As friends and I step into Patina, the figures of the hostess, manager, bartender, server and sommelier awake from their enchantment. They move forward, murmur a greeting and lead us to a table in the elegant, modernist dining room. Sometimes it feels as if the entire restaurant has been put into a state of suspended animation by an evil witch called the economy.
At a restaurant where you once had to reserve three weeks in advance, it's now possible to get a prime weekend dinner reservation on a few days' notice. Who knows, maybe even less than that. Not that the restaurant is empty. It's just rarely very full, and I don't get the sense that diners are waiting in the wings for tables. It's not all the economy. The other factor is the dwindling number of people interested in so-called fine dining.
FOR THE RECORD:
Restaurant review: A caption accompanying a review of Patina in Thursday's Food section identified Christian Philippo as a server. He is the restaurant's general manager. —
It's a shame.
Because right now Patina has an extraordinary chef in Frenchman Tony Esnault, who has been heading up the kitchen since September. And he is, hands down, the best chef that founder Joachim Splichal has had in years. A Ducasse disciple, Esnault worked with the multi-starred French chef at Louis IV in Monaco and in New York was executive chef both at Ducasse's Essex House and Adour. Esnault's impressive résumé wouldn't matter if his rigorous training and talent didn't show in his cooking.
This latest iteration of Patina sneaks up and reminds the unwary and the jaded just why fine dining matters. The restaurant is a place where everything — the ambience, the service, the food and the wine work seamlessly to create a sense of occasion. It's the time to slow down, to savor the food and the company. A moment outside of the everyday, and a rare indulgence.
Close your eyes. Pay attention to the first bite of the amuse. It might be a tiny bowl of nettle velouté crowned with a buckwheat chip that leaves you wanting more — and more — of the mysteriously earthy and velvety soup. Or it could be an intense lobster bisque with a dab of ivory crème fraiche.
Now just look at his glazed vegetable mosaic. What a breathtaking dish. With an unfaltering sense of color and proportion — and taste — the chef has composed a cityscape of vegetables in a coral-red pool of their cooking juices. There's celeryroot, carrot, a spear of asparagus, turnip, a bull's eye of crimson and white Chioggia beet drizzled with lemon-scented oil. Every bite delivers the essence of this or that vegetable in this whimsical dish.
Round, plump ravioli are filled with finely minced zucchini and cheese and are as beguiling as any I've encountered. Each wears a nubbin of emerald baby zucchini and at the center is a gossamer veil of goat cheese "foam" crowned with the bright gold zucchini blossoms.
The chef certainly has a talent for creating beautiful compositions, marshalling ingredients into geometric precision. Every note he hits rings true. A starter of hamachi (yellowtail) presents a rectangle of the marinated raw fish garnished with razor-thin slices of geoduck clam on one side of the plate with pieces of avocado, crunchy crostini and a green-apple mustard forming vertical lines on the other side. It's decorative, but not decoration. Each element plays against the other, so that depending on how you orchestrate it, each bite of hamachi is different.
A dreamy foie gras terrine arrives as a skinny rectangle. A vein of tart strawberry-rhubarb compote runs down the middle, and for color, the top is glazed in a brilliant scarlet, which echoes the chunks of strawberry and rhubarb forming another long rectangle on the plate. The combination of the fruit with the fat richness of the foie gras makes the dish thoroughly modern.
Bite by bite, I explore artichoke variations ordered à la carte from the vegetarian tasting menu too. Underneath a soft pillow of gray-green artichoke purée and scattered around the plate, are roasted quartered baby artichokes and slices of artichoke so fine they look as if they have been prepared for the microscope in a barigoule jus dotted with emerald parsley purée.
The first time I had Esnault's cooking, I ordered the milk-fed veal rack. And on the last night, I ordered the rack for two just to see if it was as good as I remembered. It definitely is. It's succulent and tender, with delicious gelatinous and caramelized bits, cooked on the bone and carved tableside. The bone is served up on its own little plate. And the veal comes with rounds of carrot and turnip stacked and laid on their side like gambling chips. The slightly thickened jus is perfect.
I'd also recommend the Kurobuta pork with both raw and minced cooked radish and the beautiful rosy squab with a scattering of wild mushrooms and English peas.
Butter-poached lobster is a luscious preparation presented with spring vegetables — haricots verts, crisp snap peas, English peas and tender fava beans in a lobster-intense reduction that never overplays its strength. Barramundi comes just this side of rare with a fresh presentation of pastel beets and hearts of palm. Sole meunière is superb, the fish flown in from Brittany, fresh and firm. The accompaniments are almost austere, simply a line of diced mushrooms and some sautéed mizuna greens.
Patina has always had a well-curated cheese cart. Maybe now the selection is a little smaller, but you can't fault the presentation on a tall, gleaming gueridon, each cheese perfectly ripe. I particularly enjoyed the Époisses from Burgundy and a raw milk tomme from the Alps. There's a similarly beautiful cart for caviar and another for the tea service, with loose-leaf teas in silver and glass canisters.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the sommelier. He is Sylvestre Fernandes, not Hernandes.
Sylvestre Fernandes, who has been at Patina since 2000, is the sommelier and he couldn't be a better choice. He's knowledgeable and enthusiastic about wines, but without pretentiousness. And while the wine list still holds some fabulous old and young Bordeaux and Burgundies and California Cabernets, it also features the quirky and exotic wines prized by the new generation of sommeliers. I could be wrong, but wine prices here don't seem so scary-high anymore and if you buy a bottle from the list, the corkage fee is waived for anything you bring from your own cellar.
The service is less brittle than it once was, which makes for a more relaxing evening. But waiters may be a little too attentive with the water. I got a $22 water bill one night without anyone ever asking if we'd like them to open a second and then a third bottle.
Waylynn Lucas, the new dessert chef, has been here only over a month, but she's very good. She'd have to be since she was previously pastry chef at the Bazaar by José Andrés in Beverly Hills. I'm fascinated by the way a tarragon and arugula granité heightens the flavor of strawberries. Or the way toffee and chocolate are welded together in a soft milk chocolate dessert that's subtle and under-sweetened. Tres leches is served up in a dainty portion wearing a soft meringue cap, a lovely tribute to the Caribbean.
Splichal has mentored a good many of L.A.'s top chefs — Octavio Becerra, Walter Manzke, Eric Greenspan, Josiah Citrin and Rafael Lunetta, among others. But Esnault arrives as a fully formed talent with his own ideas about how to meld French techniques with a California sensibility. What I love about his food is its balance and grace. This is quietly confident cooking, delicious by any measure.
And to find it in a restaurant downtown at the Walt Disney Concert Hall makes it even more of a pleasure. Not to forget: Joachim Splichal was one of the first well-known chefs to take a chance on downtown. And now, once again, Patina retakes its position as downtown's flagship restaurant.
141 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; ; http://www.patinarestaurant.com.
Dinner starters, $18 to $26; main courses, $38 to $46; desserts, $12. Seven-course tasting menu, $120; six-course vegetarian tasting menu, $95. Corkage, $30, waived if you buy a bottle from the list.
Open Tuesday to Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 4 to 9 p.m. Supper is served at Patina after all Walt Disney Concert Hall events. Full bar. Valet parking, $8.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.