Kate, a food-writer friend of mine in New York, is a connoisseur of restaurant disasters, of overenthusiastically flambéed lobsters that scorch the ceiling, of salads garnished with crawling grasshoppers, of Pellegrino poured into unsuspecting laps. I have never seen her envious of colleagues’ expense-account meals in Paris or ancient bottles of champagne — she has access to those things too — but she scowls when she hears about a flaming tablecloth she missed, or a curdled soufflé, or a chef discovered climbing a trellis in order to eavesdrop on an important customer. I have never seen her so happy as she was the night we visited an organic-leaning Italian restaurant in the East Village that served us a procession of gritty wild mushrooms, watery pastas and flabby roasts so unrelenting that we wondered whether the kitchen could manage to boil water for tea.
I thought of Kate the other night at MesonG,a stylish quasi-Spanish restaurant in the old Citrus space on Melrose, a tented place whose furnishings seemed to suggest a stack of old Wallpaper*magazines and a quantity discount from Design Within Reach. I would have liked to have taken a closer look at things, but before I could positively identify a single Barcelona chair or Eileen Gray cocktail table I was whisked past the empty orange banquettes, away from the dark wood paneling and into an area of the restaurant I had not been to since a press luncheon in 1987 at which the esteemed Michel Richard had prepared every course with the French soda pop Orangina. (The summer melon soup with Orangina wasn’t bad, although I remember being distinctly unimpressed with a sea bass in an Orangina beurre blanc.) Kate would have been very impressed with the porno-movie jazz booming through the speaker directly over my head, and with the cunning way that the waiter put down a bottle of Morellino di Scansano so that it teetered between two surfaces until a busboy put it right.
The chef of record, Eric Greenspan, is undoubtedly an admirable person and a first-rate technician, and his credentials seem to be bona fide. He has cooked with Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adria, the twin gods of modern cuisine, and at Joachim Splichal’s Patina in Los Angeles. His fried sweetbreads are perfectly crisp, even if he does serve them with honeyed turnips. His fried squid dusted with too much smoked paprika is interesting in its excess. His dessert of pear-marmalade-smeared grilled-cheese sandwiches on olive bread are unorthodox and on the far side of rich, but delicious. And everybody likes small-plates restaurants, the land of endless appetizers, where two people can try eight or nine things without committing to a major slab of protein.
But where you might expect his ajobiancoto be something like the classic Spanish garlic soup thickened with almonds, Greenspan splits the difference with white gazpacho, traditionally garnished with grapes, and tosses in cubes of eggplant for fun. The flavors are as muddled as you’d expect, although the caramelized wisps of dehydrated eggplant perched on top of the demitasses of soup were fun.
It takes a certain amount of nerve even to serve “duck ham,” a cured meat that is one of the signature dishes of Tom Colicchio, a brilliant chef who more or less started the latest wave of small-plate restaurants at his Craft in New York, but where Colicchio’s duck ham is oily and luscious, Greenspan’s mingy shreds were tough and unappetizing. Hare àlaroyaleis one of the great dishes of French cuisine, traditionally served in a sauce thickened with blood and perhaps foie gras; Greenspan’s version involves plain old scraps of rabbit served in a sort of beany minestrone, although the crouton spread with the rabbit’s puréed liver was quite nice. The grilled sea bass fillet with blood sausage, beets and a mushroom ragout might have been only ordinarily confusing — the mellow sweetness of roasted beets and the sanguineous funk of boudin noir do not make the most felicitous pair — if the fish weren’t blackened and burnt.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of a sea urchin gratin. The strong, briny flavor of the roe is best expressed raw, of course, but in old French cookbooks you occasionally run across Provençal recipes for sea urchins scrambled with eggs, and Gilbert LeCoze, the late proprietor of the great Manhattan seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, made his reputation in Paris with a dish of the shellfish gonads baked in cream. But Meson G’s gratin is just dreadful, made not with fresh cream but with a heavy, cheesy bechamel sauce, spiked with slippery, half-raw slivers of shiitake mushroom and garnished with green snips of the herb shiso that might as well have been grass clippings, so muted was their scent. The sea urchins themselves were visible but not palpable, like holographic projections of themselves.
Perhaps it is hard to escape the brooding presence inherent even in the name Meson G — the G in question is probably meant to refer to the owners Tim and Liza Goodell, a chef couple whose Newport Beach bistro empire contains multitudes: In Los Angeles, a G thang is something else entirely. OGs from the OC? Pimp my appetizer? Something like that.
Meson G, 6703 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 525-1415. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; nightly, 6-11 p.m. American Express, Mastercard and Visa. Full bar. Valet parking. Small dishes run $6-$24, but add up fast; tasting menu $75.