More or less the moment I received my flight confirmation to LAX I started planning my meals and despite the fact that “meals” were provided at the three day conference I was certainly not in town for that sort of dining – not when a number of quality breakfast and brunch spots are within walking distance of the Beverly Hilton and with the conference not starting until 2pm on the Friday of my arrival my I actually managed to get breakfast or an early brunch on each of my five days in Los Angeles, the first of which came with high expectations given my affinity for Thomas Keller – a very early seating at Bar Bouchon followed by a trip to Bouchon Bakery next door.
Having visited each of Chef Keller’s restaurants over the last few years with only Bar Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery Beverly Hills, and Bouchon Bakery Rockefeller Center as yet escaping my reach I admittedly went into my experience at Bar Bouchon with mild trepidation having been only mildly impressed by Bouchon Beverly Hills ten months earlier and having heard mixed things about Bar Bouchon (and the limited selection at this particular Bouchon Bakery) from a number of trusted palates and much to my dismay things seemed amiss literally from the moment I arrived.
Given the fact that it was Veteran’s Day and many folks were off work I was not terribly surprised to find Bar Bouchon rather busy on my arrival, but what was shocking was just how disorganized everything seemed – servers here and there, no one acting as a hostess, and the general flow a mess – especially given the TKRG standard. Standing in place for what seemed to be five minutes before a server asked “if I was looking for something” I suggested I’d like a seat and seemingly confused he wandered off with a different person, a young woman arriving a few minutes later and leading me indoors to the bar as all but a few larger tables outside were full.
Finally seated I waited for another four or five minutes at the empty bar listening to the music overhead and a table of three behind me chat before I was finally met by the bartender/”server,” Timothy who asked me if I’d like to start with something to drink and handed me a menu. Stating that water would be great to start and then clarifying that still would be fine a bottle was placed within reach and a glass filled as I perused the menu, asked a few questions about the daily specials, and was then left again for no less than ten minutes to “take my time” in making my decisions – decisions I made within much sooner than that and an order that I literally had to wave my hand at Timothy to place as he was kibitzing in the kitchen after delivering some beers to the tables outside.
Realizing at this point that a leisurely lunch was quite likely I grabbed a copy of the Los Angeles Times from the rack on the wall to read as I waited and sure enough it would be twenty minutes of sipping water (tables outside got bread and butter) before my Mousse de Foie de Volaille would arrive as a beautiful quenelle with a smear of apricot preserves plus toasted ‘croutons’ on a wooden service board. Taking into account that this was indeed chicken liver and not foie gras I first took a bite with my fork and then spread some of the creamy mousse onto a crouton before rendering my personal verdict that not only was this the best chicken liver I’ve ever eaten, but that it was better than a multitude of foie gras preparations as well. Impossibly light for liver and with the unctuous flavors nicely tempered by the apricot puree I took my time savoring each bite and though I had to ask for more croutons (not delivered, but instead finally given some of Bouchon’s famous epi baguette with butter) I’d have honestly not found this preparation out of place at Per Se or TFL – it was that good.
With another substantial delay as the cleared board and dirty silverware sat in front of me literally until my next plate arrived (requiring Timothy to set my main course down to clear the space and subsequently return with fresh silverware) my second dish of the afternoon would be a daily special listed on the board as “Lamb Shank Salad” and featuring finely shredded Braised Lamb Shank in a bowl with quinoa, broccoli rabbe, pickled onions, and a poached egg. Again prepared with the expected Thomas Keller level of precision and a lovely balance of bitter and savory mellowed by the creamy egg and a touch of acid from the pickled onions I will only note that the salad was rather small for $17, but given the quality of the ingredients and preparation plus the real estate it certainly was not substantially overpriced.
This time sitting, no exaggeration, for fifteen minutes with a dirty plate before me while Timothy first mixed a drink and then spent ample time chatting with a regular at the end of the bar about craft beers and computers I finally grew bored with the game and asked one of the other servers circulating in the bar to obtain my bill – a request that led to him going over to Timothy and asking him to get me the bill and Timothy subsequently coming over to see if he “might interest me in some dessert” – an offer I flatly declined (something I rarely if ever do) with a “just the bill” and on settling the tab sans gratuity I simply walked out with a bitter taste in my mouth but hopes that a visit to Bouchon Bakery next door could provide something sweet.
Having been warned that the selection at Bouchon Bakery Beverly Hills was much more limited than the other locations I was not surprised to find that the Bakery itself was in the exact same space as the “Pop-Up” from the previous Christmas, though the area had been converted from a round central “bar” to a proper pastry case. With the line short and three young ladies ready and waiting behind the counter I spent a few minutes perusing the options – mostly things I’d tasted at other Bouchons – and after asking a couple of questions I placed my order and made my way to the door to head back to the Beverly Hilton eating as I walked.
Beginning first with a seasonal item, one of Bouchon’s oversized Macarons noted as “Pumpkin Spice,” I was impressed as ever by the quality of Keller’s interpretation of the classic French cookie and its perfect crackling shell with a bit more chew than the textbook versions at Laduree but every bit as delicious. With the cookie itself mild and sweet with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove the interior of this specific macaron would prove to be duo – one third smooth vanilla cream and the other two stripes a heavily sweetened pumpkin puree with great texture and lots of spice. While I know some may say that Bouchon’s macarons are not “traditional,” they are still tasty and featuring more than just a single bite remain amongst my favorites.
Moving next to another pastry native to France – specifically to Brittany – the “signature” Kouign-Amann of this specific Bouchon Bakery would prove to be every bit the highlight item I expected and although not quite as mesmerizing as a couple of the ones I had in Paris (particularly the meal capper at Ledoyen) it was without a doubt one of the best pastries I had in all of Los Angeles. Somewhat similar to a croissant but yeasted for rise and imbued with sugar and butter between the innumerable layers this lovely $4 pastry would prove flawless to the tooth with a crackling lacquered shell giving way to a flaky but moist interior intense with French butter, plenty of sweetness, and just a touch of spice – it really did make me feel for a moment like I was back in Paris and if I lived locally it would be even more fantastic so I could arrive early, get one warm, and pair it with good coffee (something I never did manage to find in Paris.)
For day two of the conference lectures started early and “breakfast” after a long morning run down Wilshire, Canon, and Robertson would consist of leftovers from Joan’s the day before but with lunch consisting of steamer trays I opted to head back to the streets for brunch at The Nosh of Beverly Hills – a deli that seems to glean most of its attention from the location rather than the food but an “institution” I figured I should check out because I can’t imagine I’ll ever be in the area again without a car and because I noticed on my run that they had televisions and the Buckeyes were playing.
Making my way into the surprisingly large deli/coffee shop/bakery/breakfast nook to find it unsurprisingly full I spent a few moments browsing the baked goods before a short woman named Linda greeted me with a gruff voice and led me to a table – a table later usurped by another server and his patrons when I went to wash my hands thus leaving me with a restricted view of the television, but perhaps for the better as OSU ended up losing the game anyhow. With the restaurant busy and more-so loud I sat for a few moments before a menu was delivered and after that I sat quite a while longer taking in the scene.
Established in 1975 I can only imagine that not much save for the televisions have changed at The Nosh in the intervening 35+ years and all things being equal most of the service staff has been there just as long, if not longer. With the floors a bit too dirty and the service a bit too slow it would be nearly twenty minutes after seating that my order was taken, though water was filled by a young bus boy in the interim, and even after the order was placed it would be a good half hour before it arrived – a single item, reportedly cooked to order and entitled “The Mother of all Waffles with Vanilla Ice Cream.”
Described on the menu as a “delicious waffle smothered with lots of warm apple pie filling, streusel, and drizzled with caramel sauce…mom would be proud” when my Waffle finally did arrive my heart sank – sure the waffle itself looked nice, a golden buttermilk version fresh from the iron with a great crunch and plenty of chew, but the toppings hardly resembled “smothering” with any of the three ingredients though given the low quality of the canned pie filling, minuscule amount of streusel, and no detectable caramel sauce at all perhaps this was for the best. Served with a side of warm Ms. Butterworth’s (real syrup was an extra $1.50) and the supplemental ice cream ($2.00 for a scoop and a half of something clearly from a carton) I decided to make the best of a bad situation and consumed what I can only assume to be the largest single amount of High Fructose Corn Syrup I’ve had in the last 10 years before requesting the check – another fifteen minute adventure – and paying the $15 tab with tax and tip before making my way to the street thinking that maybe, just maybe, the anemic vegetables and beige chicken may have been a better (and certainly more economical) choice.
With two days of subpar breakfast behind me the last day of my conference would begin the same as the second – a ten mile run followed by leftovers from the previous day at breakfast, in this case cold Stella Rossa Pizza – and with the conference completed at noon I grabbed a rental car to begin the “vacation” portion of the trip with brunch at Suzanne Goin’s AOC, a spot long on my must visit list in Los Angeles as its menu always wowed me more than Lucuqes but a place that always seemed to fall just short of making my final list until the recently started offering brunch with reservations easily obtained via OpenTable.
With parking not exactly easy to find but eventually allocated without paying the valet I made my way into AOC having salivated over the menu for a while yet to my surprise I arrived to find the room nearly empty with only one table in the main room and one table in the secondary room occupied. With no one manning the hostess stand I stood for a moment before a tall gentleman would eventually poke his head out from behind the bar and subsequently stride up to confirm my reservation and lead me to my seat – a seat literally in the front window with the option to look out onto the street or into the entirety of the restaurant, the later my selection if for no reason other than to watch the restaurant work, and with that a paper-clipped menu was left for my perusal.
With the front page list of cocktails and the tome of wine passed over it would be a short while before my server, Aleia, would arrive and having already browsed the menu I inquired about the daily pastry selection before placing my order – a scone, a main course, and a “dessert” that she stated would be ‘quite a bit of food’ but an amount I assured her I could handle before she returned to the kitchen to place the order. Without belaboring service issues too much I will note here that although pleasant enough Aleia would prove to be largely inattentive during the course of my stay only arriving to deliver items and making it quite evident that it was not her job to bus tables, fill water, or to inquire about guests needs thus leaving dirty plates in place as she walked by with her nose in the air and glasses empty until the sole ancillary server stopped by with a pitcher.
With menu prices clearly a bit higher than the average brunch my first item from AOC would prove to be the most notable offense by far, a $4 cornbread and blackberry scone that although warm, fresh, and buttery was literally only three to four bites and certainly no better than other scones that cost far less elsewhere. Admittedly tasty with a toothsome texture and substantial complement of berries at $4 I would have at least expected some clotted cream or butter, neither of which were included or offered.
Moving next to my “main course” the food at AOC would continue to impress despite its high cost while service continued to lack as the “Toasted brioche with gruyère, prosciutto, frisée and egg,” would arrive still bubbling and beautifully presented. Essentially an open face Croque Madame with a single slice of brioche lacquered in gruyere and then piled high with frisee, a thin slice of ham, and a barely set egg plus plenty of salt and cracked pepper I have to admit that despite the fact that this was more salad than substance I really did fancy the flavors and textures – a bit bitter, a bit savory, but plenty creamy and with sharp notes from the perfectly aged cheese. While the argument that $14 for such a sandwich is outlandish can certainly be made I’ll simply note that the ingredients were top quality and leave it at that – I wouldn’t pay that much again, not compared to the version at Bouchon, but it was quite good.
After I enjoyed starring at my dirty plate and empty glass for approximately ten minutes while listening to the group in front of me discuss the previous night’s scene at the club one of the back servers would arrive to clear the dishes and pour me a refill of my water only perhaps a minute before my last dish would arrive – the “wood oven baked pain perdu with caramelized apples, smoked bacon, and maple syrup.” Again pricey at $14 and served in perhaps a 12oz iron skillet this dish would prove once again the kitchen’s talents and all things being equal it is one of the best French Toast preparations I’ve ever tasted. Beginning first with the bread – the same brioche as the croque if I’m not mistaken – the pain perdu itself was entirely saturated and baked to caramelization on the exterior while moist, dense, and custard-esque on the interior. Imbued with smoky notes both from the oven and from the bacon and topped lightly with nearly applesauce textured apples plus a sidecar of pure maple syrup this dish this dish was everything I’d hoped – sweet and savory to be sure, but moreso a veritable bread pudding with exquisite ingredients prepared exquisitely.
Again seated with an empty plate until I actually raised my hand (elementary school style) to get Aleia’s attention and the bill I found it somewhat astounding that she failed to realize just how little attention she was paying to the dining room but figuring that perhaps this was just the style of AOC I left an average tip and thanked her for the service just the same before making my way to the street, again past an empty hostess stand where a few customers stood waiting and appearing puzzled. With high quality to match the high prices and never one to let cost (within reason) get in the way of a great meal I guess most of my disappointment with AOC is simply the lackadaisical attitude of Los Angeles service in general but all things being equal when paying a premium I expect service to match the food, something that if AOC could provide would make it a truly exemplary brunch.
For my next breakfast in LA the day would start the same as any other but with my home base now moved from Beverly Hills to the Hollywood Hills my morning run would see me stride over nearly every star on the walk of fame (who knew Bob Hope had two?) past a number of theaters and attractions (Museum of Death, really?) and even part way up the hill before a quick car ride in relatively mild traffic would take me to the city of Glendale to visit Portos, a Cuban bakery long overlooked given my frequent visits to the Griddle Café but a place that seemed ideal on this particular morning after overpriced sit-down breakfasts the three previous days.
With the streets of Glendale largely empty at 8am on a Monday and metered parking available as far as the eye could see I made my way into Portos’ main entrance where I surprisingly found no line but rather three eager servers ready to take my order though with so many choices both in the pastry case and on the large menu hanging from above it was actually I who made them wait as I evaluated their choices and my capacity. Standing and starring for what must have been five minutes as I let a couple of other guests pass by I eventually made my way to the counter once I had a good idea of what I wanted and there I met Francisca, a pleasant lady so short she could barely look at me over the case but so full of great suggestions – some I’d already planned on and some where I just took her word for it – that I ended up walking away with 7 items plus a large coffee…at a grand total of $10.62.
Still surprised by the lack of a queue given the rumors I’d heard of hour plus waits at the 20,000 square foot establishment I took my selections next door to the seating area only then realizing that there was actually a second (smaller) pastry case and take-away counter slightly more busy and finding a seat amongst the crowd before subsequently moving outdoors to enjoy the weather (and decreased noise) I started my tasting of Portos 40+ year old recipes with perhaps their most famous item, a “Papa Rellena” or “fried potato ball” stuffed with seasoned ground beef. Never one to order beef if given a chance but agreeing to this given Francisca’s insistence I took a bite into the Rellena to realize that while I am still no beef convert this certainly was a tasty morsel with the exterior crisp without being greasy and the interior a shockingly pure and smooth potato puree dotted with bits of spicy ground beef. Having been given two of these small balls despite only asking for one I’ll admit I ate both quite quickly and would probably order them again just for the quality of the potatoes.
At this point outdoors and sipping my coffee, a surprisingly smooth blend with cinnamon and earthy tones despite its low price, I proceeded to another suggestion from Francisca – the Rellenito. Served piping hot and wrapped in white paper to sop up some of the oil this unique item was described as a sugarcoated sweet plantain filled with black beans and although I cannot say it was exactly what I expected it was really quite delicious. More a puree of black beans and plantain than either “filled” with the other the concoction was subsequently fried and rolled in sugar, a sweet on sweet yet also somewhat earthy and savory two bite item that could just as easily served as dessert (really, a banana split replacing the banana with a few Rellenitos sounds like an idea whose time has come.)
Moving on to the last of my hot items, the most “savory” of the group for sure, a Ham and Cheese Croissant would prove to be the weakest of my choices (I stress my choices as my server suggested the Cuban pork sandwich instead) not because it was bad, but because it was merely average and everything else was better. With the exterior soft and the interior crumb similar this was certainly not gourmet, just good old fashion cheddar and boiled ham in a buttery puff pastry – no more, no less.
With the next two selections also my own the Cinnamon Roll and Almond Danish would each prove to be good but not stunning versions of their namesake pastries with the cinnamon roll a bit more spicy that I’d have expected – perhaps a Chiapas cinnamon instead of a more mild/cheaper version – and not as sweet as one might expect while the Almond “Danish” was much closer to an almond croissant than a Danish with a golden crisp exterior and giving way to a cavernous center lightly tinged with frangipane and ample butter notes. While certainly not “Cuban” pastries by any means a nice example of the bakery’s skills and given the price each an absolute steal compared to other “French” patisseries.
For my final selection, a “must must try” according to Francisca, the “Pastelitos De Guayaba” or Guava Cheese Danish would not only disprove my general disinterest in cream cheese but also prove to be every bit as good as the rumors. Beginning first with the same golden puff pastry housing the Almond Danish and the Ham and Cheese Croissant this decadent traditional Cuban pastry upped the ante by combining the slight musky sweetness of guava puree with the tang of the cream cheese leading to a flavor something like fruit punch but smoother and sweet but not so sweet as to overwhelm the butter or the saline notes of the cheese. Truly a signature pastry and again an absolute bargain that left me walking away from Portos not only wishing I’d have gone years earlier, but wishing that I’d have saved my money the previous three days and just stopped by Portos on day one and bought enough to refrigerate for the weekend.
For my final breakfast I’d considered Griddle Café for my fifth visit but with lunch at Jitlada and dinner at Animal before flying out I decided against the density of pancakes or French toast and instead after a morning run that entirely by accident led me right past Jitlada I showered, packed up, and made the drive to a place some claimed to have the best croissants in all of Southern California – Amandine Patisserie, a small boutique pastry shop on Wilshire that I’d actually walked by on my visit a few years prior without knowing enough to stop in.
With traffic heavy on Santa Monica Boulevard and my arrival later than I’d have preferred I was thankful to find parking quite just down the street and after a short walk up the hill I found myself at the small storefront where a small sticky note greeted me with the words “cash only – credit system down” and making my way through the door I was surprisingly met with a line ten deep; both a blessing and a curse as this delayed breakfast even further after a particularly long morning run but at least gave me plenty of time to browse the options before reaching the counter where I was greeted by a rather terse yet pleasant woman who seemed to expect that I should know precisely what I wanted by the time I approached. Rather unhurried myself though carrying my laptop I ordered a few items I knew I wanted (including the last almond croissant) and after asking a couple questions about the unlabeled items I settled on a half dozen in total, some for now and some for later, before paying the $22 tab and finding a seat near the patio in back.
Clearly not considering that a downed credit card system also meant no free wi-fi (as advertised) but with plenty of food to keep me busy I started my morning with the smallest of my choices and biting into the “mini” butter croissant, a $1.25 crispy ball of butter with a shell that shattered and an interior that bounced back with each bite I quickly had to agree that this was the best croissant I ever ate in Southern California though perhaps not quite as good as some in Northern California, New York, or Paris which prove a bit more balanced with notes of sweet and salt occasionally punctuating the butter.
Moving next to a $2 scone that I normally would not have ordered but had to taste in order to compare to the one at AOC two days earlier my selection of a Blueberry Cornmeal Scone would prove to be every bit as large and flavorful as that at Suzanne Goin’s brunch but half the price, slightly sweeter, and packed with more fruit intermingling with the moist but crumbly pastry. A great scone by any justification and amongst the best I’ve ever tasted I fully realize that ordering a British treat at a French patisserie may not be terribly logical but trust me, if this one is on the menu it is well worth the modest price tag.
Having snatched the last Almond Croissant – still warm I might add – but with such a variety of the delightful flaky pastries I simply couldn’t settle for one so in addition to the mini butter croissant and the larger almond croissant I also picked up a Chocolate Almond Croissant and a Banana Chocolate Danish planning on some for now and some for later – a plan that actually worked out for once (although later was only a couple hours, to be fair.) Beginning first with the two croissants – slightly different in shape but very similar in texture in that both were of the split and double-baked variety – both would prove to be textbook and nearly on par with those in Paris. Sturdy enough to withstand a bit of pressure but shattering into a hundred flaky pieces to the tooth the texture of each was only trumped by the flavor, both bold and buttery with a lot of almond in the form of those sliced and a thin layer of frangipane and the chocolate almond version piped with a thick core that complimented without overwhelming.
Moving next to the Danish, quite similar to the croissant but heavier due to the inlaid banana compote and sliced caramelized bananas, this treat would prove just as good as the Croissants even if not quite as “balanced” and with the layers just as crisp and buttery along the exterior the soft and moist interior was intensely sweet yet somewhat mellowed by the almonds. Best taken in large bites incorporating the edge and center into a single mouthful this dish probably would have benefited from the fork and knife treatment as both my shirt and my hands ended up covered with powdered sugar but c’est la vie, it washed right off.
For my final bite of Amandine I debated whether the Choux Cream would last in the car and with the weather mid -60s I decided to take a chance on the softball sized $2.25 pocket of vanilla custard; a good choice that I would appreciate shortly after lunch as the crackling choux gave way to a hollow core stuffed with creamy custard aromatic with eggy notes and vanilla. Not the prettiest pastry after my assault with a spoon left over from Bhan Kanom, but delicious none the less and a fitting last taste to what is now my favorite pastry shop in Southern California and a place that I will undoubtedly return to on future visits to try the French Toast and fruit galettes – ideally when the credit card machine and internet are up and running.