L.A.'s Best Food Is Inexpensive — So What Makes a $400 Meal Worth It?
Tuna tartare, with Hokkaido scallop and Santa Barbara uni at Mélisse
There's a story I've been telling for years about Mélisse.
It was DineLA week, a time when many people who wouldn't usually eat at a place like Mélisse, one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, show up for a discounted meal. My husband and I arrived to a packed room. Though there were obviously quite a few other couples there for the deal, there were also plenty of high rollers in the room — older women dripping with diamonds and Masters of the Universe types. My husband and I, dressed in our thrift-store best, looked like the least qualified members of the crowd to be dining in such a place, even during DineLA.
Mélisse, owned by chef Josiah Citrin, is one of those restaurants that's a little intimidating in its old-school opulence. The room is hushed, the service staff is suited. If you weren't born into the kind of money that might make dining here a natural, no-big-deal occurrence, it would be easy to feel out of place and self-conscious. Whether that feeling becomes thrilling or uncomfortable often rests in the hands of the service staff.
We settled in to order. I had dined at Mélisse before, but it was my husband's first experience of the place. As we looked over the wine list, we were thrilled to find a number of incredibly affordable choices, particularly some older vintages from lesser-known regions that fit in with our peculiar obsessions. We ordered a bottle. Immediately, a sommelier showed up. I get the feeling he initially was there to gauge whether we understood the bottle we had ordered, to make sure we wouldn't be turned off by its strangeness. But his conversational style was deft, and he showed no indication of disdain. Within a few minutes he had figured out that we were genuinely thrilled by his list, and that my husband had a history in the restaurant industry. From there, the night became quite magical.
The sommelier and his staff stopped by the table a few times to offer us tastes of special bottles he had open and to talk about wine. It felt as though special effort was made to make sure we were having a wonderful night — not because we were spending a ton of money but because they understood this was probably a rare occasion for us. It felt as if they'd swept us up in a beautiful dance. I had forgotten how incredible dining at that level could be. And I do it quite frequently. But Mélisse does it better than most.
Ostensibly this is a story about anonymity in restaurant criticism, and the upsides that people might not consider. The most touted feature of anonymity is its opposite function, wherein a critic might be subject to poor service or food because no one knows who he or she is. But its utility is just as important in the opposite scenario, in which a staff takes care of a customer exceptionally well without knowing anything about him; indeed while assuming that he is perhaps the least important person in the restaurant. If, in the case of my experience of Mélisse, the staff had known I was a critic, I couldn't have trusted the purity of their hospitality. (And yes, I'm quite sure they didn't know who I was — the reaction of the sommelier made it clear that at first they were a little worried we were in over our heads.) Of course a restaurant at that caliber is capable of excellent service, and of course they'd be able to orchestrate it for any VIP customer. To do it as a matter of course, for a couple who are spending less money than anyone else in the room and who are unlikely to be repeat customers? That's the sign of a truly great restaurant.
Over the past few weeks, as I prepare to launch this year's 99 Essential Restaurants issue, I've been eating in many of the best restaurants in L.A. It's a strange experience — even for a critic — to dine at all of the most expensive restaurants in town back to back, and it gives me a perspective that might be hard to come across any other way. This year, the question that keeps plaguing me is this: In an era where much of the most delicious food in the city is available for very little money in very casual settings, what makes it worth spending $400 on a meal? Is it even possible for these incredibly high-end places to retain any relevance in this climate?
"Peaches N Crepe" at Mélisse
For most of our readers, and for me on a personal, noncritic level, $400 for a meal is an unthinkable expense. If it's ever worthwhile, there are only two things that might justify it: The first is a meal so unique and artistic and memorable that it rises to the occasion of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The second is an incredibly special occasion, one that calls for somewhere that wraps you in luxury and makes you feel like royalty. Many of the restaurants that aim for that second experience end up failing their special-occasion customers, leaving them wondering why this type of dining exists at all.
This year, once again, it was Mélisse that convinced me of the worth of that second type of experience. I won't tell you it serves my favorite food in the city — though Citrin's cooking is something to behold, elegantly flavored and gorgeously plated. But it's the brand of hospitality, and the inclusiveness of that hospitality, that makes the restaurant shine. Does it feel a little old-fashioned in this era of tasting menus served to a hip-hop soundtrack and chefs as cult of personality? Sure. But for those of us who became obsessed with restaurants in part because of the grand pageantry of it all, there's nothing like having a meal unfold flawlessly, like the feeling of being truly taken care of. Last week, Mélisse was the only restaurant in Los Angeles to have been awarded five stars by the 2017 Forbes Travel Guide. These types of guides might be outdated in terms of awarding what diners really want from a restaurant, but I understand why this restaurant continues to win these types of accolades.
In many ways, it's patently absurd to spend $400 on one meal. But many wonderful things in life are absurd, and some occasions call for something especially ridiculous. This week, I'm grateful that Mélisse is still dedicated to its particular brand of wonderful ridiculousness.
No matter who you are, if you manage to find an occasion that's worthy, dinner at Mélisse will give you a story worth telling.
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