Providence - Los Angeles, CA

Dinner - Sunday, February 6, 2011

I've wanted to visit Providence ever since Michael Cimarusti left Water Grill to start the restaurant with Donato Poto in 2005. Yet every time we planned a trip to the West Coast, it got left off the books. This all changed when we moved to San Diego. Now that we're less than a 2-hour car ride from the restaurant, we were finally left with no excuses. Plans were made, hotels were booked, bags were packed, and off we drove to LA. This was the second dinner of our weekend jaunt (for the first, see the previous post about The Bazaar).

Providence occupies the former Patina space, which is situated on a quiet stretch of Melrose Avenue less than half a mile east of Batali's Osteria Mozza and Susan Feniger's Street. The restaurant itself is elegant, dressed in earthen tones both outside and inside. Upon checking in, we were led to a table along the wall of the half-full room (the restaurant stayed between half and three-quarters full throughout the night - we were the penultimate guests to depart). Shortly after being seated, our server arrived and asked us about our dining preferences. He mentioned that Chef Cimarusti could customize a tasting menu with luxury ingredients or play around and improvise/riff on some dishes - "the sky's the limit," as he said. Although we were tempted, this was our first visit, so we decided to stick with the "standard" Chef's Tasting menu ($175) in order to grasp the essence of the restaurant.

The cocktail program at Providence is excellent - we enjoyed multiple classic, house and improvised recipes ($15 each) throughout the dinner. In the future (yes, this is a place worth returning to), we'll be sure to arrive early in order to enjoy some pre-dinner drinks at the bar. A selection of breads (sourdough, nori focaccia, and bacon brioche - not pictured) was delivered simultaneously with our first cocktails, and these were thoroughly enjoyed together with the house-made butter. Finally, dinner officially began, starting with a procession of amuses.

Amuse 1 - Mojito, Screwdriver
Manipulated cocktails are a signature amuse at Providence, and seem to be catching on in other restaurants around the country as well (e.g.: the complex edible cocktails that have been served at Alinea in the past year or two). The Screwdriver was a spherification of a standard recipe - quite ordinary. The Mojito was markedly better - I had anticipated a room-temperature gelée, but instead it was frozen so that tiny ice crystals permeated the block, lending a nice crunch that heightened the tanginess of the lime and mint. Very refreshing.

Amuse 2 - Grilled New Zealand baby abalone
Amuse 3 - Squid and chorizo
Both skewers were grilled yakitori-style over binchotan charcoal. The abalone was intriguing because I'd never had such a small one. It had a much more delicate texture than its larger brethren, while proving to be equally sweet.

Amuse 4 - Hokkaido scallop tartare
To my delight, we were each served two of these. Deliciously sweet raw Hokkaido scallop, wrapped in peppery nasturtium leaf. The texture of the scallop was amazingly creamy. A minimalist preparation that allowed the ingredients to shine.

Amuse 5 - Serrano ham canapé with shaved black winter truffle
Another simply prepared item, but highly successful because of the quality of the ingredients. It was salty and earthy. A warm piece of house-baked focaccia served as a base for the toppings. The oil from the bread was very nice as it combined in my mouth with the truffles and the fat from the ham.

Soy milk panna cotta
Uni, caviar, gold flakes
One of the best things we ate all night - this was phenomenal. The panna cotta was incredibly luxurious, and its mild soy flavour worked sensationally well with the Santa Barbara uni and caviar. Tasting each component alone, in pairs, and all together really brought out each aspect of every ingredient - both of us appreciated how the dish managed to enhance the common notes and the contrasting flavours between the uni, caviar and panna cotta. A small dab of wasabi on each piece of uni prevented the bites from getting too rich. Crispy puffed rice and sliced micro-radish provided two different types of crunchiness to round off the soft textures. Chive flowers imparted a slight vegetal note to keep the palate alive. Gold flakes served to further accentuate the luxury of the plate. Beautiful, like a semi-Westernized take on Urasawa's chawan mushi.

Farm-fresh egg
Reblochon de savoie, truffled onion puree, chives, brioche
Another very delicious dish, perhaps Chef Cimarusti's haute interpretation of a tartiflette (a French dish incorporating potatoes, cream, Reblochon and onions). The rich, soft-cooked egg was a perfect substitute for the traditional cream in this context. The nuttiness of the Reblochon was compounded by the aroma from the truffled onion puree, and all the ingredients melted together in my spoon. For me, this recapitulated and actually improves on the original tartiflette. The brioche croutons were good, but actually quite unnecessary for the integrity of the dish. Visually, I also liked how the serving vessel was a reproduction of Providence's logo (see top of post).

Salmon belly
Beets, fennel, blood orange
The dehydrated blood orange crisps were nicely acidic, countering the fat from the salmon belly. The crisp skin of the fish also contrasted well with the soft beets. I enjoyed the many ways fennel was utilized here - the raw fronds, fennel foam and fennel pollen dusted over the plate. These provided varying degrees of anise flavour (ranging from the mild foam to the potent pollen), bridging the tastes of the other elements. A very classic combination of ingredients executed well.

Roasted sweetbreads and parsnips
An excellent preparation of roasted sweetbreads. Parsnips were present in two forms - diced and roasted, and as a puree. Both were crucial backdrops for the peppery offal. The dots of reduced red wine sauce were tannic and acidic, and paired very well with the unctuous sweetbreads.

Cannellini beans, nori, celery, brown butter
Pork belly
Red cabbage, apples, whole-grain mustard, chanterelles
This dish was a good demonstration of the kitchen's technical proficiency. The skin from the pork belly had been removed, and a slab of fatty flesh completely wrapped in feuille de brick. This was then crisped to perfection - combined with the pork fat, it was an amazing imitation of the absent skin (better, in fact, since many times the pork skin can get hard instead of crunchy after cooking). Likewise, the red cabbage had been slow-braised in a red wine sauce, but the kitchen managed to preserve the vegetable's texture, preventing it from suffering the common fate of disintegrating into mush. The apples, mustard sauce and cabbage all served as delightful accompaniments to the crispy belly.

Nebraska wagyu and puntarelle
Romanesco, potato gratin, truffle fondue
Puntarelle is an Italian variety of chicory, commonly eaten in the region around Rome (second only to the artichoke, or so I gather) during the winter months. Tonight was our first encounter with this vegetable - it is crunchy with a slight bitter flavour with hints of arugula, fennel and endives. The one on our plate was grown right here in California (specifically, Salinas). All parts of the plant were used in this dish - leaves, stalks and shoots. The distinct flavours in each plant part went well with the surprisingly beefy taste of the wagyu, which was seared perfectly. The truffle fondue was rather gratuitous, but neither of us had any complaints about it. A very solid dish except for the large potatoes - I've never been a fan of any take on "steak and potatoes", and here again I didn't find the chunks of starch necessary.

Cheese plate
Passable, but nothing compared to the quality at the grand French restaurants. The accoutrements were actually fairly weak, but two outstanding cheeses redeemed this plate. First was a perennial favourite, Époisses de Bourgogne (in the spoon), a smear-ripened cow's milk cheese served here in top condition. The second cheese was new to us - Oregon's Rogue River Blue Cheese (foreground left), a raw cow's milk cheese wrapped in grape leaves macerated in pear brandy. This is one of the best creamy blues I've ever had - nutty and earthy like mushrooms, but with aspects of pear (presumably imparted by the wrapping) and sweet fresh fruit. A superb American cheese, and one we will be keeping an eye out for.

Lychee-shiso sorbet, coconut soy milk soup, passionfruit-mango gelée
Another really high point during the meal - this dessert was genius in a bowl. We were curious about what the pastry kitchen would put out in the absence of Adrian Vasquez (who hasn't yet been replaced), but it seems that his crew fully absorbed his style and continues his vision. The inclusion of shiso in the sorbet was unexpected, yet completely appropriate - the balance between fruity and herbaceous was captivating. The tapioca in the coconut soup had the right amount of "pop", and the soup itself was complementary to the sorbet. The coconut shavings yielded a second dimension of coconut flavour, above and beyond the taste of the soup. My only complaint was the size of the gelée - there was a substantial amount of it (too much considering how tart it was) and it was quite overpowering, so I ended up pushing a lot of it aside. Putting this minor quibble aside, I haven't had a dessert so enjoyable since visiting Commis in November. I'm saddened that I never got to fully experience Vasquez's brilliance, but I'm very curious about who they'll hire to take over his position, and what direction the pastry kitchen will take going forward.

Vanilla rice panna cotta
Blood orange, caramelized puffed rice
Dark chocolate-rooibos ice-cream
Brandied cherries, creme brulee
Both very strong dishes in their own right, but they faded in comparison to the first dessert. Execution-wise, the panna cotta was perfect, with highly pronounced vanilla tones balanced by the acidity from the blood orange sorbet and foam. The crispy rice kept things alive texturally. I was impressed by the richness of both the eggless creme brulee and the ice-cream in the final dessert, but I thought that there was too much dark chocolate and rooibos powder on the plate - it was hard to sweep it aside, and it coated the other components and dried out my mouth.

Mignardises - Banana macarons, five-spice caramel, aleppo marshmallows
The evening ended with a selection of petits fours. I was particularly enamored by the combination of caramel and marshmallows eaten in succession - the five-spice and creamy "tooth-sticking" sweetness of the former gave way to a fluffy texture and the mild heat from the aleppo peppers in the latter.

We left feeling satisfied, but not bursting at the seams - a perfect amount of food. We had high expectations, and were not disappointed. By Michelin's American standards, Providence is solidly in 2-star territory, and really is much more than the seafood restaurant it is commonly billed as. Based on this experience, we're comfortable with the capabilities of the kitchen and will gladly leave ourselves in their hands on future visits.

5955 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Phone: (323) 460-4170