Sunday, October 17, 2010

Maison Akira - dineLA Royal Flush in Concept, Full House in Execution

Aside from Petrossian, Maison Akira was the restaurant I was most excited to check out during dineLA Restaurant Week, based on the menu (foie gras and truffle in the starter, sea bass, king crab and lobster in the entree, and an interesting sounding 'nougat glacee'), impressive credentials of Chef Akira Hirose (who studied under Joel Robuchon and worked at L'Orangerie, the Ritz and the Penninsula), and the website (looked very refined, an elegant setting to house true haute cuisine).

It seemed like a sure bet at 'only' $44 - so I asked "Designer" to come along on a Thursday night, thinking it would be a great way to finish off this round of dineLA.

On arrival, it was clear the venue would not exactly align with the look and feel effused by the website - on a small street off the far end of Colorado, past the main strip of restaurants and shops, Maison Akira is in an unassuming red brick building several doors down from "Sushi of Naples" (a hybrid sushi restaurant / sports bar offering all night happy hour and a rowdy crowd). 

Stepping inside, the decor felt stale, a little French countryside with - in Designer's words - a hint of "Solvang".  The main dining room was tightly packed with tables, with a red tapestry print curtain on the back wall loosely drawn over a floor to ceiling mirror typical seen in small hole-in-the-wall venues to make the room appear larger.  A stained glass piece featuring a cottage hung on one wall - those are perhaps the main elements that made the space feel so "Solvang".

Brushing perceptions of the decor aside, we remained hopeful the meal would be fantastic, given the mouth-watering descriptions and the impressive pedigree of Chef Akira Hirose, and the fact that the restaurant was filled to capacity on a Thursday night.

Arancini Amuse Bouche
We were happy to see at the top of our dineLA menu that the prix fixe deal would be offered through Sunday October 17th - we could come back on the weekend to check out the dishes we didn't order that night (and perhaps even add the wine pairings for an extra $24)!

After placing our orders, we were presented with an amuse bouche - a single arancini with vegetable slaw and balsamic emulsion.  The risotto was bland, but we overlooked that as it was afterall free, and kept an open mind for the upcoming three course dinner.  "Designer" was also off to a happy start with her Pomegranate Kir Royale - a great and fruity variation of the classic cocktail.

Grilled Duck Foie Gras and Poached Free Range Egg
on Toasted Brioche in a Port wine Truffle Sauce
The dineLA starter I selected of course had me before I even set foot in the restaurant - Grilled Duck Foie Gras and Poached Free Range Egg on Toasted Brioche in a Port wine Truffle Sauce.  As this offered the best 'fine dining' experience of the starters, Designer also ordered this for her appetizer.

Foie Gras is often tricky to get just right - you can overwhelm the already rich texture and flavor by oversearing the steak to give it a too thick/pungent 'crust', or serve it either too hot (causing it to lose structure) or too cold (not bringing out the flavors enough).

Maison Akira gets it right, serving the foie at just the right temperature to bring out its rich flavors, and grilling it just enough to give a slightly crisp outer layer, nicely offsetting the creamy interior.  It was all beautifully plated as well.  My only minor notes are about the accompaniments - the poached egg felt a little loose and unstructured, and the yolk did not have a lot of natural flavor.  The brioche also could have been served at a slightly warmer temperature (to work more cohesively with the warm foie and egg instead of being a mildly distracting cooler afterthought).  Overall though, as the foie is the central focus, and was well executed, I would give this dish a high ranking for the meal.

Duo of Miso Marinated Chilean Sea Bass &
King Crab Ravioli in a Lobster Emulsion
Designer and I both chose the same entree - Duo of Miso Marinated Chilean Sea Bass & King Crab Ravioli in a Lobster Emulsion.  We were ready to be blown away - but unfortunately the fish was unevenly cooked (overcooked in some places and undercooked in others), the ravioli was dry and relatively flavorless, with a thick and too-chewy wrapper that didn't taste freshly hand-crafted, and the King Crab in such small pieces that you couldn't discern whether it was fresh, or to relish its flavor.  The Lobster emulsion was a light drizzle and we could not really taste it (the ravioli definitely could have used more liquids).   The quinoa sitting underneath the sea bass was a saving grace, infused with flavor and with an even al dente consistency. 

We were surprised by the entree, which should have been the crowning piece of the meal - but perhaps the chef was having an 'off' night. 

Warm Apple Tarte with Caramel Sauce & Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
For dessert, Designer and I finally decided to diverge.  She ordered the Warm Apple Tarte with Caramel Sauce & Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.  The apples tasted fresh and the ice cream smooth with specs of real vanilla bean - but the tarte could have been served at a hotter temperature to tease out the apple / cinnamon flavors more intensely - and the pastry was a bit hard to cut through, where we had expected a buttery, flaky, warm crust to showcase the fruit.

Nougat Glacée in a Raspberry Sauce
I went with the Nougat Glacée in a Raspberry Sauce, as the Ile Flotant just sounded like a meringue drowned in sauce - and I'm always down to try anything I am not familiar with. The Nougat Glacee turned out to be one of the most originally presented and delicious desserts I've had in LA.  The ice cream is shaped into a slab resembling a piece of nougat candy, riddled with fruit and nuts throughout.  The balance of smooth ice cream with crunchy candied nuts and sweet, chewy dates was perfect.  You could then dip spoonfuls of this mix in the raspberry sauce or eat it with the poached fig on the plate to add more fruity flavor / another burst of subtle sweetness.  This dessert was lovely, light and refreshing after the relatively heavy meal. 

All in all - the 'sure bet' turned out to be a bit of a gamble - luckily "Designer" is a close friend who doesn't mind experimenting with new places with me, otherwise, anyone looking to bring a guest they are trying to impress would be taking a risk with some elements of the experience. 

Maison Akira was good in three areas - starter, dessert and attentive service.  The two outliers were decor and the entree - if you and your guest don't put so much focus on ambience as part of the overall experience, you'd be fine - but as dining is a about the holistic experience for me, Maison Akira is not at the moment a place I would personally trek out to Pasadena to make an evening of.  If I happen to be in the area already, then I may stop by for a drink and foie or dessert.  And as for the sea bass - there is a similar dish on the regular tasting menu for $34 - again, at that price I would rather have a nice night out at a place like Beso or Osteria Mozza.  We hadn't tried any of the other three entrees on the dineLA menu, they may be perfect, but we can't speak to it, that would be something for others to take a chance on!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality -  5 bites
Ambience - 4 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 70%

Maison Akira
713 E. Green St., Pasadena, CA 91101
Ph: 626.796.9501

OpenTable: Look for reservations

Maison Akira on Urbanspoon

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