French fashion plate
The extravagant special-occasion restaurant with maxed-out service, exquisite appointments and a menu with breathtaking prices is losing ground just about everywhere. Does that spell the demise of the grand French restaurant? Mais non. But there has been a shift in tastes, and restaurateurs are struggling to catch up. Young French chefs in particular are having a hard time. They’ve trained since 14, endured years as underlings in hierarchical kitchens, worked incredibly long hours and now is their moment, just when the audience for haute cuisine is dwindling.
What to do? Sex it up.
Enter Ortolan, the new restaurant on 3rd Street in Los Angeles from former L’Orangerie chef Christophe Eme and his partner, actress Jeri Ryan. This is L’Orangerie for a new generation -- just as glam, but more relaxed in style.
Walls are wrapped in billowy curtains the color of vintage Champagne and banquettes are dressed in tufted cream leather. Some have tall, wraparound sides where lovers and the paranoid can hide away. Crystal chandeliers sashay across the ceiling, but the floors are wide planks recovered from an old barn somewhere. In the clubby little bar in back, couples lean into each other, sipping Champagne or a glass of Armagnac.
Ortolan’s timing couldn’t be better. L.A. could really use a glamorous French restaurant, and Ortolan has all the right trappings. But it’s still finding its way in the kitchen.
At the table, menus are covered in midnight-blue suede. The silver has heft and balance. A slab of slate holds butter and pinches of salt crystals and crushed pepper. And just as the bread arrives, the waiter swoops in with three corked test tubes in a wooden holder. It looks like a science experiment, but it turns out to be lobster oil with tarragon, aceto balsamico and parsley infusion, an odd idea considering these are the first tastes of the evening. But I try them anyway. The bread is better off plain. And none of them play well with wine.
Soup through a straw
The amuse, however, is very welcome. At Ortolan, it’s often a pair of velvety soups, also presented in two stubby test tubes set in an acrylic block. The aesthetic is weirdly off. If they were elegant crystal vials, the effect might seem magical instead of improvised. One may hold sweet pea with a lacy cap of celery root emulsion (which has become a euphemism for foam), the second a paler celery root crowned with hazelnut emulsion. I notice a couple eyeing theirs suspiciously before they figure out they’re supposed to sip them through a narrow black plastic straw. Both are delicious, though the more intense sweet pea puree has a definite edge over the more subtle celery root. Sometimes there’s a second amuse, maybe a tagine of lamb and eggplant with a throb of red pepper served in a miniature pot with a conical lid. Or scallops with delicious crinkly fresh morels in chicken jus.
In the muted light, the crowd is an interesting mix. Young Hollywood turks in cashmere and jeans slouch on a banquette, talking projects. At another, two beautifully dressed septuagenarian couples unfurl their napkins and peer expectantly at the menu while the sommelier pours Champagne. One night, the waiter is just serving our first courses when a gaggle of young women, one wearing jeans with a blond mink stole, cuts through the room on its way to the sidewalk terrace. A better opportunity to see and be seen? Maybe they just want to smoke.
I bite into a crispy langoustine, one of Eme’s signature dishes. Encased in a gossamer batter that would do a master tempura chef proud, they’re meaty and sweet, perfectly cooked and quite lovely against a chickpea puree scented with cumin. For some reason, Eme serves the langoustines as twins: on two small square plates side by side.
The way the escargots are served is novel too. Before this, I don’t think I could ever have imagined escargots served like a parfait in a tall glass. It’s very silly but might just work if the glass itself weren’t so ordinary. Again, the concept doesn’t quite carry through to the details. But the combination of earthy snails nestled in a silky potato cream makes sense. The lettuce emulsion (more foam!) and Parmesan tuile folded into the glass are just frills.
What’s with the foam anyway? It’s been done to death, but here it comes again, though, I have to say, used very effectively in Eme’s slate-roasted scallops with a veil of orange and cardamom dentelle, or lace.
If a serious red wine is in your future, go with the foie gras seared to a perfect rose and presented in a cast iron casserole with caramelized salsify and tart grapes. It’s a complete indulgence: A dish like this is why you go to a French restaurant. Another appetizer seems more contrived -- the tiniest crayfish tails with fluffy little rabbit meatballs and curiously soft rosemary gnocchi. Each element is delicious on its own, but they somehow don’t come together. The one dish that has it all is the artichoke cream with lobster ravioli, black truffles and shaved Parmesan. The texture is incredibly sensual, and the earthy vegetal taste of the artichoke sings with the truffle and lobster.
It has to be said, though, that Ortolan got off to a particularly rocky start (it opened in early February). The kitchen couldn’t get the food out in a timely fashion, the service was awkward and the overall experience dull. But each meal I’ve had at Ortolan has been vastly better than the one before, and a new manager is smoothing out the front of the house. If Eme and his staff keep it up, Ortolan could well be on its way to becoming the French restaurant that has it all.
Main courses follow more traditional lines. There’s an excellent filet of beef, well-aged, and presented with its marrow bone, and ethereal pommes souffles. One of Eme’s signature dishes is lamb (for two) baked in filo dough, sliced and served with white beans and a mint salad. Squab comes two ways, the breast roasted rose and the legs as a tasty confit riding a raft of macaroni gratin.
A quick tour
Now the chef is introducing more specials, such as a thick chop of Kurobuta pork with fat asparagus and tender ricotta gnocchi showered with a spring bouquet of herbs. Crispy pork belly is dried out, though, and disappointing. And the chef’s menu is really just a quick tour through the a la carte menu.
The uninspired wine list relies on standard producers and doesn’t show any particular personality. It needs wines that would be exciting to drink with Eme’s eclectic cooking. The world is awash in great, reasonably priced wines. I wish there were more of them on this list.
Before dessert is the pre-dessert, usually a baby ice cream cone or two. They’re sweet, but don’t get distracted or they’ll melt into a puddle. Desserts are uniformly good. A French restaurant without a chocolate souffle is inconceivable. Here, it’s a chocolate souffle tart studded with raspberries and served with a ball of vanilla ice cream. And that should do you, unless you opt for the rather sweet pear clafouti with pistachio coulis.
I’ve had some beautiful cooking at Ortolan, but the chef tries too hard to impress diners with eccentric plating. Or too often these plating experiments interfere with the dining experience. Some plates or chargers are so awkward they don’t fit on the table easily, and servers have to spend minutes fussing -- moving the wineglasses, the silver, the bread and anything else on the table -- to make room. In the end, it’s not the trendy china that makes or breaks a restaurant. It’s the food: the way it tastes, the way it sits on the tongue, and whether it’s memorable or not.
Though Ortolan is on a fast learning curve, the restaurant needs time to find its own level. Compared with the balancing act that is fine French cuisine, it’s a cinch to open a grill or a bistro. Perhaps cooks are like architects: They take a long time to work through their influences and emerge with their own voice. I wish Eme would worry less about dazzling diners with avant-garde presentation and let his instinct for food that’s sensual and delicious lead him where it will.
Rating: ** 1/2
Location: 8338 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 653-3325; www.ortolanrestaurant.com
Ambience: Warm and inviting French restaurant with rows of chandeliers, cream leather banquettes and a sexy skylit bar with pots of herbs in the walls. Chic, but casual, Ortolan gets a mix of serious foodies and young Hollywood just out to have fun.
Service: Getting on track with a new manager
Price: Appetizers, $16 to $110; main courses, $29 to $38; desserts, $10; chef’s menu, $120 per person.
Best dishes: Crispy langoustines, slate-roasted scallops, seared foie gras en cocotte, escargots, fillet of beef with marrow bone, roasted squab, chocolate souffle tart, pear clafoutis.
Wine list: Expensive and predictable. Corkage, $25.
Best table: One of the banquettes with high wraparound cream leather back
Special features: Full menu served in the bar until midnight
Details: Open 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; full menu served in the bar until midnight. Full bar. Valet parking, $4.50.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
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