Dine L.A., done my way

I made reservations for DineLA weeks before the list of participating restaurants was officially announced.

During DineLA, which runs almost two weeks in October, more than 300 Los Angeles restaurants — from gastropubs to sushi spots to fine-dining establishments — offer prix fixe lunch ($16, $22 or $28) and dinner menus ($26, $34 or $44).

It’s a marketing effort by the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau to encourage people to dine out. And, as with shopping, I don’t need much encouragement.

Some foodies scour the menus looking for the best meals. My strategy was to choose two of the city’s most high-profile restaurants — places that Kenley and I wouldn’t normally be able to afford, and where we were likely to get the best deals.

I had been wanting to try Tom Colicchio’s Craft, since Kenley and I ate at his CraftSteak at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas this spring. (Read about what happened in Vegas here.)

Craft is located in Century City, which is essentially an upscale office park between Santa Monica and Beverly Hills where many agents are based (Kenley is looking for representation). While the location itself might not be very scenic, the inside of the restaurant is modern and classy, yet comfortable.

Colicchio is perhaps best known for being the top judge on the reality-TV show “Top  Chef.” He specializes in cooking local food and making it simple, yet full of flavor. The service is, in a word, impeccable.

When we were seated, we were served an “amuse bouche.” Yeah, we had no idea what that was either, and that’s five years of Kenley’s French classes talking.

Not that the presentation would have helped us decipher it: It came in the form of a thick liquid served in a tall shot glass.

Kenley and I, who are more accustomed to eating at hamburger joints than fine-dining establishments, had never been served such a thing. And while Kenley is plenty familiar with shot glasses, most of his carry whiskey.

Google to the rescue. (Seriously, what did people do before search engines?)

Amuse bouche means “mouth amuser” in French (and sounds vaguely dirty). It’s a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre selected specifically by the chef and often found at top-rated restaurants. It’s generally a showpiece for the chef and is used to set the tone for the meal.

The amuse bouche we were served tasted similar to the tortilla de patatas “new way” that we had tried months ago at Jose Andres’ Bazaar, which is known for molecular gastronomy. (Read more about our Bazaar experience here.) That “new way” dish was a light yet rich and savory custard, instead of an “old-way” Spanish omelet.

I later discovered that Craft’s amuse bouche was polenta, celery and creme fraiche. (So basically, it was a high-end version of creamy grits.)

Craft is a great choice for DineLA week because rather than choosing only one starter and one dessert, the restaurant serves your meal family-style. Your server brings a selection of appetizers and desserts to the table, so you get to try almost everything on the menu.

The three starters included an arugula salad, pork terrine, and king salmon tartar with avocado and almonds. The king salmon was our favorite. It was light and refreshing (and yes, raw), and the almonds added a nice crunch to the creamy avocado. Kenley wanted to lick the plate until I shot him a few daggers.

We had already sampled the braised-beef short ribs and scallops at Craftsteak in Vegas, so for the entrees, I chose the trout; Kenley, the roasted half-chicken.

My fish was cooked perfectly — it had the skin on, and was lightly crispy on the outside. Kenley’s chicken was juicy and flavorful, with just the right amount of crunch from the skin.

For dessert, we had steamed-apple pudding and peanut-butter semifreddo served with banana cake.

And just in case we weren’t already leaving with a sweet taste in our mouths, we were served caramel popcorn while we waited for our check.

A few days later, we got a handwritten thank-you note in the mail. Talk about service!

(In researching this blog post, I discovered that Craft Restaurants consult on the menus for the Kiawah Island Club in South Carolina.)

The next night, Kenley and I drove to Beverly Hills for dinner at Bouchon, Thomas Keller’s French bistro.

It wasn’t my intent, but our dinners turned out to be a study in contrasts.

Keller is best known for his French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Calif. The Napa County restaurant is routinely listed among the top five restaurants in the world.

The nine-course tasting menu runs you almost $300 — per person. And they take reservations a year in advance.

Bouchon’s Beverly Hills location is in the Los Angeles you often see in movies — surrounded by landscaped mansions, designer shopping, palm-tree-lined streets, and a Rolls-Royce or Bentley around every corner.

But once you climb the stairs to the main dining room, you feel like you’re in an opulent Parisian restaurant.

For my first course, I chose the rillettes au poulet, and Kenley had the potato leek soup. Rillette is similar to pate, and the chicken rillette tasted like a rich and salty version of  chicken salad. It was a great spread on a piece of French bread.

Speaking of the bread, Kenley says it was probably the best he’s had since Paris — buttery, crispy and meltingly scrumptious.

I again ordered trout for my entree. I hadn’t intended to order fish for both dinners, but the two dishes couldn’t have been more different. The French fish was served with its head on. (Kenley named him Larry.) It was split down the gut and stuffed with what I think was celery and bread crumbs. It was much richer than the more American trout dish I’d had the night before.

Naturally, Kenley ordered the traditional French favorite, steak and frites. He says it wasn’t the best cut of steak he’s ever had — but it was cooked just right, and the seasoning was perfect.

For dessert, I had a passion fruit pot de creme, and Kenley couldn’t resist ordering the bouchons, which are basically gourmet chocolate brownies with ice cream on top. Both were yummy!

Like Kenley, I preferred the more American-style meal. The trout dish reminded me of the way my grandmother used to cook bass and bream that we caught in the pond near Jackson, S.C. All I needed was a side of grits instead of potatoes. True comfort food.

But the over-the-top dining room at Bouchon reminded me of the Parisian bistros where Kenley and I ate in Paris, sipped wine and discussed our wedding plans after he proposed at the top of the Eiffel Tower. And the bread and desserts were indeed delicious. The whole experience was decadent.

Then we trudged back to our Toyota Solara and drove home to our Culver City apartment.

I enjoy trying new food and having new experiences. After all, that’s most of the fun of living in Los Angeles. But isn’t it funny how a certain smell, melody or meal transports you to another place in time? (Yes, I borrowed from Clint Black’s “State of Mind.” Love that song! Reminds me of college.)

I’m already planning which restaurants I want to try for the winter DineLA, which starts Jan. 22 — one day before our second wedding anniversary. Maybe we’ll go back to Bouchon, since we can’t make it to Paris.


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