During my last visit to Los Angeles I took the advice of some “foodie” friends and visited Bistro LQ, the then-home of Chef Laurent Quenioux and his utterly fearless brand of cuisine; it was a meal that resonated a long time for a number of reasons, the best of which were the complex tastes and textures plus Chef Quenioux himself while the worst was the exasperatingly sub-par service throughout the night. Having heard that the restaurant had unfortunately shuttered its doors shortly after our meal but keeping an eye on Laurent’s exploits by way of the message boards and his facebook account I was well aware of his “fooding around” at Starry Kitchen and also familiar with his 18-Course white truffle menu from the previous year…but up until just over a week before I left for Los Angeles did I know that the two would just so happen to coincide with one of the five days while I was in town.
Having watched Quenioux’s menu updates over time and having contacted the chef to ask if any of the LQ@SK nights would be happening during my visit approximately a month before I departed for the City of Angels I was originally told by the chef that he was not yet sure (but to “Stay tuned”) and surprisingly asked not only if I’d be seeing a Kings game while in town, but also how my mother was doing – two facts he somehow remembered about me after a short conversation following my last visit. Clearly impressed by his memory and attention to detail it was around this time that I decided to sign up for the Starry Kitchen Newsletter and perhaps 2 weeks later was when the announcement of the truffle menu arrived – dates still not confirmed but eventually confirmed by Starry Kitchen owner Nguyen Tran to be $350 for 18 courses on both Monday and Tuesday night; pricey for sure, but a tab I was more than willing to pay not only for the Tuber magnatum but because Chef Quenioux had already made quite the impression.
Having managed to contact my dining buddy from ink (well before meeting him at ink) who also talked his brother into the evening at Starry Kitchen our dining time was set to be 7:00pm and despite getting caught up in the mess that was the Twilight Premier at the Nokia Theater when simply trying to shop at Staples Center I managed to find the location as well as parking at 350 South Grand Avenue an arrive to the restaurant just minutes prior to our reservation. With my name delivered to the young hosts as Soft Cell’s Tainted Love played overhead I was quickly led to a table, the first of my party to arrive, where I was subsequently greeted by Laurent as well as Nguyen, both all smiles and thanks promising a night of outstanding food and fun.
With my dining partners arriving moments later and bringing with them three bottles of wine (Starry Kitchen, a sandwich shop, clearly lacks a liquor license) including a 1978 Barolo, 2000 Kistler Cuvee Catherine, and 2006 Ulysse Collin Blanc de Blanc Champagne the alcohol was chilled and decanted with impressive care considering the locale and noting my lack of knowledge regarding wine I will say here that while the Barolo was largely DOA tasting more like prune juice than wine the other two were quite good and I drank more than I usually would, though considering the fact that we sat down at 7:00pm on 11/14 and left at 01:05am on 11/15 I really didn’t feel it at all. With pleasantries exchanged and Nguyen stopping by to say hello to my friends – who he incidentally remembered from a previous LQ@SK event – it was now just after 7:15, Genesis’ Invisible Touch was playing overhead, and it was time to get started.
Bearing in mind the location of Starry Kitchen, generally a takeout shop for Asian influenced wraps and sandwiches located in a rather business oriented sector of LA, I have to admit that unless they brought in special tables and chairs for the event I was actually quite impressed by the appearance of the place. Sure there was a Coke machine, chalkboards, and clever phrases around the room and the ceiling was largely exposed with bare concrete floors but the service ware was respectable and all things being equal the service was better than much of Los Angeles, fine dining or not. With the kitchen small and cramped but open to watch the team work it would be a short while before our first bites would arrive and as we waited we munched on a basket of bread provided by the nearby bread lounge – a relatively standard French baguette with mildly fruity olive oil whose duty was mostly sopping up sauces, a job it performed admirably.
With conversation flowing and the kitchen working quickly but under great control our first course would arrive as a duo of boozed up spoons entitled “Truffle Gel 2-ways: Vodka and Gin.” Apparently joined by a third (Tequila) the following night these modernist spherifications included the noted alcohols plus fruit – huckleberry with the vodka and mandarin orange with the gin – and shavings of white truffle that came through in abundance moments after the finish. A clever amuse and although a bit similar to that at Providence the night before a nice way to start.
For course two, “Cucumber Ice Cream, Blis Salmon Roe, Blinis, Truffles” would arrive and as a sort of Greek tzatziki spin on the classical caviar presentation with the cool cucumber and tangy yogurt supplying a nice backdrop to the brine of the eggs. With the buckwheat blini a bit toothsome and plenty buttery I particularly appreciated the way the Sherry Vinegar highlighted the eggs but unfortunately this was one of a couple dishes during the evening where the flavor of the truffles got lost in the otherwise lovely presentation.
With 17 more courses to go, dish three would prove to be perhaps THE dish of the evening and certainly the first “wow” moment of the night. Titled “Cold Poached Quail Egg Mold in Oxtail Aspic with Sunchoke, Fresh Truffles” and aromatic with shaved white truffle on the outside and a slice of truffle inside as well what truly set this dish off was actually the jellied egg laced with sunchoke puree and how it balanced lightly with the gamey gelatin. Deep and heady on its own and certainly enhanced by the truffles a touch of maple jus and micro orchids lent just a touch of sweetness and the slightest bit of levity to this otherwise powerful composition.
Getting a bit more aggressive with both the portion and preparation of the truffles as he progressed “Truffle Pana cotta, Sea Urchin Emulsion, Tosaka Seaweed” would prove to be another favorite for the evening with the panna cotta a veritable cloud of truffle essence and acting to support surprisingly thick slices of the truffle resting atop a tongue of fresh Santa Barbara Sea Urchin. Not shy to focus on the semi-sweet brine of the urchin the base of the plate was further filled with a creamy uni emulsion mixed with snappy seaweed – a nice vegetal note largely serving to add texture to the otherwise light and creamy dish.
Course five was definitely a new one; let’s just say that you don’t see raw rabbit on too many menus here in the states but there it was in the form of “Rabbit Tartar with Truffle, Celery Root Truffle Remoulade, Argan Oil Vinaigrette.” Velvety and lean like quality sashimi yet with just a slight nutty tone the rabbit itself would prove quite tasty, but what put this course on the map was its crust, one of pure white truffles and just a touch of black pepper. Aromatic and splendid – one of the dishes you could smell before it even hit the table – and paired nicely with a touch of acid and the slightest note of bitter from the vinaigrette and remoulade this would be another of the most memorable courses of the evening.
Course six would be the weakest of the evening for me largely because not only could I not detect the truffles (aside from visually) at all, but also because it was the only dish of the evening that felt really unidimensional. Titled “Green Daikon and Dungeness Crab, Serrano Ham Pico De Gallo” this course featured delicate crab meat rolled inside a daikon ‘Cannoli’ over a base of saline ham, tomato, and maybe a bit of pepper. With the ham clearly well sourced but perhaps allowed to meld just too long with the rest of the salsa it simply became the dominant tone of the plate leaving everything else a bit lost on the palate.
Course seven, “Scottish Hare Truffle Consommé – Boudin Blanc, Hare Shu-Mai” would arrive next and aside from the consommé being a bit tepid (something that we mentioned and was instantly remedied for the next service) it was quite stunning – another one of those dishes where the aromatics hit you from ten feet away. Beginning first with the consommé, clearly imbued with both truffle and stock from the Hare, it was deep and complex while still clear and clean – a brilliant balance. Moving next to shu-mai, deep and rich with just a bit of game, and then to the Sweetbread Boudin Blanc which was probably the smoothest white sausage I’ve ever tasted this was the sort of dish that reminded me of something I would have found in Paris from the likes of Gagnaire or Robuchon.
Another very “Robuchon-esque” dish would arrive next in the form of “Truffle Lobster Tapioca Pudding, Diver Scallops, Green Tea Sabayon” and having experienced Laurent’s use of tapioca as a textural component in savories during my meal at Bistro LQ I was again impressed as the light pearls danced with the aromatics of the white truffle and sweetness of lobster while the scallop was nicely prepared to crisp on the exterior with the inside still jiggly and tinged by the slight bitter of the sabayon and just a touch of clove flavor imparted from micro red shiso leafs.
Sticking with a progression from soup to pudding to something a bit more substantial the next dish, “Truffle Congee – Spiny Lobster, 24 months Comte Cheese” came with great expectation after the previous congees on this trip but also just a touch of trepidation as spiny lobster has managed to disappoint me even in the hands of stellar chefs (Boulud for one) in the past; Thankfully any worry dissipated as soon as I took a bite. Essentially showing exactly what happens when you put exquisite ingredients in the hands of an great chef and don’t try to over think it this dish was simple but breathtaking – the rice tender with a bit of toothsomeness and heady with the notes of truffle and aged cheese while the lobster was crisp, snappy, and intensely sweet. If only the portion size were as big as that at Red Medicine I think I could have probably just ended the meal right here and left a very happy man.
Passing the halfway point around 10pm “Monkfish Cheek, Hazelnut Butter Vinaigrette, Leeks, Truffles” would start our progression into some heavier protein dishes with a bang – at least for two of us. Serving up some of the largest fish cheeks I’ve ever seen it took a lot of guts in my opinion for LQ to present such a fibrous protein whole but cooked till tender I found mine to be quit lean, muscular, and with just a bit of brine perfectly balanced by the slight sweetness of the hazelnut butter which carrying the truffle essence to the palate. A rather simple presentation and lightly topped with a bit of opal basil it was unfortunate that one of my dining partners received a less than forgiving piece of cheek with far too much fiber making it chewy. Pointing this out to Nguyen when he came around it should be noted that the owner agreed and returned the cheek to the kitchen only to be told by Laurent that it was indeed appropriately cooked – an assessment I still don’t agree with, especially when compared to mine.
For course eleven Chef Quenioux treated us to something classic but done up in a whole new way with “Scrambled Eggs, Truffles, Nopales, Truffle Mole.” Beginning first with the classic pairing of French style scrambled eggs (IE soft, runny, cream and butter) plus ample white truffles this was another aromatic masterpiece but instead of stopping the dish there the chef added in the lightly cooked cactus which added a rich vegetal component like that of a pepper without the heat and the mole – a deep and complex reduction of spices and pan jus that added just a mild bit of earthy funk.
After taking a walk to the restroom (outside, across the pavilion, and requiring a key) only to realize on returning that even the air on opening the door to Starry Kitchen was heavy with the smell of truffles the next course to arrive would be one I hadn’t been so sure about when I read the description but a course that would again prove Laurent’s skill; Oxtail and Truffle Grilled Cheese. Assuming that there was no way the truffles could shine through such a hefty protein the presentation of this dish made such worries inconsequential by separating the issues – on one hand there was the delightfully collagenous and supple oxtail served in a truffled broth along with radish and sea beans and on the other was the aromatic and buttery pan de mie sandwich laden with molten Saint Nectare tinged with chopped truffles.
Using one of his preferred cuts of beef, the sirloin cap, Chef would next present Beef Bone Marrow Toast, Beef Culotte, Truffles, Huckleberries and as I’m not much for beef all I can say is that this 2oz slice was nicely prepared and textured but really done no benefit by the truffles which could not be tasted at all when eaten with the culotte. Moving past the beef and onto the other constituents of the plate I will say that I enjoyed to textural contrast of the crisp toast and creamy marrow while the huckleberries did a nice job of blunting the beefiness of the dish but still did no flavors to the truffles.
Served up for our 14th plate of the evening another sparkling dish with an impressively large protein component would arrive as “Wood Pigeon from Scotland, Fresh Fig, Green Lentils, Parsnip, Miso, Nameko” and with my tablemates receiving leg and thigh my portion included breast, neck, and head of the gamy bird, nicely cooked and quite lean resting in a truffled miso soup laden with lentil, parsnip, and earthy mushrooms. A heavy dish but with the hot (Nguyen joking that it was “boiling hot” forcing them to carry the silver pitchers with pot-holders) broth carrying the aromatics high and wide the fig was a much needed bit of sweetness particularly as I dissected the bird and the soup became red with the retained juices.
For our final savory, course fifteen would present Veal Sweetbreads, Duck Foie Gras Soft Taco, Chanterelles – talk about gilding the lily. Small but dense this dish began with a pillowy tortilla resting atop chanterelle mushrooms cooked down with butter and a touch of truffles and then proceeded to pack the tortilla with two of my favorite ingredients, each prepared with the utmost care and nicely balanced despite their characteristic individual hefts. While I cannot say I really tasted the truffles sprinkled atop the taco I could most assuredly smell them and as a simple exercise in excess at the end of an excessive meal I really liked this dish.
In traditional French fashion we were given a small salad prior to cheeses and desserts and while “Purslane Salad, curdle yolk, Truffles” is not going to be the dish that most remember most fondly from this extravaganza I quite liked it as a sort of palate cleanser considering the power of the previous courses. With the purslane something akin to spinach in texture but with a bit of acid and the “curdle yolk” tasting something like mayonnaise meets yogurt the heady truffles were rendered quite notable here once again.
Billed as an 18-course truffle dinner it was good fortune that the meal would actually turn out to be nineteen courses with the seventeenth consisting of LQ’s famous cheese cart; a bit of a sore point on my visit to Bistro LQ as the quality and quantity were there but our server’s knowledge of the selections was downright appalling. This time with the cheeses all labeled and our server much more diligent we were allowed five selections from the 40+ present and with truffled options brought in specifically for the evening we chose a 24-month Comte, Cancoillotte, Brillat savarin, Banon de Chalais, and Tourmalet plus a variety of accoutrements including braised rhubarb, poached cranberry, blueberry vanilla compote, pumpkin ginger puree, kumquats, fennel, truffled honey, toasted hazelnuts, and walnut bread. With the cheeses all nicely aged and myself opting for selections I’d not yet experienced I personally enjoyed both the Banon and the Tourmalet a great deal while the Compte was a very generous slice with great flavor as well.
Moving on to desserts the first would be an interesting Mexican inspired dish from the French Chef entitled “Truffle Tamale “Elote” and Truffle Steamed Milk” and with ample slices of truffle both atop the edible cake and within its creamy sweet corn filling this dish would prove a lovely setup for what followed but also a delicious course its own right as the tamale shaped cake was as light as a Twinkie and the steamed milk so intensely fragrant with white truffles that I probably drank the single mouthful in ten sips in order savor the aroma.
For the last dish of the evening we were warned, needlessly, that this would be the most “intense” course of the evening – I say needlessly because you could literally smell this dish from a table-length away as the group next to us ate theirs. Entiled “Beer taffy, Truffle and Barley Ice Cream, ‘Hop Caramel Fleur de sel Cremeux,’ Beer Truffle Varnish and topped, stuffed, imbued, and lacquered with white truffles this was astonishing. Generally not a fan of beer as I find its flavor a bit overwhelming and bitter this dish negated that not only with the potency of the truffles but also by balancing everything with a substantial degree of sweetness and mild salinity. With the cremeux akin to a savory panna cotta and exploding with hops while barley ice cream acted to lend some balance the true stunner of this dish was the varnish and taffy components, each strong in the hops department but dramatically more so in the truffles which were almost (and I stress almost) too potent when taken on their own but marvelous along with the dish’s other components.
Plenty full of both wine and food and with the new day already an hour old we sat and talked for a bit while the kitchen engaged in their cleaning ritual and with Kansas’ “Carry on the Wayward Son” playing overhead we settled the bill and made way to our feet. As one of the last few tables still occupied we stopped to chat with Nguyen who himself still looked awake and upbeat and we then made our way towards the back to chat with Chef Quenioux himself – ever pleasant and gracious but clearly worn out after a long night and with plans to start preparation for act two in less than twelve hours.
An epic meal both in concept, length, and quality I left Starry Kitchen that night impressed as ever by Laurent’s talents and although I cannot say every dish was superlative the vast majority were and while I cannot say every single dish benefited from the truffles, they certainly never hurt. As it is always difficult to place a “price” on an experience or on exotic ingredients I can say that even without the truffles I would have preferred the vast majority of our 19 courses that evening more than the vast majority I had at a couple of Michelin ** and *** star restaurants in Paris and in Napa earlier this year and as such the $350/pp tab inclusive of tax and tip was well deserved, particularly to such a great chef and host. While in the future I think it may behoove LQ to consider overloading some dishes with truffles while simply leaving them off others I certainly would not hesitate to visit him, no matter what kitchen he is in, for a dozen or more courses of his uncompromised and beautiful cooking again.