"C'mon, c'mon," I think as I wait for the down elevator to arrive at the fifth floor of the parking structure off Cardiff Avenue in downtown Culver City. Even though it arrives moments after I push the button, and I still have 15 minutes before my 8 pm reservation at Fraiche restaurant, I still feel impatient.
I've been feeling impatient the whole day -- nay, the entire week. I've been anxiously anticipating the meal since last Tuesday when Cathy from Gastronomy Blog, her husband Vernon, the Astronomer, and I made plans to sample new Executive Chef Ben Bailly's menu together. The word on the Twitter street and LA dining blogosphere was that the handmade pastas are impeccable, the truffle burger is one of the best gourmet burgers in the city, and that Ben Bailly is bringing a new energy to the rustic French-Italian restaurant that NY Times food critic Frank Bruni named one of the best new restaurants in the country in 2008.
Yet, even with all the praise about the revitalized menu, for me the evening is about more than just the food.
The last time I experienced Chef Bailly's food was at Petrossian, the world renowned specialty caviar purveyor's restaurant in West Hollywood. Prior to that meal last March, I had only been exposed to caviar in small doses -- usually in the form of a few pearls haphazardly tossed onto a plate like a parsley garnish. My only real taste of fish eggs had come via Chef Ludo Lefebrve's panna cotta with caviar and caramel during Ludo Bites 2.0, a dessert I still consider to be a favorite of the avant-garde chef's concoctions.
Soon after embarking on the tasting menu at Petrossian, however, I realized that despite my affection for the aforementioned panna cotta, I don't particularly care for caviar when it is the main focus of the dish. It was a disappointing realization -- especially since my dining companions, Cathy, Vernon and Danny from Kung Food Panda, were so smitten with the caviar-heavy creations.
I wanted to love Chef Bailly's food at Petrossian, but was overwhelmed with the intense flavor of the fish eggs that seemed, in a way, to mask his expertise and range as a chef. I suspected that in a different setting -- a setting where Bailly would have more creative freedom over the menu and dish components, I would have had an entirely different experience.
Walking into Fraiche tonight, I have the strong sense that this will be the redemptive meal I want it to be. Even though the classy space has fallen out of cache during the past couple years, I've always considered Fraiche to be one of my favorite restaurants in LA. After many memorable meals there, it feels like home to me, and that sensation is even more pronounced when Chef Bailly comes out to greet me. He's as gracious as ever, but I still feel a spark of embarrassment for being the "caviar-sensitive girl that ordered a tasting menu at Petrossian."
Tonight's tasting menu, thankfully, will not be featuring any of the slick spheres. Our fifteen course feast presented on shared plates for my two lovely dining companions and I to enjoy together, will run the gamut from salads to foie gras to pasta to fish, and will offer us a solid representation of Bailly's menu and his culinary repertoire. We are encouraged to experience the dishes with wine pairings poured by the restaurant's new sommelier, Paul Sangoletti, so opt to share one communal glass so we don't over indulge.
Cathy and Vernon raise amused eyebrows when our first course arrives -- Eggplant Caviar with raisins and marcona almonds ($8) that is served with toasted pieces of rustic bread. The irony isn't lost on any of us. I slather a smile on my pink face and heap a generous spoonful of the egg-free caviar onto a slice of the toast. It's simple, but delightfully satisfying with the varying textures and salty, sweet and savory counterpoints. I can't help but wish that actual caviar was as pleasing to me.
I'm less excited about the next two appetizers to arrive at the table -- they will ultimately be my least favorite dishes of the evening. While thoughtfully presented, the Hamachi Tartare with shaved turnip, lime and espelette pepper ($14) is a touch strong on my palate, and even though I appreciate the intent behind the Vitello Tonnato composed of veal steak tartare, arugula and parmesan ($14), I still haven't quite acquired a taste for the texture of raw beef. Cathy enthusiastically finishes my veal-topped crostini, which, in my mind, has a similar flavor profile to a hamburger.
I perk right up when we are presented with the three salad plates -- Baby Beets with mizuna, housemade ricotta, cara cara oranges, and pistachios ($12), the Brussels Sprouts salad with manchego, chorizo, dates, almonds, and piquillo vinaigrette ($12), and the Belgian Endives salad with duck bresaola, quince, pecans, goat cheese, and truffle vinaigrette. I've always adored Fraiche's beet salad and am glad to see that Bailly has updated the signature dish with the bright acidity from the cara cara orange supremes, while still maintaining the integrity of the salad. It's as good as it's always been, but after sampling all three leafy affairs, I am most impressed with the Belgian Endives. When all components are taken together, it's the perfect bite - the bitterness from the endives is tempered by the sweet quince and candied pecans, and the thin jerk-like strips of duck bresaola, goat cheese and truffle vinaigrette chime in with a decadent savory flourish.
The light salads are the perfect prelude for the heavier dishes we will enjoy next -- the Seared Foie Gras with frisee, rhubarb, pomegranate, and speculoos ($18), the House Made Agnolotti with wild mushrooms, mascarpone and truffle butter ($16), and the Basil Risotto with escargot, lemon and tomato ($14). I'm happy to see the Foie Gras is well seared and appropriately paired with sweet and bright companions to help temper the liver's richness that is often a bit much for me. I love the speculoos, ginger snap cookie crumbs that are sprinkled on top, and though I've been avoiding pomegranates lately, think they add the perfect tartness to the plate.
The delicate agnolotti purses that are generously stuffed with a wild mushroom and mascarpone puree are surprisingly the heaviest of the three dishes. With the liberal application of the truffle butter sauce, this is definitely a plate that needs to be shared. The basil risotto with three knuckles of escargot that have been sauteed in garlic and butter lands more lightly on the palate, perhaps because of the acidity from the lemon and tomato and refreshing spark of basil that is interwoven between each risotto grain. It's a well-executed risotto dish that shines because of the simplicity and interconnectedness of the flavors.
This respect for the ingredients will continue with our seafood courses -- the Taglieneri Neri pasta with meaty chunks of Maine lobster, cherry tomatoes and basil ($22), and the Crispy Loup de Mer with sunchokes soubise, wild mushrooms, crosnes, salsifi, and bordelaise sauce ($26). None of us can get over texture of the irregular strands of squid ink pasta that are the perfect vehicle for the foamy tomato broth that's been infused with the briny essense of the lobster. We giggle and grin and fight through the tangle of noodles even though all of us are getting uncomfortably full by this point in our meal.
Even with two more dishes and dessert coming, however, I can't stop poking at the other seafood dish on the table also. I am awed by the crisp skin of the loup de mer that has been lovingly laid over a bed of sunchoke puree, sauteed mushrooms and root vegetables. I love the crunchy nubs of crosnes, and the salsifi (a root vegetable that is known for tasting like oysters when cooked) adds a note of brininess that compliments the flaky white fish well. This is the type of fish dish that no one could describe as "boring."
We finish our savory portion of the evening with two final pastas -- the Bucatini Carbonara with slow-poached egg, pancetta and parmesan ($18) and the Lamb Pappardelle with tomato, olives, onetik goat cheese ($18). The two pastas are just as successful as the Taglieneri Neri -- so successful in fact, that I can't even begin to pick a favorite of the three. I love the way the yolk of the slow poached egg coats the thick strands of al dente bucatini for a delightfully slurpy noodle experience, and the delicate ribbons of pappardelle are equally comforting to my tongue. I don't even find offense to the olives that add a necessary salty touch that I have found similarly compelling when enjoying Osteria Mozza's lamb tagliatelle verde with olives and mint in the past. It's a hearty plate and when we finally lay our forks to rest, we also request that Bailly give our stomachs a short break before dessert.
When our two shared desserts finally do arrive, I am happy to see that Bailly has selected the Pistachio Creme Brulee with apricot sorbet and rosemary crumble ($9) and the Manjari Chocolate Pot De Creme ($8) -- both relatively lighter desserts. While I don't usually gravitate toward creme brulee, I love Bailly's version that is less overtly creamy due to the textural complexity imparted by the pistachios. Paired with the apricot sorbet, the concoction almost tastes like an upscale fruit crumble. The pot de creme is less potent flavorwise, but still a solid, pleasurable sweet ending. I appreciate the generous dusting of salt and drizzle of caramel sauce -- anything with salt and caramel brings a smile to my face.
It's hard to stop smiling after this epic meal I've enjoyed with my dear friends tonight. I feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to be wooed by Chef Ben Bailly, Sommelier Paul and the restaurant's attentive and friendly staff. It's a night I'll never forget. And I night that has completed eradicated the memory of the meal where Diana Took Too Many Bites of Caviar.
9411 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
Note: As special guests of the restaurant, we were treated to the meal at a discounted price.