Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ray's and Stark Bar - Edible Art at LACMA

On past visits to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), I had been intrigued by the sleek yet fun Mad Men meets Jetsons meets Art Deco done-in-all-red restaurant and bar in the courtyard - run by the prestigious Patina Group - but never had the occasion to commit to a full meal there as we were always on our way elsewhere.

So when a serendipitous invite arrived in my inbox recently for a dessert tasting at that very same Ray's & Stark Bar - shortly after the announcement of its pastry chef Josh Graves as a 30 at 30 (and under) in the food industry by - I knew there was no way I would miss it. (Chef Josh was also named Best New Pastry Chef by Angeleno magazine in 2011!)

The tasting took place in the Ray's (restaurant) part of the space. Befitting its location outside a museum, design by architect Renzo Piano, and namesake Hollywood producer Ray Stark, the mod decor was artfully done (form) with bold colored furniture surrounded by clear glass offering views of the museum plaza, and touches of unexpected whimsy, like secret pull-out drawers containing linens and silverware (function)   This carries through to the skillfully crafted desserts!  
Chef Josh came by to introduce each dish, and to share personal anecdotes about each which was a nice touch.  First up: Coconut ($9) Coconut pudding, coconut macaroon, coconut granita, guava frozen yogurt, calamansi gelée.  I LOVE coconut, as a pure and fresh tasting fruit that can be incredibly versatile - and think it's a travesty when people don't know how to go beyond using as those sickeningly sweet toasted shreds. 

Chef Josh presented three ways to highlight coconut - on the same plate.  And used for his homemade froyo, guava foraged from a manager's yard.  Loved this dish with its mix of skillfully controlled creamy, light, smooth textures bringing out the best in its simple, few ingredients.  My only note is that I wanted the macaroon to be less dense, more airy, with a more delicate 'shell'.
Next up: Sticky Toffee Pudding ($9) Date cake, redwine figs, goat cheese ice cream, toffee.  The few times I've had this dessert at other venues, chefs had taken the name literally and produced dense bricks of bread pudding smeared with a substance that I can only liken to the consistency of tar. That is difficult to cut through even with a knife, after a few seconds of cooling and hardening, and that makes you reach for water almost immediately.  Chef Josh's interpretation is my favorite by far - it's a light, subtly sweet and perfectly sized date cake topped with beautiful figs, and the lightest spoonfuls of sauce. Lovely served with subtly flavored goat cheese ice cream.  This is what all other sticky toffee puddings should aspire to be when they grow up.  Loved.

The next dessert drew audible moans around the table: Chocolate ($10) Dark chocolate mousse, caramel sauce, milk chocolate whipped cream, praline, chocolate sorbet, hazelnut brittle. At first it just seemed like a cup of various scoops of chocolate ice cream - but it soon became clear that each bite was a revelation - there was smooth and creamy at varying levels of cacao and density, giving way to crunchy bits with a hit of saltiness to further amplify the richness of chocolate flavors.  Most around the table that night chose this as their favorite of the night - chocolate lovers will definitely not want to miss this. 

Maybe it was just the mood I was in, or maybe it was some subconscious reaction to having several consecutive courses of dessert, but my favorite that night was the citrus one: Mandarin Budino ($TBD, not yet on menu) a light sponge cake textured bread pudding with tangerines so perfectly ripened it could wring tears of joy with each slice - and the flavors are reflected in the sauce, again with a skillful, light and sophisticated hand.  The whole thing is crowned by a beautiful thin dehydrated wheel of mandarinquat (cross between mandarin and kumquat) which provided a nice crisp finish. This dessert was not on the menu yet at time of tasting, but will be made available  in February.

I think it is at this point that Chef Josh revealed that two of the desserts we had just fawned and raved about, Coconut and Mandarin Budino, were gluten-free!  His fiancee is allergic to gluten, so he has found ways to make delicious desserts that are gluten-free without sacrificing taste!  I usually don't like foods that are "free" of this and that (e.g. "fat free", "gluten-free" etc.) as they almost always don't taste as good as the 'real' and 'whole' thing - but in the case of Chef Josh's desserts - I would have never, ever guessed that they were gluten-free if he hadn't said it!  Mad props!  And, fantastic news for food-lovers with allergies!

Oh, and almost forgot to mention that there are a bunch of hot alcoholic drinks on offer at Ray's - because I couldn't get enough sugar in my system, I had ordered the Oaxacan Holiday ($12) with cocoa-infused dark rum, creme de cacao, chocolate chili bitters, freshly whipped cream and grated nutmeg.  I wanted to love this, but the alcohol was too overpoweringly pungent for me. 
Just when we were getting ready to thank our gracious hosts, more plates arrived - Chef Josh treated us to plates of "BTO"s ("Better Than Oreos") which are usually served as complimentary treats after a meal at Ray's.  True to their name, these cookie sandwiches taste like what oreos could be if they were made fresh daily with high end ingredients and cut way back on the processed sugar.

Man of many talents, Chef Josh apparently also makes amazing bread - and we each got a fresh loaf as a parting gift! 
Now that I know what's on offer at Ray's and Stark Bar, at least in terms of desserts - I am definitely making a point to stop by on my next visit to LACMA!

*This tasting was hosted.


Ray's and Stark Bar
5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036
Ph: 323.857.6180

Twitter: @RaysAndStarkBar

Ray's Restaurant and Stark Bar (LACMA) on Urbanspoon  



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