Time and new tastes have interrupted the memory of my meal at AOC, yet when I think back, the images are still as fresh and crisp as the Walter Hansel Sauvignon Blanc we drank that evening. I still remember slathering the dense slices of crackly crusted sourdough bread with prodigious amounts of the harissa spread. The combination was so addicting that we requested more spread – more bread – more of the carbohydrates that fuel our constant conversation (the reason we have three hour+ dinners).
To follow, there were olives that I shunned with a crinkled-up nose, and the restaurant’s essential bacon-wrapped dates that I couldn’t possibly shun even if I tried. The six caramelized pork bundles were gone in sixty seconds – a memory before they had time to register on our greedy tongues. We then turned our attention to the supple ribbons of speck with tart apple slices and arugula ($12). Even with the lining of fat streaked down the sides of the cured ham, it would be our lightest, most refreshing bite of the evening. Served with only a swirl of balsamic vinegar, the high-quality ingredients were able to shine.
The common link between the dishes that followed seemed to be oil. The market white fish baked in a ramekin with shell beans, preserved lemon and fresh breadcrumbs ($16) was well-seasoned and nicely cooked, but glistened from a heavy application of oil that muddied the clean flavors in the dish. Our sides of young broccoli with garlic and chili ($9), and curried cauliflower ($9) suffered the same fate. The oil was particularly noticeable on the broccoli which we avoided in favor of the more exotically lubed cauliflower. Though our hands were lined with grease by the time we finished passing the communal small plate of the fragrant veggies, none of us could get enough of the caramelized bits of cauliflower and onions. Before the first plate was even gone, we placed an order for a second.
Apparently, cauliflower fuels our conversations too.
The arroz negro with squid and saffron aioli ($14), one of my favorite dishes during my first visit to AOC, seemed pedestrian on this evening. Despite the intense black color of the rice, the squid ink didn’t announce itself on our palates with its signature punch of ocean brine. The saffron aioli was the best part – and was finished as a spread on top of our second order of bread.
The duck confit with black rice, mizuna (Japanese greens), and fresh figs ($15) was more successful. I was happy to clean the last strands of supple flesh and crackly skin off the bone since the birthday girl does not dig the duck. This, along with the cauliflower, were my favorite savory dishes of the celebratory evening.
While Lauren savored a cup of summer sweet watermelon sorbet for her birthday dessert, Sook from Yutjangsah and I shared AOC’s version of a butterscotch pot de crème with fleur de sel and salted cashew cookies ($10). It was blissfully light on the palate – surprisingly so after the heaviness of the preceding dishes. While clearly composed of cream, it didn’t linger on the tongue – it simply mellowed out the sweet and salty components of the pudding. Spoons would fight over these harmonious bites.
Though I look back at the meal at AOC through mostly oil-saturated glasses, the overarching memory of the dinner is one that tugs at my heart in a good way. Ultimately, when Lauren, Sook, Sarah, and I go out, the food is really just a side dish.
The main dish, and our main reason for going out, is for the conversation – fueled by the wine, bread, cauliflower, or, more accurately, nothing at all. At the end of the night, it’s always cooked to perfection. And never ever goes out of season.
8022 W. Third St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048