For me it was love at first sight and bite - dating several years back. You can't help but fall for the charming garden setting (as brilliant during the day as it is at night with its twinkling lights), and menu that would set any foodie into a fevered frenzy. Top that off with amazing, friendly servers who genuinely make you feel at home whether you are dressed head-to-toe in designer garb or in literally pedestrian gear (which also happened to be half-drenched from the unseasonably heavy downpour this week) - and you have a winning combination!
The stars aligned when I was selected for jury duty downtown, on a trial that will run through dineLA's Restaurant Week(s). Cafe Pinot immediately landed at the top of my itinerary - to be able to have a crazy indulgent 3-course lunch for $22, mere dollars above a meal at CPK, was amazing to me. Though initially it looked a little too far outside the radius around the courthouse to comfortably fit within the 1.5 hours allotted for lunch - my friend "IT expert" gave me a shortcut that reassured me we could make it, though we may run that limit down to the minute.
So with a sense of defiance - fueled by the irresistible dineLA prix fixe menu (available now through October 8, and 10-15) - we finally headed out to Cafe Pinot to do a power / speed lunch !
At our server's recommendation, we started off with a highly refreshing watermelon lemonade - first place I know of that served this. It was awesome - and we ended up having two each! For his first course, "IT expert" ordered the Confit of Local Albacore Tuna with fingerling potato, celery remoulade, and black garlic oil - which was beautifully presented and apparently tasted as great as it looked!
With my philosophy to always maximize value, I would have gone for the seafood appetizer as well - except that it was a very cold, rainy day - so I opted instead for the Butternut Squash Soup with Vanilla Essence, chai tea spiced Chantilly cream, toasted seeds, and fried sage.
I was ready to love this soup, but it ended up being an uncomfortable mixture of textures and tastes that did not come together in a cohesive way for me. The consistency of the soup base was a little too fibrous for my taste, and was not infused with layers of flavor as I had expected from the description. And the toasted seeds / fried sage, perhaps meant to add some texture contrasts and bursts of flavor, ended up in my opinion being distractions - instead of fluid enjoyment of the warm smoothness of the soup, it was disrupted by the need to chew on these rather large, isolated pieces of debris - creating a sort of stop-start experience. I was still glad to have tried it though.
The main course - Crispy Skin Wild Salmon parsnip purée, green lentils, toasted bacon, and pinot noir reduction brought me back into my full adoration of Cafe Pinot.
The craftsmanship was clear in all aspects of this dish - with the weightiness of the fish balanced by the lightness of the crispy wisps of fried onions (at least I think they're onions?!) and the mild flavors of the salmon filet offset by the blast of saltiness in the crispy skin, and the slice of heaven - I mean - bacon sitting on top of the fish! The lentils lent some additional crunch, while the parsnip puree provided a creamy finish to the dish. The other entrees on the menu weren't even a consideration when we saw the salmon - we both went for it, so I can't tell you about the other items...
For dessert, I didn't realize that we also both ended up on the Butterscotch Panna Cotta gingerbread streusel, candied acorn squash, and cinnamon gelato - would have been good for us to get different dishes so we could sample each - but we were in a rush and it was too late to change by the time we realized this!
So, I can only review the Panna Cotta dessert here - which I loved in concept. Panna cotta is in general one of my favorite desserts based on its sheer simplicity, creamy yet light finish to the meal, and the creative variations that you can apply to both the panna cotta itself, and/or its accompaniments. In concept, pairing an inherently 'heavy' substance - butterscotch - with the by nature 'light' panna cotta, could have been interesting, if skillfully balanced. However, this particular execution proved to be very thick and weighted - so that in consistency and texture it no longer felt like a light custard that came away with the slightest flick of the spoon, but more like a congealed mousse you had to cut through to scoop out your spoonful. Also, I felt the cinnamon in the gelato competed somewhat with the already rich butterscotch flavor in the panna cotta - it would have been nice to have the gelato take more of a backseat so that it complemented / supported the butterscotch for better balance. I did love the gingerbread streusel (crumbs) and the contrasting texture and crunch that this added to the dessert!
All in all, still an amazing deal and great lunch - the Crispy Skin Wild Salmon from the regular menu, though slightly different from the dineLA offering, is marked at $22 just on its own. One of the other entrees offered on the dineLA lunch menu, Wild Mushroom Risotto, goes for $18 on its own on the regular menu. And dineLA lunch at Cafe Pinot is a total of $22 for three courses! With two watermelon lemonades each, and a 20% tip, our total costs came out to about $36 each. Awesome deal for fine dining, especially given that I had to shell out $24 the previous day for a pizza, shared spring roll appetizer, and Arnold Palmer at CPK - where my fellow jurors wanted to go just the day before, and Cafe Pinot is obviously in an entirely different league in all aspects. Would just recommend ordering the Albacore Tuna first course, Crispy Salmon entree, and maybe giving the Chocolate Mousse Gateau a try for dessert.
And happily, I was able to make it back to court in time (ok, a few minutes late, but luckily they hadn't been ready to start yet)!
Will definitely be returning to Cafe Pinot next time I'm downtown!
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks during dineLA) $$$ (3 bite marks non-dineLA)
Probability of return visit - 95%
700 W 5th St., Los Angeles, CA 90071
OpenTable: Look for reservations