>Several of us south OC-ers decided to visit Ortolan for DineLA week. I was very excited about this restaurant since LA isn’t exactly a city brimming with Michelin-starred restaurants and having visited 2-star Michelin restaurant Melisse earlier this year, I was anticipating my visit to 1-star Michelin Ortolan (awarded in 2009) to be a similarly mind-blowing experience.
I had not perused a menu prior, but from previous experiences, I was expecting that an a la carte menu would also be offered if nothing appealed on the prix fixe menu, at least, that was what I thought would happen. Instead, Chef Christophe Eme had decided to fore go the regular menu all together and replace it with a prix fixe menu ($44) which we were all subjected to select from.
I was very impressed the minute I entered the restaurant. Not only was it absolutely gorgeous and tres tres chic, and as we were ushered to the back of the restaurant into the private room, I couldn’t help but notice the splendor of its main dining room, the classic elegance the restaurant exuded. It was highly reminiscent of restaurants I had frequented in the Big Apple and my heart raced at the thought of a fantastic night ahead.
After we were seated, I immediately noticed that something was off. Why were the bread plates set to the right of us instead of the left? Why were there scrolled up menus already in place? I asked if we had pre-selected a menu and everyone shook their heads. As I unfurled the menu, I recognized that it was the prix fixe menu, so I asked our server if I could have an a la carte menu as well, only to be told that Chef Eme was only serving this prix fixe for DineLA week.
Ahhh, yes, Chef Christophe Eme, husband to actress Jeri Ryan, who, with his apparently coveted resume basically “forced” upon us a prix fixe with a trio of selections for our dining “pleasure” — albeit, two items not available on the menu were offered for a supplement (egg caviar) and as a substitution (pan seared branzino).
Was it my naivete to have presumed otherwise? After all, this WAS a Michelin-starred restaurant right? This was a restaurant with ummm, well, a reputation? When I enter an establishment claiming to serve “haute cuisine“, I expect a certain level of finesse, of flair, from start to finish. I don’t expect that crescendo to appear at the beginning of the meal and going downhill from there.
After our party of five were seated — orders taken 10 minutes later purely due to our indecision — we were left sitting there for 30 minutes (34 to be exact) with only water from the initial pour and my glass of Sancerre to keep us company. The water glasses were quickly emptied and my wine pretty much down to the last sip and still, no bread, no appetizers, no food whatsoever. As we grew more and more restless, my friend Holly (Savored) caught one of the staff finally coming to check in on us and asked “does this restaurant not have bread”. The surprised man exclaimed “oh, you didn’t get any bread?”
As I’ve constantly been stipulating, bread is always the customer’s first introduction to a restaurant, and it needs to “wow”. For a Michelin-starred restaurant, the bread failed to impress — French, ciabatta, walnut raisin — common-place breads if you will, nothing shouted uniqueness.
Because some of us ordered a 3-course meal while others ordered 4- to 5-courses, our dishes were not served concurrently — and I understand that it would be impossible to pull that off — but might I add that there was no amuse bouche to tickle our taste buds before our first course arrived.
Egg caviar (supplement $28) was our starter. Now, mind you, I was still dreaming about the egg caviar at Melisse after 6 months and although I didn’t expect a Melisse-quality egg caviar, I wasn’t quite ready for this curdled mess I was faced with. How is it possible that they haven’t mastered scrambled eggs? Where was the refined texture? The delicacy from perfectly scrambled eggs reminiscent of puffy clouds? I took one taste and turned down the offer of a second tasting. To say it left a bad taste in mouth would be an understatement.
From the prix fixe‘s menu, tomato coulis, another appetizer was a refreshing difference. Served chilled, the accompanying yogurt sorbet’s slight tartness worked nicely with the tomato’s natural acidity, but the buffalo mozarella floating in the liquid was very dry, like the low-moisture log mozarella you can find at your local grocery store — the kind I usually buy to put in my lasagnas. These types of mozarella bake well but when served as is, can be miserably harsh to the palate. The dollop of pesto was flavorless, not what I would expect from a restaurant of this supposed calibre. My homemade pesto fared much better in comparison.
|open ravioli with scallops
Apart from that I was a little confused by this dish because the menu clearly stated that there would be a “honey crispy tuile” accompaniment which was non-existent and when I posed this to our server, she apologized and said that the kitchen had ran out of it. Run out? Does the kitchen not realize it has run out of an ingredient in a dish when plating? The question is, do you still go ahead and plate a dish knowing full well you will be omitting a key component and then serve it to your customer? What goes through the mind of the final inspector before the food is sent out? Does he or she hope that the diner may somehow overlook, or not notice that something is missing?
Serving a dish without an ingredient clearly stated on the menu description is false advertising. So you’ve run out! You’re a fully functioning kitchen! Make another crunchy component you can substitute it for, but DO NOT leave out an important textural component to the dish!!
The other appetizer selections were mushroom soup with seared quail and a halibut ceviche. While the halibut ceviche was probably the only redeeming factor in the array of appetizers we sampled — thinly sliced halibut with a hint of ginger, topped with micro cilantro and a quenelle of lemongrass sorbet, the mushroom soup was mediocre at best. The soup portion was thick and clumsy, and on its own, so ordinary in taste that the ‘parmesan emulsion’ served as a much needed accompaniment to this one dimensional starter. The adorning seared quail was meaty, but dry and a bit stringy.
At this point in our meal, we hadn’t been impressed by any one thing, let alone been wowed by it. So when the first of the second courses arrived, I wasn’t very hopeful.
|pan seared branzino
Open ravioli of seared scallops, yellow corn coulis and pumpkin gnocchi — the minute my knife touched the scallop I knew it was undercooked. It had that wobbly bounciness to it but I took a sliver to tasted anyway and my suspicions were confirmed — the scallops needed an extra 30 seconds in the pan. Don’t get me wrong, I love scallop sashimi, scallop ceviche, but the menu clearly says “seared scallops” and that’s what I expect when I put it into my mouth, that it is seared to its right temperature and not still raw on the inside.
This dish was an epic fail in every way. Scallops on their own should be the selling point, not the acoutrements, which by the way, were a confusing mess. Yellow corn coulis was infused with truffle which masked the natural fragrance of the corn and created a “neither here nor there” flavor aspect. The pumpkin gnocchi was undercooked leaving the center doughy and floury. However, to add insult to injury, there were grape halves and chestnuts thrown in — I mean SERIOUSLY? How exactly do all these things work together in creating a flavor balance to heighten one’s eating experience? The phrase “less is more” comes into play when I think of this culinary anomaly.
By now, as you can imagine, we were actually afraid of what the following dishes would be like. I’m certain the staff heard us complaining and I couldn’t believe my eyes when they brought us ANOTHER dish of scallops to somehow compensate for what had so far transpired. My mind was screaming “stop bringing us more food we didn’t order, let alone want to eat”, but we remained calm. Luckily, the second lot of scallops were cooked through, tender, but still, the same discombobulated accompaniments remained.
I knew my entree of pan seared branzino (or European sea bass, sometimes known as Mediterranean sea bass) was going to be a disappointment the minute they put it in front of me. It was cooked to a crisp so I wasn’t surprised that the flesh was dry. After my one and only bite of the branzino, I tackled the overcooked vegetables and swallowed the sprig of tasteless white asparagus (which by the way isn’t even in season) and took one taste of the vile eggplant puree before pushing my plate away.
The last entree selection — braised short ribs — was the only edible entree, served with polenta, olive and tomato confit. But having said that, it wasn’t a dish worthy of fine dining, let alone Michelin quality. This isn’t anything spectacular. It’s something I’d expect to find from a bistro-style or cafe-style restaurant. It just wasn’t the polished result of a dish worthy to be labeled “haute cuisine“.
Dessert time came and chocolate ganache was probably one of the most popular items of the evening. The brownie itself was good with a tasty chocolate ganache on top. The quenelle of chocolate sorbet had a bitter after-taste and the little biscuit it was sitting on was stale! So even though parts of this was a hit, it was also a miss.
The caramel panna cotta dessert I ordered was served — and I kid you not — in an empty caviar tin. This befuddled me to no end. I would’ve been okay had the panna cotta been exquisite, but this was no panna cotta. It was dense, thick and creamy, like creme brulee, and not a good one at that. It was amateurishly put together and topped with green apple flavored “caviar” spheres to give it a “tin of caviar” look. I took one spoonful and again, pushed it aside. There was nothing to this dessert except for its attempt in playing to the gimmicky illusion of opulence that Ortolan was trying to sell.
|caramel panna cotta
And that was it really, just an illusion. That mirage starts from the minute you walk through the doors to the time you sit down, after that, the beautiful imagery starts chipping away from every misnomer, misconception, mistake, mis-step, I could go on and on with this.
Maybe it was the condescending attitude of the sommelier towards Holly — someone I regard highly in the world of gastronomy — and his presumptuous suggestion that she was somehow unschooled in how wine pairings work with a meal? Perhaps it was the arrogance he displayed when we suggested that maybe they could remove the branzino from the final check because two of us found it too unappetizing to even consume? Or maybe, it was how he not only did not graciously accept that the meal was in fact an epic failure, but turned around and acted as if he was doing us a favor by removing one branzino “behind the chef’s back” (he returned the check to us unamended and insisted that it was already removed when it was part of our entree substitution) which finally broke THIS camel’s back.
In my 20 years of food writing, food critiquing, and food tasting experiences, I have never felt more humiliated or more disparaged as a paying customer. I never expect to feel castigated when I’m dining out, but at Ortolan, I felt the disrespect, the insulting final slap to the face when all we wanted was an enjoyable evening out with friends and eating some delicious food while doing so. Like I had stated at the beginning of my review, I was expecting a mind-blowing experience, I guess I got my wish, except, it wasn’t the kind of mind-blowing experience I was quite looking for.
*** Photography by Mahesh ***
Ortolan, 8338 W 3rd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90048. Tel: 323-653-3300