NoMad Hotel: Lobby

The Place
The NoMad Hotel
649 South Olive Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014

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It’s an open question as to precisely who is cool enough to be seen in the new NoMad Hotel.

The lobby is a sight.  Entering, you’ll feel like you’re walking onto the set of a Luhrmann film.  It’s cartoonishly opulent with vaulting, ornate ceilings, stuffed game birds perched in the center of the action, gaudily printed sofas, filigreed mezzanine (home to another, more serious restaurant), and a flower arrangement that might best be described as the vegetational equivalent of a Kanye West album.  Think Hearst Castle if the decorative chaos were a smidge (but only just) more contained.

The menu is equally explosive.  Four pages of cocktails, including shareable affairs, ensure that all who take a table here leave lubricated.  The dinner offerings, while leaner, are as eclectic as the decor.  Scallops, diced, soaked in yuzu, and sprinkled with toasted pistachio, live right next door to boneless hunks of fried chicken with chili-lime yogurt.

I don’t doubt that the culinary spirit behind this restaurant is genuine.  But when you walk into the lobby, there is a moment after you’ve met the eye of the statuesque concierge, before the warm–is it contrived?–smile breaks, where you’ll feel an almost imperceptible sense that he or she is looking straight through you.  It may be that you aren’t being judged for your “swagger” (whatever that actually means).  But you also wouldn’t be totally off the reservation if you felt as though you were.

But anyway, I found myself in this den of practiced cool, nestled beneath that maximalist flower arrangement, nursing a cocktail made with beets and bourbon (followed by one with pisco and sheep’s milk, which I humbly but enthusiastically urge you to work up the courage to try), flanked by a viciously haughty European couple on one side and a duck-facing pair of selfie-snapping millennial girls on the other, imbued with the singular tranquility of a man utterly out of his element but who draws deep comfort from the knowledge that he has more than what he needs to feel at home: his best girl and a cheeseburger.

The Order: Dry-Aged Beef Burger

The Price: $22

The Burger
When I consider how ostentatious the decor is, and how concerned every person in this establishment seemed with their appearance, I’m even more shocked at the unpretentious simplicity of this burger.  It is served on a board with only a few spears of lightly pickled and sagitally cut root vegetables accompanying it.  The patty is thick–I’d guess somewhere between one-third and one-half of a pound before it feels fire–and medium-rare red.  And to be sure, the patty will remind you of the virtues of eating a dish like a cheeseburger at a restaurant that styles itself as high cuisine.  The preparation was close to immaculate: it was juicy but not overly bloody, and the patty was substantial and structured without being too gamey; after a few moments in your mouth, it yields to the amylase and melts gracefully, retreating to the background to let the cheese and red onion take center stage.

Those three ingredients play harmoniously with one another, with the sauce acting as a true garnish more than a driver of flavor: it’s aromatic and textural, contributing to the mouthfeel of each bite rather than dominating the taste.  Like a perfectly crafted martini, you’ll be constantly amazed at the degree to which preparation, ingredient quality, and balance influence the quality of a burger.  And not unlike a cocktail, this burger is no better than its worst ingredient, which, in this instance, is the bun.  That is not to say the bun is affirmatively bad, but it certainly is nothing special.  This burger yearns for a less obtrusive bun; something with less volume, something less present.  If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself thinking of what might have been if they’d swapped out the brioche for an English muffin.  Sure, that’s a little 2007, but the food isn’t supposed to be trendy–just the people.

Right?

In any event, I wouldn’t recommend skipping the burger, but I also would have trouble begrudging your decision to get another Sakura Maru instead and then take your leave of the cool kids and wander over to Halal Guys.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 6.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.10 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 8.20 / 10.00
Bun: 7.50 / 10.00
Patty: 9.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.70 / 10.00

Total: 87.00 / 100.00

 

Love & Salt

The Place
Love & Salt
317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

Love & Salt
You probably can’t live in Manhattan Beach.  The prices are too high; the lifestyle is too idyllically Californian; the people are too beautiful for their age; the parking is too scarce.  Most importantly, perhaps, the quality restaurants are too few.  While higher dining options exist – M.B. Post, Fishing With Dynamite, and the subject of this review, Love & Salt – the culinary scene in Manhattan Beach would perhaps most aptly be characterized as “family friendly.”  Perfect if you like Pitfire Pizza, less so if your preferences skew toward street food, fusion or small plates.

But Manhattan Beach really does encapsulate the Southern California lifestyle, or at least what many people outside Southern California would imagine our lifestyle to be.  It’s mostly white, mostly rich, mostly sunny, mostly upscale, mostly clean, mostly successful, and mostly USC alumni.  It exemplifies the relaxed affluence that is more closely associated with Southern California than with anywhere else.  You’ll spot an off-puttingly muscular forty-something year old man strolling down Manhattan Beach Boulevard with impossibly adorable children, his bronze arms bursting from Rip Curl t-shirts, salt-and-pepper hair cut close, smiling through his Maui Jim sunglasses at the cards life dealt him.  And just when you think you might live a life like his one day, you see the glint of the alabaster dial on his $20,000 watch as it catches the sun just so, and you’ll remember that this is not your place.

In spite of being inaccessible, though, I can’t shake the feeling whenever I’m in Manhattan Beach that there’s something missing there (besides minorities, I mean).  It’s a city that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.  It’s beachy, it’s Californian, there’s a Marine Layer, and the schools are top-notch, sure, but it feels fundamentally anti-urban.  It’s oddly devoid of genuine culture.  It’s an ecosystem, not a city.

If you’re looking for a B(a)esha Rodell-approved break from the blocks upon blocks of suburban ennui (and you are lucky enough to find a parking spot), you might stop in at Michael Fiorelli’s Love & Salt.  Chef Michael Fiorelli’s food is described by the restaurant as Italian-inspired, but “with a California soul.”  It may be that soul animating the splash of salsa verde on the grilled octopus, or (depending on how forgiving you feel) the presence of gluten-free pasta.  Good-natured ribbing aside, the food here is good.  The cocktails are excellent as well.  It may not be the most innovative menu in the world, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.

One item for which Love & Salt has become quietly regarded is a burger, which was inspired neither by Italy nor the restaurant’s soul, but rather by a particularly intransigent regular customer who persisted in ordering a burger in spite of there not being one on the menu.  Chef Fiorelli finally relented and, using what ingredients he had on hand, he served what is now known as the Downlow Burger.  It recently received sterling plaudits from local tastemakers, so I predictably felt compelled to sample it.  In the spirit of its origins, the Downlow Burger remains off the menu (as in, on the down low) at dinner, but they make a limited run of twelve per day during weekend brunch.  Calling ahead to request a set-aside is advisable.  Kelsey, Kristen, Tristan and I did just that, and took in a Saturday brunch there.

The Order: the Downlow Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
The Downlow Burger consists of two substantial black angus beef patties, fontina cheese, caramelized onions, housemade pickles, and a tomato aioli, all on brioche.  Probably the highest praise I can heap on this burger is that it presents like a cousin of Petit Trois.  It’s a saucy, paradoxical thing: minimalistic but indulgent, familiar but challenging, understated but brazen.  Like Ludo’s masterwork, it eschews typical garnishment in favor of fewer, bolder flavors, assembled purposefully to complement one another.

The beef is the anchor, and though it was overcooked (and therefore a touch gritty), it was juicy and bursting with savor that stabilized every bite.  The fontina cheese added a lightly botanical quality, while its fruit and nut notes seeped into the meat, giving it a subtle sweetness that interacted well with the caramelized onions, the residual tang of which, in turn, married nicely with the delicate sourness of the pickles.  The buns hold everything together, but don’t impress too much in their own right.

The really impressive choice here was the tomato aioli.  While the tomato flavor was the right call, ketchup would have been too ham-fisted, too obvious, too sharp, and it wouldn’t have fit in the context of this burger, which decidedly is aiming for gourmet status.  By presenting the tomato as an aioli, Fiorelli manages to present the right flavor, but with a softer touch.  It’s a really sophisticated, thoughtful, creative stroke, and it elevates this burger and preserves a balanced flavor profile.  It’s no bordelaise sauce mounted with foie gras, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 9.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.20 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.60 / 10.00

Total: 90.80 / 100.00

Errata: Cassell’s Hamburgers

There is a line in Sophocles’ Antigone that has stuck with me.  It is a scene in which Creon seeks Teiresias’ advice regarding whether or not to free Antigone.  Teiresias tells the ruler, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil.  The only crime is pride.”  Now, I haven’t imprisoned my niece to reinforce gender roles or intemperately deployed the power of government in the context of familial conflict.  Nor have I forsaken the bonds of marital and paternal love to preserve an imagined or preferred political order.  But I like to think Teiresias’s advice is more generally applicable.  Because, you know, parables.  Right?

Anyway.  As I’ve accrued some modicum of experience in my life, I’ve had occasion to look on my past with a more critical eye.  By an large, I’m proud of the way I conducted myself.  But there are exceptions.  When one cannot or does not act to rectify past errors – to “repair the evil” – those exceptions have a way of blooming into regrets.

Having just hit a milestone, agewise, I think the time is right to come clean about an error I made early in this project.  I went with Greg and Lemi to Koreatown’s Cassell’s Hamburgers, a bustling diner nestled in the first floor of the Hotel Normandie.  I talked about how I didn’t feel as though Christian Page was reaching his potential with the burger he offered.

 

That review is, quite literally, the only one I look back on and regret.  I like to think (perhaps self-indulgently) the evaluations presented on this Project range anywhere from eminently fair to downright authoritative.  The Cassell’s review marks the lone occasion where I deviated from basing my judgment on the food on the plate.  So, in the spirit of not committing the only crime, I went back to Cassell’s with Kelsey, Kristen, Nikhil, and Tracy.  And now, I’m back before you with my proverbial hat in hand, to give Cassell’s the reconsideration it deserves.

The Burger
The chuck-brisket patty was even better than I remembered.  Flavorful, tender, and rich, it burst with juicy personality, courtesy to that nearly 70 year-old crossfire broiler.  The garnishes were as fresh as I remember.  Everything was as it was on my prior visits.  I won’t regurgitate here what I’ve written before.  If you want to read it, follow the link above.  Besides, it’s not really my sense of the burger’s quality that has changed, per se.  There are a couple of things about that review, though, that bother me.

The first problem is that I docked the burger for not “hitting its potential.”  In addition to being a maddeningly vague and subjective feeling that I struggled then (and struggle now) to justify, it’s just kind of irrelevant.  There’s not a dish that’s been cooked that couldn’t be improved somehow.  We can’t judge dishes (or anything, for that matter) on the basis of what it could have been.  We have to look, first and last, a what a thing is.  That matters more.  And what Cassell’s is, is a delicious burger–one of the best in the city.

The second problem isn’t one I could have anticipated as I penned the review initially, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Cassell’s stacks up much more formidably than I expected against the other burgers I’ve had since.  When people ask me what the best burgers in the city are, this one always comes to mind.  That’s got to count for something.

I get it.  It’s not like I’ve imprisoned one of my nieces.  There has been no mortal sin committed here.  It’s not as though I got drunk on power and perpetrated some monstrous act of megalomania.  I just docked a burger a couple points unfairly.  But a mistake is a mistake, and if this Project is to be worth relying on, you all have to know you can trust me to recognize my mistakes and correct them as they arise.  The only crime is pride.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.50 / 10.00
Patty: 9.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.40 / 10.00

Total: 91.20 / 100.00

The Habit Burger Grill

The Place
The Habit Burger Grill
Various Locations

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Image courtesy of TripAdvisor

You may remember The Habit made waves a couple years back.  Playing the role of dark horse to perfection, the Santa Barbara-based West Coast mainstay placed first in Consumer Reports’ fast-food survey, beating out other local heroes like In-N-Out (spoiler alert: that’s unvarnished sacrilege), and larger outlets like Steak ‘n Shake and Smashburger.

Now obviously, it’s far from clear that you, I, or anyone else should trust or defer to the culinary preferences of people who only got a say because they subscribe to Consumer Reports (like, consider how many people you know who subscribe to Consumer Reports).  Having said that, the people surveyed ate almost 100,000 meals between them.  So if nothing else, there’s a good amount of data behind this survey.

For a burger chain you’ve probably never heard of, the Habit is quite an old mainstay.  It was founded in 1969, and has since steadily expanded throughout California, creeping into Arizona and Utah as well.  It migrated east into New Jersey recently too, but it’s still definitely a child of the West.  With thanks to Juno for making it possible, Bret and I took five from work to grab this old standard for lunch.

The Order: Double Charburger with Cheese

The Price: $4.95

The Burger
For such a well-established outfit, The Habit certainly has escaped widespread attention or acclaim.  That might have something to do with its sort of silly branding (their truck invites you to “Get up in [their] grill” – see what they did there?), or the fact that it just sort of feels like a shoddy fast casual restaurant.

Far from the heaven-white, spit-shined gleam of an In-N-Out burger, the hidden gem illicitness of a Burgerlords, or even the ruddy and unvarnished appeal of the Oinkster, The Habit’s brick and mortar spots have all the charm of, like, a T.G.I. Friday’s.  You’ll find them nestled in shopping blocks, flanked by, say, a Nordstrom Rack and HomeGoods.  It’s almost impossible to take seriously, especially for a well-heeled foodie type.  One expects servers with pique polos covered in buttons, fried onions fashioned into crisp flowers, seafood from oceans unknown, and steaks whose origin is impossible to discern.

At first blush, you might be struck by what feels like a too-expansive menu, replete with salads nobody ought ever order, an odd albacore sandwich that is just strange enough to intrigue (but not intriguing enough to order), and some curious sides (tempura green beans, anyone?).  While it’s probably true that the menu would benefit from a good editorial trim, there is enough weirdness on this menu to suggest an undercurrent of sophisticated curiosity that might make this burger worth trying.

Readily, I will admit my anticipatory scorn was building heavily as I approached this burger.  In a swell of self-congratulatory elitism, I prepared to dismiss the Consumer Reports survey result as just some sampling tomfoolery, reflecting the unsophisticated preferences of some culinary neophytes who lack the time, mind, or means to frequent the truly good restaurants.

Sadly, this is not (entirely) a redemption narrative.  I was undoubtedly being unfair (and a big jerk) in my preconceptions about The Habit.  That survey was, after all, just a survey about fast food.  But in aid of crystalline clarity, let me state this unequivocally: this is not the best burger – fast food or otherwise – in this city, let alone the country.  It is, however, a well (not perfectly) executed Californian classic, certainly much better than you might expect from the kitschy look of the place.

Envision a slightly heftier, meatier iteration of the (still comfortably superior) Double-Double with a worse bun, and you’re in the Habit’s airspace.  The bun is a simple white bread bun with the lightest kiss of sweetness.  It was slightly dry but adsorbent enough to keep things from getting messy.  The lettuce was  shredded, flirting with the mayonnaise and the pickles hidden below, creating a piquant and crisp cushion to anchor the whole flavor profile of the burger.  The tomato wasn’t exactly market-fresh, but gave a juicy enough punch.  The caramelized onions were a nice touch, sweet and sharp on the tongue without being too soupy (though they were a bit stringy and hard to eat).

The Habit distinguishes itself – for better or worse  – in the size of the patties.  They are massive crisped discs of beef, with slabs of melted cheese draped over them like fire blankets.  They are big enough to decisively take center stage in the flavor profile of this burger without completely drowning out the other ingredients.  True to the burger’s name, they have a solid char, which gives a distant savory bitterness to the front-end of every bite.  Sadly, they’re also a bit overcooked, which dries them out a fair amount.  What the patties bring to the table in flavor, then, is sort of ruined by their textural deficiencies.  And given their sheer size, these faults are tough to ignore, and aren’t really balanced by the burger’s other virtues.

Having said all that, I can understand why the Habit would have gotten itself something of a following.  It’s an undeniably excellent deal at the price point – value-wise, it definitely falls in the same category as In-N-Out.  And it probably deserves to be slotted in with that class of burgers that are “slightly better than fast food” but “not really gourmet.”  And it handily beat out my elitist preconceptions.  But you should quickly disabuse yourself of the notion that the Habit can lay a finger to In-N-Out.  I have mulled over that result for a good long time, and have come no closer to a colorable explanation for it.  But the fact remains that while I may never understand how the Habit beats out In-N-Out in the minds of the Consumer Reports readership, it isn’t difficult to understand the restaurant’s appeal.  It may be overblown, but it isn’t undeserved.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 8.40 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.00 / 10.00

Value: 9.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 7.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 8.40 / 10.00

Total: 83.00 / 100.00

Fritzi

The Place
Fritzi
814 Traction Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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I remember when Give Up by the Postal Service came out.  I was a sophomore in high school.  It was before winter formal.  That particular winter formal was to be a rare triumph for me in the romance department.  I took one of the prettiest and most popular girls in the freshman class.  Unfortunately, as it turned out 1) I wasn’t very attractive (please indulge my optimistic use of the past tense), 2) she was out of my league, 3) I’m inveterately and painfully awkward, and 4) teenagers are a heartless sort.

The result: she bolted as soon as we arrived, and spent the entire evening with confident, attractive junior alpha males who played sports and got bad grades.  Meanwhile, I, the archetypal beta male, sat on a bench staring into a swimming pool, waiting for high school to end, and playing various tracks from Give Up in my head to pass the time. This admittedly depressing scene was interrupted when I was rescued by my friend David and his date Sara (incidentally, about halfway through “Clark Gable”).

I still wonder why that album came into my head, especially considering my tortured relationship with it.  I hated to like Give Up.  See, some Death Cab for Cutie fans were nervous when Give Up dropped (these were the Sub Pop days, when Death Cab fans were less numerous and more proprietary than today’s breed).  Publicly, we worried side projects portend artistic restlessness, or worse, stagnation, that they threaten to reveal a beloved artist reduced to repackaging old ideas instead of presenting new ones.

Privately though, we’d admit that our real issue wasn’t artistic; it was that side projects have the whiff of infidelity.  Death Cab fans liked to envision Ben Gibbard poring over ragged spiral notebooks scribbling the lyrics to the next “A Lack Of Color,” not seeking new modes of expression.  Him having another band felt like a betrayal.

What an odd feeling. It’s not as if I didn’t love Ben Gibbard just because Give Up came out.  It’s just that the release of Give Up made me face all facets of that love, even the ugly ones: affection, loyalty, fear (of change and of loss), comfort, complacency, possessiveness, jealousy.  The only thing more frightening than watching someone you love change is the prospect of getting left behind somewhere along the way.  So I listened, with layered trepidation.

I find these feelings have survived in me, and they resurfaced again recently when Neal Fraser diverted his attention from Redbird to give Fritzi the full sit-down restaurant treatment.  When Fritzi became something more than a whimsical pop-up or a window at Arts District Brewing, that familiar proprietary jealousy, that envious dogma of mine, was impossible to escape, even though culinary side projects often work out just fine.

The Order: Fritzi Burger

The Price: $11.50

The Burger
Maybe you’ve never heard of Fritzi.  It would be hard to fault you, actually.  It first surfaced as a pop-up, then soft-opened as a practically nameless take-out window nestled in a corner of Arts District Brewing, where everyone from the merely buzzed to the blacked out could partake in some high-class, high-carb hangover prophylaxis.  The only signage to speak of was a large marquee above the window that glowingly admonished all passers-by: “DON’T FORGET TO EAT.”

By the time Fritzi actually opened a dining room directly next door to Arts District Brewing (serviced by the same kitchen as the take-out window; the two spaces are less adjacent than they are interlocked), it would have been easy to not notice.  There was almost no fanfare; besides, we’d been eating off that menu for months.

But Fritzi commands attention.  It is the brainchild of Neal Fraser, who ranks among the most deadly serious chefs in the city.  The fare is fast-food inspired and fundamentally uncomplicated.With quintessentially Arts District pretentiousness (i.e., trying far too hard to project a laid-back, industrial Bohemian charm), Fritzi will tell you they serve “artisanal nosh.”  That means no of-the-moment crudo, no robust and hearty braised goat gemelli, and – sadly – no peri-eponymous (I can’t resist making the epunymous joke) tray of veal.

Nothing here is a signature dish.  This is an off-duty project, a glimpse at what Neal Fraser might make at a cookout – nothing too high-minded…but, well, he’s still Neal Fraser.  As such, expect sophisticated, subtly reimagined classics.

The Fritzi Burger is, for lack of a better term, so Fraser.  Each component of the conventional burger is rethought, elevated.  This burger offers a hybrid patty (Nueske bacon and beef) that is given ample (viz., nine hours) sous vide time; a generous smear of Fontina fondue which offers a gooey, honeyed nuttiness; a sweet Calabrese relish with a whisperingly slow-hot finish; a fresh salve of mild thousand island; and iceberg lettuce to add cooling textural contrast.

The patty is a masterstroke, a subtle, intensely flavorful execution of an idea that sounds excellent in theory but often is butchered grotesquely in practice.  The Nueske bacon imparts a smoky, marbled dimension to the beef, evoking the faintest thoughts of a Texan barbecue pit.  The fondue creates a sumptuous, almost silken coating around the patty, mild and comforting.  Both sauces are excellent, and work well enough in concert with one another.  They offer a few redundant notes, but ultimately elevate the entire experience.  I was glad for the lettuce, if only because it offered a bit of complexity in a burger that otherwise verges on textural monotony.

While Fraser excels in reimagining individual ingredients, he sometimes almost loses sight of the forest for the trees.  It’s fine to reshape each piece of a puzzle, especially if you improve each one; but change them enough, and they won’t fit together.

In the case of the Fritzi Burger, that’s just a distant threat – this burger hangs together well, never veering into incoherence.  But it also is a mildly unsettling dish, because – as a whole – it doesn’t always feel completely intentional.  But existential niggling aside, this burger is stellar, not to be missed, and yet another shining example in a litany of Neal Fraser’s innovative genius.

Ultimately, no matter how rabid a Death Cab fan I was, I listened to Give Up.  I couldn’t help myself.  In my more honest moments, I recognize it as a superior product to solidly (maybe conservatively) 85% of Death Cab for Cutie’s oeuvre.  But even short of that admission, I know I put aside my feelings of betrayal on behalf of Gibbard’s bandmates because I wanted to understand what was compelling enough to divert his creative focus.  I didn’t really listen because I wanted to.  I listened because I had to.

So if you felt similar vicarious betrayal when Chef Fraser took time away from Redbird to launch Fritzi, you probably also feel a similar morbid curiosity regarding what Fritzi is all about.  Succumb to it.  This burger may not be better than 85% of the menu at Redbird, but it is too good to be missed owing to proprietary hipster envy.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.40 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 91.10 / 100.00

Petit Trois

The Place
Petit Trois
718 North Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

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I was talking to my friend Peter last week about Petit Trois.  He went there with his wife recently, and ordered the omelette.  I’m not sure Peter is an omelette connoisseur, but he certainly is an educated enthusiast.  Anyway after a few bites of their omelette – a facially pedestrian offering with nothing more Boursin (yes, from the box) pepper cheese and a dusting of chives  – his wife asked if it was the best omelette he’s ever had.  “No,” he replied, “it’s the first omelette I’ve ever had.”

That’s what makes Ludo Lefebvre special.  His strength is not so much in wildly innovative concepts (though one trip to Trois Mec will show you he’s no slouch in that regard), but rather in expression.  Whatever the concept, from veal belly with crispy artichoke on down to a double cheeseburger, Lefebvre cannot be matched in execution.  Each dish is prepared with such skill and care, that his food has the potential to transcend quality and establish itself in your mind as an archetype of what a certain dish should be like.

Ludo Lefebvre is the rare chef who can make a simple dish feel definitional.  Not every dish achieves it, but when one does, you feel it, and to describe it is really just to speak normatively about how every dish of that kind ought to taste.  I’ll stop short of saying that his best offerings are infused with the intent of the divine, but the thought occurred to me.

The Order: Big Mec

The Price: $18

The Burger
Even if the name Petit Trois isn’t immediately familiar to you, you likely know more about it than you realize.  It’s the daughter restaurant of Trois Mec, at which reservations are famously difficult to secure, but which offers among the finest tasting menus in the city.  Petit Trois, then is an approximately Le Comptoir-sized appendage to its venerable – albeit only marginally larger – parent.  Though the restaurants have markedly different personalities, they share more than a wall; they have a common creative nucleus: Ludo Lefebvre teams with Los Angeles culinary power pair Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (the minds behind Animal, Son of a Gun, and Jon & Vinny’s) on these two gems tucked away in a strip mall behind a gas station.  Don’t let the understated location fool you, though – this part of mid-city is a culinary hotspot.  Just across the street is the mighty, higher-profile Mozzaplex, where Nancy Silverton et. al. have been slinging really important food for decades.

Roughly speaking, Petit Trois is a French lunch counter.  Reservations are not accepted, and the menu is a cheesy, framed and laminated piece of printer paper.  They serve comfort food which oozes with nostalgic sentimentality (for instance, every Sunday, Ludo Lefebvre – continuing a family tradition – does a chicken roast, where a half chicken is offered atop mirepoix, a bed of rough-cut vegetables redolent of a French country table).  The dishes are, in concept, often childishly simple.  Confit-fried chicken with bitter-cool frisée.  The aforementioned omelette has a flavor profile simple enough not to overwhelm my five year-old niece, but a subtle, buttery complexity that would floor just about anyone.

The cheeseburger is similar.  The name is a tip of the cap to an iconic – though hardly estimable – progenitor, and the inspiration, weirdly enough, is discernible.  The Big Mec is a double cheeseburger featuring two patties, Tillamook cheddar, all utterly drenched in Russian mayonnaise and house-made bordelaise sauce jammed between two brioche buns.  This burger is a study in messy decadence.  It bleeds sauce over its edges like a fountain.  The bottom bun is coated with the two sauces but somehow not soggy, and incredibly, never even threatens disintegration.

The concept here is to unify simplicity and excess.  At first blush, that might seem paradoxical, but it works in practice.  This burger is decadent without being overwrought.  It takes simple ideas and presents them in a maximalist fashion.  It is the culinary equivalent of “Untitled,” the first song off Interpol’s debut, Turn On the Bright Lights.  In that song, Paul Banks repeatedly intones the promissory phrase, “I will surprise you sometime, I’ll come around,” amid a swirling, sparkling, ever-rising torrent of Stratocaster.  There isn’t much to it; but it’s arresting because the same idea, the same brief, haunting, beautiful motif, is pounded into your head so many times.  That approach informs this dish as well.  Of course, the concept would be nothing without execution.  The Big Mec is executed masterfully.

The cheese is perfectly melted but still decidedly solid – it has heft and mass.  And it’s Tillamook, so it’s approachable: sharp and flavorful without being too overpowering.  The patties are stellar, massive things.  Charred on the outside, pink on the inside, irrepressibly juicy and thick.  They absorb only some of the ocean of sauce, but it’s enough to subtly change the flavor of the meat.

At bottom, this burger is about the sauces.  And really, it’s about the bordelaise.  The Russian mayonnaise is piquant, fresh, and just creamy enough, but it is utterly overshadowed by its companion.  The bordelaise at Petit Trois is made with red wine and veal stock and mounted with foie gras (usually, the mount is butter).  It is astounding.  It teeters on the boundary between boozy and acidic, like wine a few atoms away from oxidation.  But it is given shape, depth, and balance by the foie gras mount.  In the end, everything about it feels decadently intentional.  It is the most challenging, but also the most comforting, bordelaise you’ll likely ever taste.  It is smooth but also sharp, mellow but also bright.  It is also just about omnipresent in this burger…and you’ll still want more.  It also creates a beautiful, natural mash-up with the Russian mayonnaise – so natural, in fact, that the sauces feel more coextensive than cooperative.

You’ll ravenously devour this plate of food.  Your hands and teeth will drip with oxblood bordelaise and Russian mayonnaise the color of cooked salmon.  You will do violence to this burger.  The taste of the sauces will linger in your mouth long after you finish.  You will be exhausted, you will be panting.  You will look down at the plate, full to the gills, and you will ache for more.  You’ll see the pool of what’s left of the two sauces, intermixed, looking like a Woolnaugh endpaper, and you’ll wish it wasn’t over.

This is a cheeseburger.  Other things we previously might have known as cheeseburgers do not deserve the privilege of sharing a categorical identity with this dish.  It is the archetypal burger:  comforting, rich, indulgent, decadent, massive, messy, meaty, subtle, warming, unpretentious but refined, accessible, filling, and utterly delicious.

Make no mistake: This is as indispensable an eating experience as the critically acclaimed tasting menu across the wall.  If you have not yet eaten this cheeseburger, it may well be argued that you have never eaten a cheeseburger at all.  The Big Mec at Petit Trois is nothing short of a masterpiece.  Drive quickly, order quickly, but eat slowly.  After all, this will be your first cheeseburger – you should savor it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 10.00 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.90 / 10.00
Bun: 9.90 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 10.00 / 10.00
Balance: 10.00 / 10.00

Total: 95.70 / 100.00

Redbird

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I think about judgment day a lot.  Call it the end of the world, or the apocalypse, or whatever you want.  I think about it.  I think about when fire and brimstone rain down heavy and hot from skies that split like the seam of a too-small blazer.  When it turns out the Old Testament was right.  When God gets sick of all our shit and exacts vengeance on us for our innumerable sins.  When we all find out that we were fools to be cynical and supercilious.  When the joke, as it happens, was on us all along.  When it doesn’t matter whether we’ve found God, because he finds us.  When it doesn’t matter what we believe.  When nothing matters but the lives we’ve led.

When that day of reckoning comes, I hope I’m sitting at Redbird with the tar-black summer sky above me, a meal settling, the cold sting of a scotch and sherry cocktail lingering on my lips, waiting for my pavlova to arrive.  That’s not because Redbird is the best restaurant in this city, or even the fanciest.  It’s not because Neal Fraser is the best chef in the city (though he must be in any conversation on the topic).  But I can’t think of a better place to face the apocalypse (leaving aside the delicious irony of being condemned to an eternity alongside Dante’s most wanted while sitting in a repurposed rectory).

See, when it all ends, I want to be somewhere beautiful, and I want to be doing something delightful.  Redbird is the most beautiful place to eat in Los Angeles.  Bar none.  It also is one of the ten best restaurants in this city.  Its décor is as eclectic as its menu, which in turn is as eclectic as Los Angeles.  Fraser presents crudo with bright wedges of citrus and an adobe-red dusting of peppery togarashi; delicate, crisped slabs of Wyoming trout; a symphonic barbecued tofu (which, by the way, is dream-hauntingly good – better even than Sang Yoon’s resplendent chicory-coffee barbecue sauce-bathed Kurobuta pork ribs at Lukshon – whether or not you like tofu).  And he presents them all with such easy familiarity that you’ll forget how weird it is to find them all on the same menu.  Just like Los Angeles, in which so many different cultures and kinds live side by side.  It’s curated chaos, but to those of us who have been fortunate enough to really come to know it, its splendor is difficult to match.  The perfect place to watch it all end.

Wednesday was not the apocalypse, so Bret and I settled for lunch at Redbird.  It’s a perfect option for those who ache for a longer intermissio from the raw grind of the work day.  Fraser offers a slightly abbreviated version of his menu, including a prix fixe for the indecisive and slightly profligate, and a burger for … well, not least for the man who writes about burgers.

The Order: Prime Burger

The Price: $18

The Burger
This might be the burger for the end times.  See, if you happen to be jonesing for a burger when the fabric of the earth falls away and reveals the roiling inferno that lies behind it all, you won’t have time to let the marrow melt, or caramelize the onions, or pull any other high-cuisine moves.  You’ll have time to throw together a few ingredients – whatever is at hand – into the last burger you’ll ever eat.  Now, having said that, it’s the last burger you’ll ever eat.  And you’ll be damned if you’ll let it be pedestrian.  Even at the end of the world, you’ll have to compromise, to balance countervailing interests.

The Prime Burger at Redbird manages that. It is spartan in an indulgent kind of way, deceptively complex, intensely flavorful but stripped of pretense and unnecessary ornamentation.  This feels like the burger chefs will make when there is no one left to cook for.  If Howard Roark spent his life behind a grill instead of a drafting table, he would have aspired to create this burger.  It is the product of passion and craft.  Every ingredient serves a purpose.  Nothing is out of place.  The fact that it’s a crowd-pleaser?  That’s merely an externality.

The patty is pure Fraser: massive, marbled, loosely packed, pink and bloody.  It might be overwhelming, I guess, were it executed with anything less than perfect mastery.  But this is Neal Fraser, so it’s executed with nothing less than perfect mastery.  The remoulade is piquant, tart, and generously portioned (and why not?  You’ll want an extra scoop of sauce when the apocalypse is impending).  This sauce is a beautiful, rich, indulgent complement to the sumptuous, almost buttery, beef.  Aged cheddar drips like sap, so slowly that it forms an amorphous tendon that seems to connect patty to plate.  It’s creamy and thick, with a distant whispering sharpness.  There is a chile relish that adds a smoky sweetness (but almost no heat), and extra pickles to add more zip if you want them.

The bun is the burger’s weakest part.  A too-dry, too-thick brioche, it tasted a day old and was a bit too imposing for this burger.  The dryness of the thing wasn’t helped by the fact that it was flaked with sea salt.  It’s a noticeable imperfection, but the rest of the flavors are bold enough to compensate for it.  In the end, the burger hangs together impressively well in spite of a disappointing bun.  Besides, when judgment day comes, you probably won’t be too picky about the bun on your burger.

In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I liked this burger very much.  It’s big and brash, but is ultimately memorable for its relative simplicity.  It’s a really well-prepared, thoughtful offering.  It manages to achieve simultaneously simplicity and complexity, boldness and subtlety, immediacy and depth.  It’s a great burger.  Don’t wait until the end of the world to try it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.30 / 10.00
Bun: 6.80 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Balance: 9.30 / 10.00

Total: 88.20 / 100.00