le comptoir

We live temporary lives, do we not?  Our labor is temporary, we move from place to place, and most of the things we own were made in the past decade and will probably be in the pacific ocean within the next decade.  Good thing the oceans are getting bigger!  That probably includes this expensive typing machine, which may not work in half that time, and this blog, which will end up in the interent version of the pacific ocean.  Good times!  Now, how to respond to this precarious situation?  By consuming it, of course!  ‘nom nom,’ etc.

Enter the pop-up restaurant trend.  I don’t know when pop-up restaurants started, but they do seem of the moment, no pun intended.  London in fact has taken the pop-up aesthetic to new heights, with pop-up cinema, pop-up museums, pop-up gardens, and pop-up olympic stadiums.  Anyway, my dour big thoughts aside (that being the whole point of this blog) I quite like the idea of going pop-up restaurants.  They seem so…secretive and cool.

Even when they are not that secretive.  Take Le Comptoir, which has been up at Tiara Cafe for six months now at least,and was reviewed in LA weekly by Jonathan Gold.  Rest assured, if eating at this restaurant required being in the know, I certainly wouldn’t be reviewing it.  In any case, I convinced TAL to go with me, despite what seemed like a somewhat extravagant prix fixe cost.

And it was cool to walk into a closed Tiara Cafe, through the wrong door, to see diners from the 6pm sitting finish their courses while others waited about.  Then, when they were ready, we made our way to “the counter” along with maybe 8 other people.  This turned out to be an excellent set up.  All of the food was put together by Gary Menes and two of his friends right before our eyes, and there was frequent interaction with the chefs.

Menes on the far left

Le comptoir offers a five course prix fixe.  For any of the courses you can opt instead of a ‘supplement’ which costs more.  It is therefore ideal to go with another person, because then you can share.  TAL and I did this for two of the courses, choosing to not partake in the fois gras, duck breast, and cheese plate.  I have very complicated thoughts about animals, which get more complicated and idiosyncratic when it comes to ducks,  but all the talk about the foie gras ban made me want to try it to see what the fuss was about.  But TAL pulled me off the ledge on that one.  Anyway, we also got the wine pairing, which was four wines for the first four courses.

We start however with an amuse bouche, because that’s what civilized chefs do.  It’s been a couple weeks, but I think it was grits with candied lemon and a couple other things.  The flavor was so simple but so intensely of corn and lemon, with a smooth, appealing texture and beautiful presentation.  It was a perfect preview to the central motifs of this meal.  And yes, this meal had motifs, for real.

grits with candied lemon

Next we had the “sweet corn velouté with farinette, greek yogurt, herbs.”  I’m not sure that description does it justice!  They served us a little pancake with greek yogurt on top first, and then poured over the corn soup.  Now, I find making a good soup to actually be somewhat challenging for whatever reason, so I appreciate a good soup.  This corn soup again concentrated intensified the flavors the corn, was viscous but smooth, required multiple pieces of an extraordinary sourdough bread to fare le scarpezze.

pre-soup

This was accompanied by a chateau les arromas sauvignon blanc.  I love wine and am really not into wine pairings.  That is, I think it’s fine to pair food and drink in general, but it’s also overrated.  My friend M insists otherwise, that once you have the perfect food-wine pairing it elevates both into a different kind of experience.  But I guess I just haven’t had that experience yet.  Mostly, food overpowers the flavor of wine or any drink, so I prefer to have them separate.  In this case, the wine was very sharp and bright, and, you know, did ‘go with’ the soup.  It wasn’t that kind of platonic wine pairing M speaks about, but I did notice and like the wine, so that’s good.

Anyway, next were two dishes that TAL and I shared.  The first was a “sunny side-up egg, young lettuce, herbs, flowers, sorrel jus.”  What’s important here, though, is the making-of.  Since being right in front of the chef is apparently too removed of a culinary experience, for this dish they gave you a little cast iron pot with the egg, and then a plate with greens, some edible flowers, a compound butter, and salt and pepper.  You are supposed to add all of this into the dish, as you like, and let everything cook.  Then they come by the sorrel jus.  It’s all very hands on.

accompaniments for sunny-side up egg

It was fun, and very fresh tasting.  I suppose we could have added fewer of the greens in order to emphasize the egg, but it was still very flavorful and creamy.  The other second course was “lompoc asparagus, fried duck egg, brown butter croutons, citrus, parsley.” I’m pretty sure there was also parmesan cheese in there (I’m referring to their current menu, and of course the menu changes week to week). I thought this dish was just completely masterful.  They had large cast iron skillets in front of us with oil that was pretty much smoking.  They showed us these beautiful blue, large duck eggs that they had just received and then finally cracked them in the oil.  Other places assuredly do asparagus-egg combos but the depth, and again, intensity of flavor here was really notable.  The asparagus was beautifully charred, the butter and cheese added creaminess, and the citrus was little squares of candied citron, which really popped in your mouth and made everything wonderful.  It was good, is what I’m saying.  I must obtain some of this candied citron.

Back to wine: now again, I like the fancy, sure, but I don’t like to get too precious with things, especially wine.  It doesn’t have to be so rarefied and over the top.  Why do you have to describe wine as tasting like toasted elderberry and terrycloth towels, with notes of birch root and chips ahoy?  Why not just stick to words like ‘sweet’ or ‘tangy’?  I’m just letting you know my ideological opinion on this one.  That is, you’ll never find me getting loopy with my wine descriptions.  EXCEPT THIS ONE TIME.  For the second course they served us a ” cote du rhone grenache blanc.”  It had the most distinctive flavor of any white wine I’ve ever had.  That I can remember.  I kept tasting it while eating wondering what made it so familiar.  I came up with the following two flavors: 1) angostura bitters, and 2) cardamom.  Or, um…the wine was redolent of aged angostura bitters, with toasted cardamom on the nose.  TAL wisely ignored me.

At this point I think we decided that we were getting amazing food, and excited to be only two courses in.  The third course would be the best, in Shakespearean fashion.  We got the standard, and the supplement.  The supplement was “acquerell carnaroli rice, [and] black summer truffles.”  The wild, short grain rice had the texture and flavor of a nutty risotto; meanwhile, they did not skimp on the fresh truffles.  Truffles are the caviar of the 2000s, and again, maybe a little overhyped.  But that’s not to say they aren’t rich and delicious in their own right, and there is something fun in watching someone grate them at length onto your plate.  The dish was extremely rich, but a little bit of white wine added at the end gave it enough bounce and brightness to contrast the truffle-risotto flavors and textures (I asked Menes if he added citrus to the dish, because I thought it was lemon juice or something, and he explained  his splash-of-white-wine-at-the-end-of-risotto-making technique).

Along with this came the main prize: a plate of vegetables!

And no, it’s not just because I like vegetables.  TAL agreed – this was the best and most impressive course of the evening.  Each vegetable or fruit was prepared in a different way it seemed, and the notable thing was that each tasted like the essence of that vegetable of fruit.  Unlike chefs who make a carrot taste nothing like a carrot, this carrot was so carrot.  This was the most carrot-y carrot that I’ve had in a while.  Same for every other item.  It was so impressive that at the end of the meal TAL and I first discussed not which dish we liked best, but which fruit/vegetable we liked best on this particular dish.  I liked the carrot, green cauliflower, peach, and celery.  Yes, THE CELERY WAS FUCKING AWESOME.  Imagine celery without the fiber and water and with a really intense celery taste.  I still feel like you don’t believe me, but it was really good.  And pretty.  Along with this we had a bright, lively cab franc.

The denouement then commenced with a “summer ‘cassoulet’ [of] petite purple, yellow and green beans , spanish butter beans, spring onions, farro piccolo, doughnut peaches, [and] confit young garlic.”  Again that’s the current description; we had plums instead of peaches  The vegetables continued to be excellent, though I was actually getting a bit full by this point.  The highlight of this dish were the different kinds of beans, which played off each other and the plums really well.    The final wine, by “henry marionnet,” was deep but mild red wine.

Finally, for dessert: a doughnut hole with different kinds of lightly cooked fruits, macadamia nuts, with a sour cream (that was actually mildy sweet) and crushed graham cracker on the side.  The fruit and doughnut were great, but the sour cream stole the show, especially with the macadamia nuts.  When used correctly nuts can have a lot of impact in a dish.

We stayed around to chat with Menes (or, Gary – can I call him Gary?) after, noting how impressed we were with the vegetables.  He deflected most praise on to the people growing the food, who he knows well of course. The woman who sat next to us had been to this pop-up six times.  Oh, endless capital!  It’s ok though.  In the end we got a real ‘five star’ dining experience for relatively little cost.  Menes previously worked at the French Laundry, and TAL even said the experience there was similar in terms of the individual thought and care put into each dish.  But then this experience was so personal as well, sitting right in front of and chatting with the chefs.  In any case this set up was both fancy and laid back, which is just my style.  Anyway, if you are in the area and you want to go, go soon, because this place has been popped-up for quite a while and may disappear at any moment.

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One Response to le comptoir

  1. sani panini says:

    Everything looks absolutely amazing. Those fresh truffles-to die for! Yum!

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