Say Mélisse; C’est Magnifique

Chef/owner Josiah Citrin’s Mélisse is recognized as a world-class, fine dining restaurant, L.A.’s only Forbes 5-Star rated stand-alone establishment. With two Michelin Guide stars, global gourmands who appreciate its contemporary French-inspired, Japanese-influenced cuisine make Mélisse a dining destination (Michelin has not reviewed L.A. venues since 2009, but these stars are still on the books).

While fine dining often equates with a steep price, at the urging of customers who attend events at The Broad Stage (two short blocks away), Chef Citrin has quietly introduced a 3-course “Pre-Theatre” menu, at $65 per person. Reservations are available Tuesday through Friday, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. (but you don’t need to eat and run!). https://www.melisse.com

PURSUING EXCELLENCE

Chef Citrin’s philosophy is expressed in the title of his award-winning cookbook, “In Pursuit of Excellence,” evident everywhere at Mélisse, from the Limoges plates and glass art centerpieces, to the simple, understated elegance of the dining room, the superlative (but not stuffy) service, exquisite cuisine and one of the most impressive wine collections in Southern California—maybe even the state.

Over the years, he has pared down traditionally heavy French sauces with a simpler, lighter and zestier approach, amplifying the flavors of the finest seasonal Farmers Market ingredients. Under the influence of Chef de Cuisine Ken Takayama, elements of French and Japanese cuisines are fused to find the highest and best use of an ingredient, not over-coating it and letting its essence shine.

Next year marks Mélisse’s 20th anniversary. Josiah’s first inspirations were his French grandmother, who cooked their family’s meals, and his caterer mother Huli Sloane (who once had a radio food show on KCRW).

Graduating from SaMoHi, Josiah spent three years in France (dreaming of Michelin stars), training in traditional French techniques at two top Parisian restaurants. He returned to LA to work with star chefs Wolfgang Puck at Chinois on Main and Granita, and later with Joachim Splichal at Patina and Pinot Bistro.

Then, with his longtime friend Raphael Lunetta, he opened the much-loved Santa Monica restaurant, Jiraffe (now closed; Raphael runs the eponymous Lunetta and Lunetta All Day also in Santa Monica).

FINDING THE ESSENCE

The word “mélisse” means lemon balm in French, and it’s an apt choice for the feeling conveyed within these walls. It’s a calming herb, and in our 3-course menu, it was used in a refreshing opening palate cleanser, a foamy infusion with rhubarb, and the closing herbal tea.

After the palate cleanser, the “amuse bouche,” an appetizer not on the menu but always a specialty of the house, is served. Ours was King Salmon tartare, with a mixture of shallots and dill, sliced avocado and diced jicama on top (pictured).

There are three choices for starters and entrees and two for dessert. I chose the Wild New Zealand Tai Snapper, with Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin), jicama, green apple, cucumber and citrus vinaigrette, featuring edible flowers (borage and purple garlic, which is grown at the restaurant and used in dishes when in season).

My dining companion Julie ordered the dazzlingly green sweet pea soup, with a small ball of whipped black truffle mousse, potatoes, onion, and mushroom, stirred in for a burst of umami.

I chose the Filet of Beef, possibly the most perfectly cooked, medium rare, buttery-sliced filet mignon I’ve ever eaten (pictured), with leeks, roast porcini mushroom, braised beef cheek and herb red wine jus.

Julie ordered the Grilled Black Cod with melting fennel, cherry tomato, and tomato green garlic broth. We ooh’d and ahh’d at the explosive flavor of the tomatoes, which Chef explained were peeled and slowly poached in olive oil (he comes out and talks to every table).

Each dish is presented and explained in detail by the person most responsible for its preparation, and waiters are stationed nearby to refill your water, wine or champagne. Should you spill a drop or two (as I did, more than once), they cover those stains with round white stickers! These are the extra touches that add so much to the experience.

Desserts were artful and delicious: I had the Passionfruit Parfait with Coconut Sorbet and tapioca pearls; Julie tried the “Snickers” bar (pictured), with chocolate, caramel, and peanuts. And to top it all off, you will be served a selection of petit fours (pictured), turning your 3 courses into something more like six. I promise you’ll be sated!

BUT WHAT IS FINE DINING?

Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold says fine dining means different things to different people. In L.A. Mélisse and Providence top the list but, he adds: “If what you mean is a full brigade kitchen, white tablecloths, European cooking and traditional wine service—you’d have to add Spago, the new Nomad, Bazaar, Dining Room at the Bel Air, maybe Cut, maybe the Four Seasons.” He also points to a few new ambitious, experimental places like Vespertine, perhaps 15 Japanese restaurants and a number of Chinese restaurants – some with $10,000 tasting menus!

You won’t pay $10,000 at Mélisse. The Pre-Theatre menu allows you to fully enjoy the fine dining experience at a fraction of the cost of their multi-course tasting menus.

And: Should you decide to book for Thanksgiving, the menu features Josiah’s mother’s recipes, including her famed apple pie. A nice, homey touch for a very classy place.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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