Friday night after a crappy day. Made plans to have dinner with my friend P at Melisse’s. She is a regular and loves going there and who wouldn’t? Melisse has been at the corner of 11th and Santa Monica Blvd for over 10 years, the same unassuming building in the less trendy part of Santa Monica. The original room has been redecorated twice over time but it has maintained one of the most prized features in a restaurant – a brilliant acoustic so that no matter where you sit, you can have a pleasant conversation without having to shout or resort to sign language.
I am really tired and thinking of cancelling my date but I flaked so many times on poor P that the thought of picking up the phone and calling her is worse than dragging myself to the car and driving down the hill. This is a story about how the power of food can restore my faith in humanity, not to mention wipe away my less than stellar mood.
The first time I ever went to Melisse was when it first opened and I still had a fat expense account care of the record company I used to work for. A small mortgage might be necessary to afford Josiah Citrin’s food which explains the older crowd. I am surprised, in this time of economic crisis, to see such a high-priced restaurant completely packed, proof that wealthy people keep on doing very well and are not amongst the 10 million who lost their homes during the last 12 months.
P had promised we would only order appetizers and that is how she convinced me to go – I figured a couple of appetizers would cost as a meal anywhere else and would still be within my modest budget. I had forgotten she has been a customer for so long that she is on first name basis with the valet, who refuses to charge her (excellent, 6.50 saved) and our server, Ryan, sends more amuses than necessary to fill our bellies. Ryan first appeared in my life 13 years ago, when he was a surfer dude earning money at Mani’s Bakery as a server and I would go there in the morning for the outstanding oatmeal with fruit compote. Mani was the first sugar and wheat free bakery in town, long before Madonna made it fashionable, and his cookies sweetened with apple juice were more than edible, especially the ones dipped in chocolate. As all good things, it came to an end, Mani sold to someone else who wasn’t able to keep the same quality and Ryan disappeared from my life until last year when, re-entering Melisse for the first time in god knows how long, I saw the former surfer dude in a dark suit, hair cut short and we both froze in recognition. He is now a super competent server in a Michelin starred restaurant with a wide knowledge of food.
Josiah Citrin got his Michelin star last year, when the Guide decided to start covering our Western outpost. And that star is well deserved. My small meal was memorable – no more than memorable, it restored my confidence in humankind. If anyone can dream up such dishes and execute them to such perfection, something in the order of things is definitely right. Let’s take the explosion of flavors of the miniature size scallop on a sunchoke chip topped with black truffles – I could have eaten 10 more to dissect its complexity. The sea bass I ordered against the advice of the Monterey Aquarium who usually informs my decisions as to what fish is good practice to eat, is encrusted in potato, served with spring peas (I can’t even think where they might be coming from this time of the year) and spring garlic, with a vanilla emulsion and a bracelet of chanterelle mushroom and pansies. It is so delicious I wish it would stretch into forever, the bass barely cooked and still translucent in the center and the vanilla lending an unexpected but not overpowering pleasant sweetness. Dessert, which, at this point, I have to order, comes in a big oriental brown bowl – a disk of passion fruit sorbet, topped by a creamy and intense quenelle of coconut sorbet and laced with lemon grass tapioca. At that point, I am grateful to be alive, to have functioning taste buds and a credit card that, hopefully, will not let me down.
It might be another year before I cross Melisse’s threshold again but it will be worth the wait.