Christmas at Petrossian
For us non-breeder, LA transplant types, Christmas eve dinner usually involves making a reservation rather than a ham.
In terms of special occasions, it’s up there with birthday dinners and New Year’s Eve. And don’t even get me started on Valentine’s Day.
But after 12 months of fine dining, where do you go that’s going to excite you? That has an appropriate sense of occasion? That is memorable and is, in some sense, special?
This year we picked Petrossian.
And we felt like Christmas had come early.
Well, slightly early. Say around 9pm on Christmas Eve. So perhaps three hours early.
Stepping into the dining room of Petrossian is like stepping into a classic Hollywood black and white movie. The color palette of the decor is stark. Black banquettes, white walls, blond wood chairs and the tables and lower walls covered in a black textured finish resembling caviar. Black and white prints of Marilyn, Brando, Bette Davis and co decorate the walls. The only concession to color is a single red rose in a black vase on each table.
I happen to like its simplicity. It’s classy more than austere. Romantic yet reverent.
And on this night, very quiet.
We were the only reservation for Christmas Eve.
Not that the kitchen wasn’t busy. Apparently they had been catering several Christmas parties all day.
But tonight we had the whole restaurant to ourselves.
Normally I’d say an empty restaurant was a bad sign but on this night it meant we had the full attention of Chef Ben Bailly. I’d met Ben recently at Marcel Vigneron’s Hatchi tasting and shared a cocktail with him afterwards at the Tar Pit opening. We chatted and I learned that he had worked in the kitchens of Joel Robuchon in Monaco and Paris amongst several others, helping Robuchon open half a dozen restaurants around the world, and was most recently the sous chef at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Vegas. Given that my meal at L’Atelier was my best meal of 2009 and that, somehow, Petrossian had flown under my radar for this long, I knew I had to experience his food.
Ben, on the other hand, learned that I liked to eat.
So when he came to our table to chat, he asked if we’d like to order off the menu or leave it in his hands. Basically the offer of a chef’s tasting. Given that we were the only diners in the restaurant that night, make that a private chef’s tasting. Of course we accepted.
Now bear in mind that there is no tasting menu offered at Petrossian. Their regular menu is set out in appetizer and entree sizes. So really, it was the fact that we were the only diners coupled with the fact that Chef Bailly just loves to cook that allowed him the time to create this menu for us.
And so began a tasting menu of some of Petrossian’s signature dishes and greatest hits.
We started with a hibiscus champagne and a Petrossian roe sampler. The hibiscus champagne was a festive way to kick off Christmas dinner. A rosé champagne with a dried hibiscus flower at the bottom of the flute, adding not just visual interest but a fruity flavor.
The roe sampler was a selection of caviar, trout and salmon roe served with blinis and creme fraiche. For those of you unaware, Petrossian is a producer of fine Russian caviar, with some caviars costing up to $600 per oz. That’s about one serving. The roe sampler was as good as you’d expect from a company of this pedigree. The sampler allowed you to taste the flavor of each roe, which varied from subtle to briny.
Next up was the caviar pizza. Creme fraiche replaces the tomato base, which is topped with chives, capers, red onion and dollops of caviar. One of the most decadent pizzas I’ve had, the caviar was a treat but, for me, the real taste sensation was the creme fraiche base. I don’t know how tomato will ever compete again.
That was followed by a tasting of two soups: a classic cold borsht and a wild mushroom cappuccino with braised chestnut. The wild mushroom cappuccino (or perhaps macchiato in our tasting size) was densely earthy yet frothy. Warm and very satisfying.
The cold borsht served in a shot glass was a revelation. Admittedly not a fan of borsht, I loved this interpretation. The addition of red peppers to the soup gave it a sweetness and crispness on the palate I’ve found lacking in most other borsht I’ve tasted.
Following the soups was the crispy shrimp “papillote”. The “paper” in this “papillote” was a wonton wrapper and the shrimp wrapped and fried crispy, then served with a chili ginger sauce and a passion fruit sauce. This could almost have been an interpretation of a Thai dish but the surprise for me was the passion fruit sauce. Looking like mustard zig zagged across the plate, it was actually sweet and tasted exactly like passion fruit. Dipping the shrimp alternately in the chili ginger and the passion fruit sauces brought a different type of sweetness to each bite.
Next was a dish I had drooled over on many food blogs. The foie gras salad. A thick slice of foie gras terrine over a square bed of chopped haricot verts and toasted walnuts with four streaks of a black truffle vinaigrette reduction. But this time it looked different. The foie gras terrine was itself streaked with veins of black truffles. Not usually on the menu, the foie gras terrine with black truffles is available only by special order. Lucky for us, a high profile customer had ordered a whole terrine ($300) for her Christmas dinner and Chef Bailly had made one for his own Christmas celebration. He was gracious enough to cut a slice from his own Christmas terrine and serve it to us, so in a way we actually shared his Christmas meal with him! What’s not to love about this dish? The foie gras is silky and rich, the haricot verts crunchy, the veins of truffle decadent, and a few flakes of fleur de sel adding an occasional punch. It also looks beautiful on the plate, its square upon a square within a square within a square plating appealing to my most basic OCD tendencies.
By this time I was starting to wonder how many courses Chef Bailly was intending to bring out. We never really discussed that but he knew from our previous conversation that I was no stranger to 8, 12, 15 or more course dinners. But I was starting to hit a serious dining wall here. When he next came to our table, I told him I was surrendering soon. But there was still so much on the menu I wanted to taste. The foie gras creme brulee, the black truffle mac n cheese. Secretly, I think he was waiting for me to tell him when to stop. I have a feeling that if I had kept eating, he would have kept cooking. But he told me he had one more plate I had to try.
And that was the Napoleon tartare. A thick square of hand chopped steak tartare, topped with a layer of black caviar, topped with another thick layer of steak tartare and topped off with yet another large dollop of caviar. The raw meat married with the briny caviar was superb. Truly decadent. And if it was at the beginning of the meal, I would have devoured the whole plate myself. But given that my dining companion had already stopped eating and that I had approached, reached and passed my point of fullness, I did my best and shoveled, picked at and coerced half of that large square of raw meat and fish eggs into my belly.
And then I did what I haven’t done in as long as I can remember. I raised the white flag. Chef Ben Bailly had done what no other chef in recent memory had done. He had defeated me.
But I wasn’t going to get away that easily. After pummeling me into submission with the Napoleon tartare, Ben sent out two desserts. A Sicilian pistachio creme brulee and a vanilla panna cotta with white peach espuma. Now, I haven’t met a creme brulee I haven’t liked so with a second wind, I tackled dessert.
At this point I barely remember the specifics of the desserts. Only impressions. The satisfying crack of the bruleed top, the distinct pistachio flavor, the quality of the vanilla in the panna cotta, the sweetness of the peach espuma. But I do remember that I ate it all.
And with that, I was done.
Ben came out to see how we enjoyed the meal. We talked about his dishes, about his working with Robuchon, about Christmas and New Year plans, about great meals we’d enjoyed in the past year. Then he excused himself. He had to get home and start preparing his own Christmas Day meal. He also had a Christmas present for his girl. And it was fast approaching midnight.
By the time we got home that night, Ben had already tweeted a photo of him shucking oysters in his own kitchen. I guess that’s the life of a chef.
And then it was Christmas. And we’d just had our last great meal of 2009.
This review is for A. My partner in dining, my partner in indulgence and my partner in life. Here’s to many more great meals in 2010.Petrossian West Hollywood 321 North Robertson Boulevard West Hollywood, CA 90048 (310) 271-6300