Thursday, April 12, 2012

Le Comptoir: At the Root, Of the Heart: Simply Extraordinary

Last Saturday, we had one of the most amazing meals we've ever had in LA. And it involved all manners of vegetables - yes, you read that right - by Chef Gary Menes, at his pop-up Le Comptoir at Tiara Cafe downtown.

Foodies had been flocking to "the counter," (translation of French name Le Comptoir) and I'd gathered that Chef Menes was doing something extraordinary - with vegetables. So at first, I was skeptical - to me veggies are for the health conscious, those in detox, or far more upstanding souls than I (I who love to consume almost any and all parts of anything that moves), or are at best garnish or a culinary 'gift with purchase' - something extra thrown in with the thing you really want to eat.  i.e. - Not something I usually enjoy. 

And a veggie-focused meal for $52, even if 5-courses, seemed a bit pricey - options with protein require supplemental cost. But Chef Menes has an impressive pedigree, with stints at Patina and THE French Laundry (which I will probably never be able to afford).  And rave reviews kept coming in, from people whose palates I trust.  And then I tasted Chef Menes' sous vide quail egg with coriander flowers - simply perfect - at Gold Standard 2012, and resolved to get it together and make my way downtown to Le Comptoir, asap.

An eclectic little spot with a sophisticated storefront, Tiara is located in the Fashion District in Downtown LA, across from the epicenter of the local industry - California Market Center - a space that serves cafe fare during the day. Despite the location, Le Comptoir is far from being trend-focused.
The interiors of the playful space can only be described as  Art-Deco-meets-Titanic-for-the-Proles-meets-Japanese-Diner-Cafe-Kitsch.  It definitely didn't take itself too seriously, with quirky statues of fictional creatures placed randomly in the dining room - and a wall of brightly colored plastic figures on the cafe side: yet the flow of the space, with its blue upholstered, gold-gilded booths, was at the same time strangely elegant. 

This was the setting for Le Comptoir - which literally involved 12 seats at the counter bridging to the open kitchen, the better for guests to see exactly how their food is prepared, and to be able to interact with chefs while they are doing it.  Perfectly in line with Chef Menes' philosophy that people should know where their food comes from. The setup of Le Comptoir takes that all the way through to 'the end'. The buzz phrase everyone is using now of "farm to fork", means much more here - Chef Menes not only takes utmost care in knowing the farmers who supply every element in his dishes - but really lets you in on the whole process, even in every part of how it's prepared before it arrives to your fork.  
We couldn't wait to taste it all. To start, an amuse bouche: Mushroom Croquette.  This was unfortunately to us not any indication of the meal to come - while the mushrooms we could taste as being incredibly fresh, we didn't love the flavoring and thought the individual elements were bland, while the whole was single note - oversalty.
For the main meal, there were two options for each of the 5-courses.  For our first course, we had a choice of Okinawan Sweet Potato Veloute, yogurt, green garlic, farinette, herbs or French Foie Gras Terrine, Dried Cherry Compote, Saba. While almost the entire population of food bloggers in LA were raving about the veggie pancake w/ sauce, 'Teech' and I both love foie and were conscious of the countdown clock on it being served in CA - so we both went for the carnivore option ($18 supplement).  It was Hudson Valley foie, smooth, rich and creamy and paired nicely with the sweet/tart dried cherry compote and grape syrup. But not something that seared into our brains for all eternity.
In between courses, we received a dish of Chef Mene's great bread made from his own 18 year old starter.  Delicious. And made us ignore the toasts that came with the foie terrine. 
Then came our first courses featuring veggies: Course 2a: Sunny Side-Up Egg, Young Lettuce, Herbs, Jus Vert.  This was a fun, interactive dish where you let the sizzling egg cook a little in its cast iron Staub mini-skillet, then, as chef instructed, add in other ingredients from bright flowers to herbed butter to lettuce leaves carefully selected so that what ends up on the plate is flawless. I actually found myself loving the veggie elements more than the protein! The egg was a little overcooked at the bottom - perhaps it was because we had been late for our reservation, so the second courses pushed up against the first - they arrived while we were only halfway through the foie, so did sit for a while on the side.  Our fault on that one.  But the flavors were amazing - I would have never thought to use that combination of ingredients as toppings for a fried egg, and they were not only beautiful to look at, the mix of fragrant, incredibly fresh herbs and creamy savory butter with the 'liquid sun' of the egg seemed like they were made for each other - just waiting for Chef Menes to come along to bring them together for their date with destiny.
  
The other option, for Course 2b: Asperge Vert et Oeuf Sur La Plat Reggiano, Beurre Noisette, Citron ($8 supplement) - as the chefs were preparing the dish, comforting aromas of butter in pan that somehow reminded me of home even though I don't cook very much, permeated the restaurant and heightened anticipation. Giant stalks of asparagus, possibly the biggest I've ever seen, were grilled, chopped and plated with a fried egg and cheese croutons, with lemon and pepper.  Every time I have asparagus, I always wonder why I don't eat it more often - but I never remember to crave it. But I have been dreaming of these long after the meal - each piece of asparagus was perfect - skillfully sized and cooked so that it has the perfect balance of crunch and delicious smokey char from the pan fry, but enough...don't know how else to say it...girth...so that there's that relatively untouched core of stalk which counterbalances that smokiness with its retained natural flavors, and was almost juicy inside without losing crunch. The citrus then cut through the rich fattiness of the butter nicely.  Loved this simple yet fantastic dish. Wish I thought to ask why it was the only one that was graced with a fancy French name (the others were very authentic, 'grounded' so to speak, titles highlighting essentially key ingredients, in English).

Next up: the deceptively simple-named "Veggie Plate," which drew disproportionate praise - and which I couldn't wait to try, as something that normally wouldn't appeal to me at all and would feel more like a temporary, necessary evil to enable my body to stay healthy enough to handle my next gluttonous meal of incredibly delicious creatures of the land, sea or sky. I knew that everyone who has tried it were blown away by it (not just vegetarians) - and I wanted to see what it was all about.  And the counter stock, plus the lineup of plates being prepped for this course, already had us drooling - it was a visual feast that sparked enormous excitement for the impending tasting.
And Course 3a was monumental: "Veggie Plate" consisted of Squash, Carrots, Pickled Onion Petals, Turnips, Kohlrabi, Pears, Tangerine Fava Beans, Celery, Celtuce, Grapes, Fingerling Potato, Cauliflower.  I loved that Chef Menes took the care to list each one - because each one was its own work of art, that all came together to form a masterpiece. 'Teech' said it best - the gorgeous plate reminded her of a Kandinsky painting. It was almost too beautiful to eat.  Almost - that's what I love about art on a plate - it's multisensory. We first enthusiastically admired the  impeccably curated and perfectly prepared collection just aesthetically - then dug in to experience it with our taste buds.  And though Chef Menes elevated humble vegetables with his artistry - it was never intended to be some lofty, inaccessible form - it's a celebration of the higher beauty of simple ingredients.  
Ever watch that movie 'Like Water for Chocolate', where what the chef was feeling at the time, poured into the food she was making, and diners could experience those intense emotions as they taste the food?  Well that's what this plate reminded me of - it was his heart and soul, that Chef Menes put on this plate. You could feel the intense love for every single element, and their sum, expressed in every bite.

[I had to look up a couple of the veggies too: "Kohlrabi" is apparently an Italian turnip, and "Celtuce" is as it sounds - a celery lettuce.  Both, like everything else on the plate, were amazing.]

And Chef Menes was very passionate in explaining to us the need to know where his food comes from - he knows and is great friends with every single farmer who produces every item he serves up,  so that he can rely on the care that was taken in their growth, and from that the quality of the ingredients.  That is sort of the reason why his food is currently veggie-focused, not due to any sort of anti-meat philosophy - just that he doesn't have as many strong relationships with meat farmers, and if he did have sources for high quality meats, he would serve it more.  So attention, quality meat farmers!!! :)

Some might see all this attention to detail as obsessive - but for us that's what makes him an amazing chef/food artist, one that can achieve the extraordinary with what is seemingly very simple.

The next dish involved one of my favorite ingredients in the world: truffle. But I almost didn't get it as it didn't seem as exciting as the other dishes, in writing anyways - 'just' truffle shaved over pasta.  But it was 'only' (everything is relative, right?) a $20 supplement, less than half of what other restaurants would charge - so we went for it.  Chef Menes personally prepared every element of this dish, we watched him cook the pasta right in front of us, watched him take meticulous care in shaving paper-thin black spring truffle over it, right in front of us. Loved it before it ever hit my fork.
So without further ado: Course 3b: Tagliolini with Black Spring Truffles ($20 supplement).  Teech wasn't as impressed with this, but I loved it - not for mind-blowing innovation or creativity (but it was never intended for that), but for being a classic, extremely well executed.  The pasta was perfectly balanced - so tender and creamy it could make you cry, but still al dente - the cream was carefully controlled so as not to be too heavy nor overpower the whole.  The truffle was intoxicating in fragrance and in beauty - the thin slices fluttered over the pasta, looking light but packing heavy-hitting flavor.

Chef Menes did say that we would be surprised by how satiated we will be, even just on veggie-focused fare - and he was right - we were pretty much full by end of course 3.

But of course we didn't want the meal to end.  Course 4a: English Peas, Hearts of Romaine, Pea Tendrils, Stone Ground Grits, Spring Onions, Jus, Truffle Froth this was a spring appropriate dish with fresh greenery, especially the peas which were perfectly cooked (I usually detest peas as they're either too mushy or like tiny green pebbles), the grits a nice balance of light and lush, with the truffle froth adding a nice subtle bit of earthy flavor in airy form.
Then a protein course: 4b: "Poitrine de Porc", slow-braised heritage pork belly, barley, apples, broccoli, blueberry relish ($8 supplement).  This was a victim of being overshadowed by its 'grounded' cousins - while the pork belly was beautifully cooked, tender and rich with flavor and juice, it just didn't measure up to the spectacular veggie dishes (I never thought I'd ever say that!).  The apple was a nice (and possibly most delicious apple) bite with subtle tinge of cinnamon.

For the grand finale: we could choose from either a cheese plate or pound cake. I'm not a big fan of cheese plates at restaurants, just because I feel like I can get gourmet cheeses from The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills or Wally's Cheese Box. And would rather focus my limited funds on experiencing the culinary creativity of chefs via their cooked/baked dishes.  Knowing of course that chefs likely have access to better cuts and varieties of cheese and will often serve them up with perfectly paired accompaniments of housemade preserves etc. But I just would rather experience cooked/baked dishes. And at Le Comptoir, I didn't want to go for the $12 supplement for cheese. 

So both Teech and I went for course 5b: Pound Cake, Chocolate, Orange, Sour Cream, Almonds, Graham Cracker.  The pound cake was fine, but it was the accoutrements that really impressed us:  with the softly crunchy marcona almonds counterbalanced by the perfectly ripened, bite-sized piece of orange, punctuated by the tart/bittersweet dots of raspberry and chocolate reduction.  Fresh sour cream and graham cracker crust and bit of candied orange rind added textural contrast.  A nice finish to a meal that left us, as Chef said it would, satiated but feeling good - not uncomfortably full and ready to fall into a food coma as usual after a large meal.

After the amazing dinner, we were made an offer we couldn't refuse, even though we were not big coffee aficionados: Handsome Roasters Coffee single origin pour over coffee from Columbia.  Chef Menes takes the same care with coffee, as he does with his food.  The coffee station looked like a science lab with its digital scale, jars, funnels, timers (and I thought I saw a thermometer too?!) - all to ensure precision resulting in consistently high quality cups of joe.  Again we are not coffee connoiseurs, but loved the sips we took of the incredibly smooth, fragrant and naturally sweet coffee that didn't even require any cream or sugar. 

All in all, one of the best meals I've had in LA, ever.  Especially with things that don't normally appeal to us.  All rooted in love and respect for his ingredients, fueled by a core of inspiration, passion and utmost dedication to his craft. Chef Menes accomplished the near impossible with us that day: he changed our perspective on veggies as things that we 'need', into things that we 'want' - and beyond that - even crave.

Looking forward to Chef Menes getting a place of his own so that we can make these mind-blowing meals a regular occurence!
 
In the meantime, if you haven't gone yet, Le Comptoir at last check runs Thursdays-Saturdays through May.  Contact the restaurant for details (info below).

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%
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Le Comptoir at Tiara Cafe

127 E 9th St., Los Angeles,CA 90079

Thursdays-Saturdays through May (contact below for details)
Website: lecomptoirla.com

For reservations: lecomptoirla@gmail.com or check Urbanspoon Rezbook

Twitter: @garymenes 
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Le Comptoir on Urbanspoon

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