Sunday, December 25, 2011

Le Comptoir at Tiara Cafe - a (belated) recap

Course one: tomato bisque, before the bisque
I've followed chef Gary Menes for the last decade, and not in a stalker sense. You see, he's the cousin of my best friend; because of her, I experienced The French Laundry back in September of 2001. Gary's worked at a number of places: Patina, Firefly, Marche, The French Laundry, etc. Thanks to him, I've found joy in many things I would otherwise hold a considerable distaste for (like lima beans, but we'll leave it at that.)

Gary's most recent venture is a pop-up inside Tiara Cafe, located in downtown Los Angeles. Named Le Comptoir (aka The Counter), it is limited to four nights a week of dinner service. We went during his second week, and while this recount isn't as timely as I would've liked, a memorable meal is always worth reliving. Pardon the dim lighting. I'll be seeking a penlight to attach to my car keys for properly lit culinary excursions in the future. 

We began with an amuse bouche of cheese and crackers. If you know Gary's preferred cuisine, it's rarely pedestrian. There's always a twist or fanciful turn to keep you on your toes. In the case of our amuse, he had arranged a small cracker to be baked with a touch of cheese inside. The miniature pillow melted in our mouth, reminding me that simple concepts can still be complex, in the hands of the right person.

Our initial photograph is the 'before' of a savory bisque. The molecular marbles are actually yogurt (white), herbs (green) and infused tomato (red, yellow, and orange). Once the liquid is poured in, each spoonful is a lottery of bursting flavor. What could I possibly relate this to, except the soup dumplings you request during dim sum. They explode better than any pop rock. As juices combine with your tomato bisque, each sphere imparts a different reaction of taste; all of them delightful to our senses.

So close, we could toss an egg.

Back in my hospitality management days at Cal Poly Pomona, our full-service restaurant, RKR, had what we referred to as the fishbowl. Simply put, it was an aquarium window built for guests to witness the magic in the back of the house. Or to just give some relief that you could see your food being made. Seated in the middle of 12 stools, this was my view most of the evening. Lettuces dividing me from the cooking action, microgreens and thoughtful plating on the other side of my hedge. A bread station would be to my right, and a grill on the flip side. We got to interact all evening, instead of just a few moments at a time. We asked him questions. We joked. We drank wine and silently drooled for the next course.

While not all courses photographed well, I must discuss the second: "oeuf sur la plat", which I think is egg on the plate. A small nest of eggs was placed between us, a prelude of what to come.The most interactive of the five, this began with chef heating a miniature cast iron skillet to an extremely hot temperature (confirming with a scanner that looks a lot like what couples use when registering for gifts). At the desired temp, the skillets are placed in front of us, and we hurriedly crack a fresh egg to fry up for a brief two minutes. Compound butter, bits of arugula, and herbs were cautiously placed atop our fry for the last half of the cooking process. The scorching heat and freshness you could taste in the yolk made for a rich, albeit quick few bites. Acting like temporary sous chefs: priceless.

Course three

His next course was an ode to fulfilling vegetarian meals. Like his Test Kitchen stint, serving up seven-course meatless dinners, and hitting it out of the park. Setting blue hubbard squash on a mound of barley with pomegranate sauce, a side of mustard frill, pickled shallots and some roasted spring onion is kind of ballsy in the middle of a hearty dinner. Yet I loved it, visually, and with every bite. The grainy texture paired with softly dense squash held a savory appeal. Those earthy qualities of our greens evened things out and kept the dish from becoming one note. It would ease us into our next round.

Ordering a cup of joe

At this point, one of us needs a caffeine perk. Why the scale and funnel? That's how Gary rolls with his coffee obsession. It was borderline humorous to see so much work into something most places take for granted. Then again, we were at Le Comptoir. Don't request seeking a subtle blend, this coffee fix is robust!

Say cheese
I'm intentionally jumping a few courses for a number of reasons. Partially because I want you to explore more of Gary Menes' cooking for yourself. Also because photographs of dark meat and even darker bon bons aren't visually stunning. Lastly (and maybe my real hidden agenda), as much as I love beef, lamb, and pork, meat-free dining can be mind-blowing, and I thought it might be nice to showcase what I wouldn't normally.

When given the choice between dessert menu and cheese course, I rarely go sweet. Glorious cheese endings are in a league of their own. Like bacon, what couldn't benefit from a little dairy? (Perhaps fish, but that's off topic). Chef Menes touts a fresh version made in-house. He plates with shaved burgundy truffles(!!), grapes and extra virgin olive oil. Oh, and a sliver of crusty crouton. The aroma of truffles alone brings me to my happy place. It kind of turns me on. Where was I? Oh, yes, the cheese. I find the umami characteristic so much more satisfying than sugary delights. And that's all you need to know.

Gary manages to take a high-end experience and make it accessible to the masses. No ridiculous reservations period, dress code, or pretentiousness required. The free, open lot parking helps, too. It's always a pleasure to sit down at his table, for I'm guaranteed to leave content.

To learn more about Gary Menes and the weekly menu of Le Comptoir, visit here.

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