There aren’t too many truly fine dining restaurants left in Los Angeles or anywhere else in the country for that matter. For a variety of reasons, the restaurant industry across the United States has largely moved away from a fine dining model. The number in L.A. can arguably be counted on one hand, two hands at the most. Providence, the restaurant owned by Chef Michael Cimarusti and Front of the House Wizard, Donato Poto is certainly one of the few left. It presents a very strong case that these restaurants must be preserved and appreciated, even if only a few can continue to exist.
Those that continue in this day and age must be doing something right. That is clearly the case with Providence. Chef Cimarusti, whose reputation was forged around his abilities with seafood proved to be no one trick pony as every dish that came out of the kitchen, seafood, vegetable and meat as well as since departed pastry whiz Adrian Vasquez’ desserts all highlighted magnificent product, cooked with subtlety, finesse and beauty.
Visiting with my friend, Russell Wong this past December, we reserved a table for the Friday afternoon lunch service. We accepted the kitchen’s invitation to cook for us and sat back to enjoy the ride, which commenced with Donato Poto, bringing us a view of a creature with whom we were to become quite intimate with in but a short while. This live king crab had just arrived from Alaska and was destined for our plate.
Though the crab was quite frisky, Poto had no trouble handling it. Clearly he had done this before!
While I was sad to see such a magnificent creature depart, I felt better knowing that at least it would be going to a good home. Poto and Cimarusti certainly knew how to start the meal with a great anticipatory bang!
Of course we started with cocktails – the edible kind. Cimarusti started us with a playful bent, demonstrating a knowledge of and skill with contemporary technique. The mojito on the left of the photo and the screwdriver, while no longer truly cutting edge, were tasty and fun nevertheless. Had the rest of the meal continued in this vein, it might have been trite. Instead, it was simply a fun welcome and a tasty statement of what they could do.
One of the things that makes haute cuisine special is how the food is presented. Tasty food does not have to be presented artistically on a plate to be enjoyed and a beautiful presentation in and of itself does not haute cuisine make. I have enjoyed beautifully presented dishes at some very, very casual restaurants. At a restaurant like Providence, it should be a given that the food will be delicious and beautifully presented and at Providence that was certainly the case. Where a restaurant like this stands out even more is how a dish is presented. Our first solid amuse was presented on antenna-like skewers. These grilled baby abalone bites were supremely tender and delicious. They had been steamed in dashi, marinated in Kyoto miso and then grilled over Binchotan charcoal. Presented like flowers growing out of the ground, there was the element of whimsy to accompany the visual, taste and textural pleasures of this bite.The next bites were also presented whimsically on skewers. These delicious morsels were comprised of chorizo and Japanese Sword Squid, which had been scored and quickly blanched. Marinated with smoked paprika, lemon and olive oil, this was also grilled over Binchotan.
This next bite was simply brilliant. The Tasmanian sea trout had been cured and seasoned with chive and red onion and served on a fantastic salmon skin crisp with smoked creme chantilly. It was rich, succulent, smoky, crisp and decadent all in one.
Another element of haute cuisine is the quality of what is served with the food. The wines at Providence were superb and extremely well matched to the dishes. We started with Champagne, in this case a lovely brut rosé from Charles de Cazenove, which married well with the opening dishes.As brilliant as the sea trout was, the scallop rocked even harder. The live New Bedford sea scallop was taken and placed on a bed of creme fraiche that had been laced with finger lime cells and topped with a decadent Alverta President caviar. The finger limes provided a fabulous texture with bursts of vibrant citrus mini-explosions in each bite. The caviar was sensational. Amazingly enough, the scallop itself did not get lost amongst this rich assemblage and held its own with each element providing fantastic balance and adding definition to the dish. Both this dish and the rabbit albondigas dish from the Wolves Den dinner I had the prior night really opened my eyes and palate to the pleasure of finger limes, a fabulous ingredient originally from Australia, only recently coming into prominence in the United States.
Riesling is a wine that is hardly limited to summer. One of the greatest of grapes and one of the friendliest to food, the 2008 Gerhard was no exception to that rule. It was marvelous with what came next.A delight of color, texture and flavor, the Japanese Kanpachi with smoked sesame and crispy nori chips was another delight in several bites. Cimarusti’s way with fish deftly incorporates a Japanese sensibility with a western palate that hits all the right notes. Billed as “I-5 Shellfish”, this wonderful dish used impeccable uni from Santa Barbara, abalone from Monterey and geoduck clam from Washington. This was all served well chilled in the braising liquid from the Abalone with a squeeze of lemon and red shiso laid over the top.
Sylvaner is another great food wine and this 2008 “Classic” from the northernmost Italian winery, Abbazia di Novacella was crisp, green and bright with a firm acidity on the finish. At 13% alcohol it did not overwhelm the palate.Of course, one of the major elements that separates haute cuisine from mere good food is the presence and utilization of premium, luxury ingredients. Though couched with the humble moniker of “Soup and Sandwich” this trio of tastes offered with the sylvaner was hardly humble. On the left was Santa Barbara Sea Urchin on Brioche with White Truffle; In the middle, Serrano ham on grilled Nori Foccacia with White Truffle and to the right, Broccoli soup with Port and Parmesan. Luxury ingredients are lovely, but in and of themselves do not a great meal make. One of my favorite quotes is from Ferran Adria, who said that “a good sardine is better than a not so good lobster.” Certainly any ingredient is only as good as what is made from it, but there is a reason certain ingredients have developed associations with luxury – at their best, they are transporting. Certainly the best haute cuisine restaurants know how to handle these ingredients and serve them at their best. Such is the case at Providence, where, as evidenced by these three delights, Chef Michael Cimarusti clearly knows how to use them to their fullest potential.
The crab that had been brought to the table at the beginning of the meal finally returned, albeit in a more refined form. It had been grilled in its shell and served with black truffle vinaigrette and dashi espuma that had been finished tableside. This was not The Red Lobster’s king crab legs. This crab had met a most noble end. He was dressed elegantly and played the part to a tee.
It appeared that a theme was starting to develop with the next wine, the Coenobium 2008 from Lazio, Italy. As the wine that preceded it, the Coenobium was made on an Italian religious property. While the Sylvaner was made at an abbey, this wine was made at a convent by Cistercian nuns! It was a complex, slightly oxidated white, composed of Trebbiano, Malvasia and Verdicchio grapes. It was a wine unlike any I had previously had and was delicious.The wine was well suited to match these pristine grilled Japanese sardines, which were served atop a bed of McGrath farms cranberry beans with nori, brown butter and lemon. This dish represented a beautiful fusion of east and west, taking western technique and concept and adding a few key eastern ingredients both in terms of provenance and spirit.
So much for the Italian religious theme for the wines! This wine brought me back to another time and place. Haling from an area I lived in over twenty years ago, this lovely mostly Cabernet Sauvignon based rosé from Albemarle Vineyards of the Kluge Estate showed me how far Virginia wines have come since I lived there. This one was crisp with rose petal and strawberry notes shining through.Served with raw and cooked matsutake mushrooms and a sauce that included both rosemary and sake, the salmon belly was exquisite, highlighting outstanding product and finesse in the execution of the final dish. Like so many of the dishes that preceded it, this was another superb marriage of east and west.
Our party with whites now complete, we moved on to red with this biodynamic wine from Slovenia (straddling the Collio region of Italy). This was my first encounter with this wine, but not my last. Since this meal, I had the occasion to meet the winemaker, Ales Kristancic, during the Identita Golose in Milan. He is an interesting man and an even more interesting winemaker. The deep inky Veliko, composed of a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir was meaty, bold and a perfect complement to the next course.This was a great cut of wagyu with the signature streaks of fat running through the beautiful red meat and popping in the mouth. It may not have been true Kobe, but it was as close to it as I’ve had that wasn’t from Japan. The accompaniments of braised daikon radish, confit potato and bone marrow, truffle fondue and traditional Sauce Bordelaise added elegance without distraction. It was the heart of persimmon season in California and Pastry Chef Adrian Vasquez took full advantage of that with this first dessert offering. The perfect hachiya persimmon was paired with sesame cream and sesame brittle to provide textural and flavor balance to the soft sweet berry. Vasquez served up another sophisticated and delicious dessert with this decadent soup that supported mango-passionfruit gelee, litchi-shiso sorbet, and incorporated pearl tapioca. It was intriguing, exotic, familiar and delightful, all in one. Vasquez’ mastery of tropical flavors continued with this delightful dessert. The crisp centerpiece was balanced with peanut butter gelee, tamarind sauce, jalapeno puree, cilantro, compressed banana and banana ice cream. While the other desserts showed more of an asian bent, this one displayed a bit of a Latino feel to me. The jalapeño puree added a nice bite. The final dessert from Vasquez was more classically European with pear, gingerbread and rum ice cream all coming into play. As with all his other dishes, this one was first rate showing subtlety, complexity and finesse, all while remaining accessible and utterly delicious. We were each given a box of bon-bons and truffles to take with us on our departure. I brought them home and shared them with my family at a time when I was better able to appreciate their subtleties and incredible quality. This was top-notch work. The restaurant that Providence most reminds me of is Le Bernardin. Though both restaurants reflect their locations in their personalities, they are each seafood-centric and are amongst the finest haute seafood restaurants in the world. With Cimarusti and Vasquez running the show at Providence, I could not help but think of the incredible tandem of Eric Ripert and Michael Laiskonis at le Bernardin. Each of these incredible talents works with consummate skill, finesse and an impeccable palate. The main differences are their settings and the individual culinary personalities of their chefs. Whether the comparison with Le Bernardin will remain valid, however, is not entirely clear. Adrian Vasquez is a major pastry talent and had been at Providence essentially since the beginning of the restaurant. Unfortunately, he left Providence shortly after this meal to accompany his wife to the East Coast, where she took a significant academic job. The personality and quality of his desserts were a perfect fit for this restaurant. His shoes have been difficult to fill though and Vasquez is now back at Providence for one week per month creating new desserts, which are then crafted by the kitchen’s pastry staff. Chef Michael Cimarusti has a reputation of having a special skill with seafood and after this meal I understand why. Chef Cimarusti’s superior skills were evident from the beginning of the meal. His seafood was cooked with finesse and his sense of flavor and textural combinations are indeed extraordinary, but his skills are certainly not limited to handling the denizens of the deep. He is equally adept at working with the products of the land whether vegetable or animal. The quality of the food, both in terms of product and preparation is amongst the very best in the country right now and the ability of Donato Poto to run a front of the house that is both elegant and yet still comfortable makes for a rare and wonderful combination. Providence is indeed a luxury restaurant holding onto the best elements of old time haute cuisine, while it has successfully jettisoned the most off-putting elements of that restaurant genre. There is no snootiness here, just relaxed comfort, great service and outstanding food. Providence is indeed a restaurant to appreciate.