Review: At Bon Temps in Downtown L.A., the brilliant desserts are only the beginning
Servers at Bon Temps in the Arts District don’t explicitly advise you to save room for dessert at dinnertime, but they should. The sweets alone are reason to come to the restaurant. Chef and owner Lincoln Carson’s savory dishes convey the memo, though. The sculptural geometries of meat and fish, the swoops of sauces, a style of visual drama usually reserved for pastry: Throughout the meal, there are subliminal messages that keep the appetite primed for a finale of soufflé or peach pavlova.
Carson’s take on a crab cake, for instance, has no relation to the lumpy, free-form masses that Maryland made famous. His version blends Dungeness meat with scallop mousse and crème fraiche into what is essentially a wide boudin blanc sliced into disks. Then, he builds an appetizer that ascends to the heavens. The crab has silkiness but also pleasant bounce. Its texture recalls Vietnamese chao tom, shrimp paste molded around sugar cane skewers. Carson lays a circle of crisped, wafer-thin pain de mie over the crab; he covers the bread with fanned slices of avocado glistening like glazed fruits spread in a tart shell. To crown it all: an erupting splay of salad greens, the most flamboyant staging of frisée and red oak lettuce in town.
All the blueprinting and technique pay off — in this dish and with so much of the cooking at Bon Temps. As a pastry chef, Carson has been mastering the balance between sculptural plating and reassuring deliciousness for three decades. His top-of-the-food-chain résumé includes Manhattan’s Le Bernardin and Las Vegas’ Picasso and eight years as corporate pastry chef for the San Francisco-based Michael Mina Group; in Los Angeles, he most recently worked at Superba Food & Bread in Venice.
Bon Temps is Carson’s first solo restaurant. He was drawn to the downtown location, next to the new Firehouse hotel and around the block from Bestia, for the short, red-brick-lined alley on which it sits. The patio certainly has a certain European romance, and diners gravitate there. Inside, the space shows off some hard industrial edges: stained concrete floors, exposed ducts, cool white marble counters. Metal strips form the bar’s backsplash. Two elevated sections of the dining room hover above the main open area. They’re warmed with grainy hardwoods and whitewashed brick but, depending on a person’s mindset, they could feel either cozy or claustrophobic; I’d rather be outside.
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Carson’s glassed-in kitchen, perched above the entrance, overlooks the whole scene like a command center. At a time when many restaurants view desserts as an afterthought — throw together a sundae, outsource a chocolate cake — Carson goes willfully in the other direction. He creates a sense of occasion by honoring the art of pastry. Not just in the sweet realms; the savory canapés on the menu show off his métier and his team’s skills. The most opulent of them is a tiny tart, so fragile you think it’ll smash in your hands (only it doesn’t), filled with uni cream and a quenelle of caviar. Gougères contain chicken mousse engineered to gush; a cylinder of pastry encases near-liquid tomato tartare, a one-bite burst of sunshine.
Include a dozen oysters from the raw bar to start, or chilled prawns whose heads are deep-fried and presented hot alongside (they’re the best part). Sip a Normandy Tonique (Calvados, Rinomato Americano Bianco, tonic water) or a similarly civilized cocktail by veteran bartender Mike Lay; wine director Krystal Kleeman follows suit with a tightly edited, Old World-leaning, just-geeky-enough bottle list. The mood is set.
The heart of the menu has modern American appeal: steak tartare with meticulously piped dots of egg yolk as garnish; salads such as grilled radicchio with strawberries and runny cheese; tomatoes offset with plums, black olives and green almonds; a couple of steaks.
I’m particularly taken with the kitchen’s command of fish. Mackerel served with tomato and eggplant is a simple, lyrical starter; a green garlic pesto offsets the oiliness of the fish. Black bass rests in a sauce flavored with saffron and fennel that conjures bouillabaisse; its smoothness summons a textbook bistro bisque. King salmon comes with mightily seared skin, its crunch echoed in small fried artichokes, the centers of which bloom like tea roses.
The one de facto pasta is English pea and ramp ravioli; as we careen into September, I’d like to see the focus of the ingredients move further away from spring. Same goes for an appetizer of asparagus and sweetbreads (an odd yet savvy pairing; I’d just rather savor it in April) and a main of scallops surrounded by morels, ramps and peas.
Simplify group decisions by ordering the chicken to share. Check out this luxe treatment: The thigh and legs are made into forcemeat, mixed with truffle paste and wrapped in skin from the legs; after a sous-vide bath, the sausage is fried to crisp the skin. The breast meat, anointed with truffle butter, takes its own sous-vide swim and it too is then fried before serving. Turnips and creamed, truffled leeks accompany. It’s on the shortlist of what I’ll eat for my next birthday dinner.
I’d follow it with Carson’s ode to St. Honoré cake, another made-to-share marvel. Layers of dark, crackling puff pastry brushed with chocolate; a stratum of cake flavored with bourbon and vanilla; pecan mousseline; spheres of choux pastry wearing circles of shattering caramel like halo emojis; piped cream and candied pecans: It resembles a childhood toy so delightful, with so many moving, mesmerizing parts, that your attention doesn’t know quite where to land. And it all tastes as rhapsodic as it looks, the caramel complex and never too sweet.
It hurts this dessert lover’s heart that so many avid restaurant-goers shun pastry chefs’ temptations. Give Carson’s masterpieces their deserved chance. Is the St. Honoré too much for you? Go for the chocolate souffle, the intricacies of its flavor teased out by chartreuse ice cream. Carson coats the souffle’s billowing border with large sugar crystals for crunch; one can’t help but rip off cakey hunks by hand.
Veering lighter, an inverted pavlova involves a near-floating meringue, looking like an enormous mushroom cap, hiding peaches cut into ribbons, blackberries and white verjus sorbet; a tableside pour of lemongrass consommé adds piercing fragrance. Posset, a traditional British sweet made with thickened cream and often zinged with citrus, trills here instead with passion fruit. Matchsticks of Campari jelly inject wonderful shivers of bitterness.
I would happily show up later in the night with a friend or two simply to order the entire dessert menu. But, as Carson moves toward making Bon Temps a viable all-day restaurant (he recently started serving uncomplicated, satisfying sandwiches and salads at lunch), there is another option for experiencing his tours de force: morning pastries. A caramel-ringed kouign amann is an early hit; the strawberry and ricotta danish, with its remarkably sheer and buttery dough, startles me into sudden happiness every single time. The cream cheese-stuffed croissant covered in everything bagel seasoning is, yeah, pretty much everything.
Dinner at Bon Temps admittedly requires an investment. The croissants and danishes are an affordable way to get to know this chef, whose name hopefully will become ever more familiar. He’s exploring many angles to attract customers day and night, yet in its marrow, this is undeniably a pastry chef’s restaurant — a place where the cooking, while comforting, esteems form and beauty and chemistry and fastidiousness. His approach cuts a unique path through the city’s dining landscape. Save room, Los Angeles.
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