Saturday, September 1, 2012

Towne: Upscale 'Neighborhood Hangout', Wood-burning Deliciousness

The minute I set foot in Towne, it literally took my breath away: with what I can only describe oxymoronically as casual grandeur, and the heady fragrance of wood-burning oven infusing the entire space.
Towne had been diligently promoting their fine dining offerings in a space that is sophisticated yet comfortable - positioned as a neighborhood hangout in an area of newly developed hi-rise condos (the restaurant is on the ground floor of the Watermarke tower). They had been holding several media dinners in past months to spread the word.  I had been drooling over pics other bloggers were posting on Instagram, and was excited to be invited to a media dinner recently to check it out for myself.

A meal at Towne starts with pretzel bread and mustard butter.

It was hard to choose from the list of delicious sounding craft cocktails, but I finally settled on the Eastern Mule ($13) Russian Standard vodka, lime, house 5-spice ginger beer.  The 5-spice was what intrigued fellow blogger LAOCFoodie and I.  The presentation was great in a lovely copper mug, which keeps the drink cool - but to be honest I couldn't really taste much of anything - there was a lot of ice...LAOCFoodie made much better choices, I actually loved the drinks he ordered, which were farm fresh and nuanced as I usually like 'em - you can read about his take on the food, drinks and whole experience here
The food was what intrigued me - many seemed like unique blends of different cultures' cuisines.  The first to arrive were the Kampachi "Tacos" ($12) avocado, hijiki, aji amarillo, creme fraiche.  Tortilla shells filled with chopped up sashimi, topped with aji amarillo (South American yellow chile pepper) infused creme fraiche and pickled radish. A tasty starter that uniquely blends Japanese, South American and Mexican cuisines.
Next up was a classic with a twist: Bone Marrow Matzo Ball Soup ($9) shiitakes, beef consomm√©. This is like a French chef's elevated take on the Jewish staple comfort food.The photo doesn't do it justice - it was pretty insanely delicious. First of all, why has no one else (that I'm aware of) ever switched up the good ole chicken broth for beef consomm√©? And the addition of fatty bone marrow and earthy shiitake mushrooms to the matzo ball soup makes it instantly addictive.  I also loved the balance of the rich flavors in the concentrated, yet clarified savory broth, with the spongey comfortingly mild flavors of the matzo ball, and sweet meatiness of the mushrooms. I've always been a matzo ball soup fan, but this takes it to a whole other level - loved it and would go back just for this dish (and some others, see below ;)).
 
Another favorite of the meal was the Wood Grilled Octopus ($16) roasted tomato puree, crips artichokes. The Spanish octopus had a perfect smokey char - and sometimes perhaps due to the texture of this seafood it doesn't really absorb flavors that well, but somehow this one seemed to be very evenly infused with amazing flavors from the tomato, artichokes, celery root, purple potato etc. I would have wanted the plate to be kept cleaner though, with less of a pile-up of veggies - and allowing the gorgeous octopus to take center stage, with veggies put back into their place as secondary accompaniment (ok maybe my own bias against veggies is at play here...but the octopus was so delicious it seemed a shame to bury it under all that...extra stuff...)
 
Another dish that arrived with an unexpected combination of ingredients: Seared Dayboat Scallops ($18) fig, pickled radish, coconut broth. Maybe it was the coconut broth, but to me this made me think of Thai food, though it wasn't at all spicy. The scallops were skillfully seared to be crisp on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. The fig was an unusal pairing with scallop that kind of helped bring out its sweetness - it was a little disorienting at first but grows on you. The bok choy was another uncommon touch. This one was like a French Thai Chinese Mediterrenean mashup.
With that wood-fired oven practically transforming me into the Froot Loops toucan ("just follow your nose!") - I was glad that we got to try the Whole Roasted Branzino (Market Price) from that spectacular smelling oven. Loved that it was served skin on, tail pretty much on, stuffed with herbs - deliciously smokey outside, sweet and super tender inside - laid on a bed of Sardinian cous cous.  We're not sure what makes the cous cous Sardinian, but it was smart to lay it out under the fish so that all the rich flavors from the fish are soaked up by the grains, making for an all-round delicious plate. 
Carrying over that same concept, but with a land animal: Glazed Beef Cheek Pot Roast ($18) sourdough gnocchi, roasted root vegetables, popover. The red-wine braised beef cheek could get you food-drunk with its incredible flavors, and make you cry with its tenderness - and the sourdough gnocchi sat below it to catch all those flavors. The only thing I didn't like about this was the popover - which wasn't as fluffy as I would have liked, and didn't have that fresh-baked bread flavor.
Another best of dish was the Spaghetti ($20) crab, sea urchin. The pasta was perfectly al dente, elevated with umami from added sea creatures.  And I think toasted parmesan.  Another dish I would go back for, though $20 is a bit steep - the portion is fairly generous.
An interesting veggie side was the Roasted Brussel Sprouts ($7) with tamarind, bacon, apple.  Crisped brussel sprouts seem to pretty much be on every restaurant's menu nowadays, usually with bacon, or pancetta, or some equivalent pork ingredient - Towne puts their own twist on it by adding tamarind and apple.  To me the sweetness and textures made the dish remind me of earthy, juicy shiitake mushrooms, cooked the chinese way in a starchy sauce.  Not that photogenic and kind of sticky, but very delicious.
 
And for the piece de resistance: Crispy Pork Shank for 2 ($18 per person) sweet & sour cabbage, whole grain mustard spatzle, mustard jus.  If Chris Harrison were here he would adapt his signature phrase to say: "In the most draamatic (pork) ceremony ever...".  Our server brought out a gigantic piece of pork (shank is I think the 'forearm' or 'calf' of a pig), with beautifully crisped skin...I'm talking caveman's dinner sized - the platter made me feel instantly primal.
Apparently they portion it for two people, but the shank we got could have easily fed four average sized Asians, I think.  When our server...um...knifed the shank...steam came out in its path and the meat fell away easily.  This one is definitely an experience, and given the generous size - just going by what we were served - I'd say it's a fairly good deal at $18 per person.  And again the spatzle underneath, to catch all the juicy goodness.  Yum.
 
Though I was about to burst out of my wrap dress at this point, there was still dessert to to come, and Towne boasts the pastry chef from Bottega Louie, so we were looking forward to tasting those pastries.  We got a S'mores Donut and three macarons (pistachio, chocolate peanut butter and jelly, and lychee).  The donut had a melty marshmallow center and was glazed with chocolate - I loved the concept but wasn't impressed with the taste or texture - it didn't taste fresh made to me.  Of the three macarons, lychee was my favorite, but I felt like none of them had the levity and crisp exterior with airy interior that the ones at Bottega Louie has.
We also tried the Peanut Butter Crunch Bar - made with choolate ganache and peanut butter cream - which I wanted to be less dense and sticky...

All in all, a great experience at Towne and I can see that it's a nice addition to the area - another beacon of light in the gentrification of downtown LA.

I was impressed with some of the creative risk-taking and overall most of the savory dishes we tried were delicious. Prices are not outrageous given the quality of the food and most of them are very generously portioned.  Definitely a nice place to go for dinner, especially for those in the area - and you can decide whether to dress up or not and still be comfortable either way.

*Disclosure: This meal was hosted.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 
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Towne

705 W 9th St., Los Angeles, CA 90015
Ph: 213.623.2366

Website: towne-la.com
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Towne Food & Drink on Urbanspoon

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