Melisse, Restaurant, Santa Monica, USA
Let me begin with perhaps an unfair quote: This restaurant is cursedly expensive. This is quite a controversial statement since passionate chefs, engaged restaurant entrepreneurs, and audacious sommeliers all have to calculate very carefully: top quality, super fresh, preferably organic vegetables, fish, seafood, meat and other ingredients, and exotic or rare fruits. Regional does not automatically mean less expensive, since the work and desire of farmers, fishermen, and cultivators is the same almost everywhere on the planet. Raising organic shrimp in Vietnam is probably cheaper than in Louisiana – but causes pollution due to long transport distances. And how many hours does a chef spend just on thinking, testing, and creating a new dish? And to what end? Isn’t it well known that salaries in the field of gastronomy are rather low? In the US, tips are a crucial part of the income of any server.
What we don’t see, while we’re seated in a nice restaurant, is how many people are working in the background – when we talk about unique, top cuisine. Even though a restaurant only opens at night, preparatory work in the kitchen often starts in the morning. I’ve never seen any detailed calculations, but I know from friends in Berlin that even if you have a Michelin star or two, it isn’t terribly rational to invest in such a restaurant. If you run a beer hall at the right location or a pizza franchise, you’d probably make a lot more money.
All of this needs to be taken into account while ranting about high prices at restaurants. But! Here is the big but! What about those who simply don’t earn enough money to afford such great tasting experiences, or don’t work for companies that can cover such “business” dinner expenses. I am not talking about those who are ignorant, uninterested and uncomprehending. It is so worthwhile to save up here and there for a great dining experience, or for a great bottle of wine once in a while. But! There are many people – and I have many friends in this situation – who would enjoy such a culinary journey but cannot spend a four-digit number for a dinner for only two, three or four people. Now I hear the voices from the back: you should not have spent so much on wine, since the menu itself costs much less! Why then do we collect wine, searching for unique and rare wines that deliver a very special tasting experience or adventure? Honestly: I have no answer for this. In Los Angeles, maybe London, New York and certainly other cities in the world it is rather “normal” to charge enormous amounts in restaurants. My editor on this blog and other friends certainly share my sense of taste and appreciation for food. They also would, once a while, spend more than a “normal” sum for good food, but they cannot afford it, which – and yes, perhaps this is very German social democratic hooey – is a barrier. Although, it has to be said, dinners in Germany, Hungary or mostly also in Italy are much affordable than in England, USA or Hong Kong. It is a vicious circle.
Now let me report on Melisse. Named after an herb from the Eastern Mediterranean regions, this is an almost invisible restaurant at the corner of Wilshire Blvd / 12th Street in Santa Monica. Surrounded by some other nice places – which I only discovered because I walked from the Loews Hotel on Ocean Ave. Immediately after you enter, from a side street, you encounter such a wonderful silence. Wow: this is so different from most of the places I know in the U.S. It is actually quiet! You are requested to switch off your mobile devices (at least I guess most guests at least switch to mute). Very honestly: there are days when I would accept paying an extra fee if some good food places would grant silence and peace (I am just remembering another great dinner at LA’s restaurant ink. – ink., Restaurant, Los Angeles – which was ruined by the terrible noise in the dining room). Melisse once got two Michelin stars – but you need to know that for a couple of years now Michelin hasn’t awarded stars to any Los Angeles / Santa Monica restaurants, probably due to some stupid dispute. Apart from this, the restaurant is well known and has received many awards and great reviews.
Anyhow, the welcome is warming. A very nice dining room, enough space between the tables, although it is not very large. You feel that you are at a very exquisite restaurant and, in this regard, it keeps its promise. You have the choice between three different menus: one is vegetarian (which is still rare). Although they themselves call it French cuisine, I would call it high end American / French. It is lighter and they allow themselves to dip into other cuisines, like Japanese, but indeed the basis is that what many of us would call French.The chef’s name is Josiah Citrin, and he is – according some internet sources – the son of a French father and an American mother – so, lending his cultural heritage to his fascinating creations. He isn’t only a very talented chef but also a good self-promoter – see his friendly and accessible blog: http://www.josiahcitrin.com/. Each dish was nonpareil and mind-blowing. I am unable to pick out just one or two; it was really the combination of all of the dishes. Tartare, clam, as well as puffed rice, miso, mushrooms, fennel, French beans, cod, 21-day aged duck…. a real symphony of flavors and tastes. No missteps but also no new discoveries. Very solid, even conservative – but steady, unwavering quality! Since the usage of mobile or smart phones is not appreciated at Melisse, I didn’t feel comfortable taking real pictures of our dishes.
And I had another very pleasant experience! I met a young, inspiring man with amazing panache – the sommelier of the restaurant. His name is Matthew Luczy. Either he is a very good salesman or our understanding and taste of wine matches. Probably both, in this case. I did choose the white – with a careful, but accurate, correction about vintage (it was a Petite Arvine – Grosjean Frères – Vallée d’Aosta). Due to my brutal lack of knowledge of American wines, I ask him for suggestions – afterwards we exchanged our favorites! It was perhaps the best red wine I’ve ever tasted from the US – certainly one of the very best ones: Dehlinger Syrah Goldridge 2007. It fit well with our menu, but was strong and so good to stand on its own – not competitive.
The wine list of Melisse is remarkable. Predominantly American wines, but there’s also an impressive selection of French wines. Somehow it’s not surprising that you can find some of the most expensive wines of the world on their wine list – but you also find unique and undiscovered wines (like Petite Arvine – Grosjean Frères) that are absolutely affordable and of great quality. I have seen higher prices for a Petrus – probably the most famous expensive wine – than on this list: between $3,500 and $7,500 depending on the vintage. You even can find Romanée-Conti – Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2002, which costs only $25,000 the bottle. I really wonder if any guest there actually spends $25,000 (!) for a bottle of wine. Some Chinese perhaps who then drink Coca Cola on the side.
This ambivalence brings me back to the beginning of this review. It is a very ambivalent and mixed impression: except the interior, everything else is somehow extreme – in a very positive but also negative direction: fantastic and excellent food, complex, but luxurious and rich wine list, perfect service – with a touch of decadence and just too expensive. Considering my initial quote, I wanted to highlight once again the wonderful moment when guests are asked to switch off their mobile devices. Nobody shouts in this restaurant, so if you’d like to speak to someone – privately or on confidential business matters – it’s a very suitable location.
Please see the website of http://melisse.com/. They use the symbols of Michelin stars although this is an un-updated award.