
8117 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90046