During the course of dinner at Providence, you might taste Japanese kanpachi seasoned with soy and a powder made from dehydrated tortilla masa, white Mexican shrimp nestled in a blob of cauliflower cream with caviar that comes straight from Joel Robuchon’s Parisian playbook, and a chunk of rare Scottish cod with Hungarian lipstick peppers and spicy Spanish chorizo. Tai snapper, from Japan’s Inland Sea, might show up with a perfectly Italian compote of tomatoes and basil; Maine lobster comes with a South African Rooibos tea vinaigrette, and Oregon king salmon with an arrangement of Japanese sweet potato, cabbage, and salmon eggs that somehow tastes completely German. Providence may be the most modern restaurant in Los Angeles at the moment, a Space Age shotgun marriage of European rigor and free-floating California ease, severe Loire whites and groovy sake cocktails, a Francophile Italian maitre d’ and an all-American chef whose seafood menu encompasses more discrete world cultures than any six David Byrne albums.
Michael Cimarusti, Providence’s proprietor and chef, comes to the restaurant from the Water Grill downtown, which he transformed from a pleasant place to eat oysters to a palace of business-class fish, precise assemblages of seafood and exotic produce whose provenance oscillated back and forth between Asia and the Mediterranean, the raw and the cooked. Of all the chefs in Los Angeles who didn’t happen to be Japanese, Cimarusti was the guy who best understood the curatorial function of a 21st-century chef in a great port city, the necessity not just of finding great seafood and cooking it well, but of recontextualizing its textures and flavors in a way that rubs up against all of our preconceptions of what a specific fish might be. In Maryland, where the substance is common, a spoonful of lump blue-crab meat is one thing. In Los Angeles, when the same spoonful is decorated with a single ribbon of ripe avocado, a smidgen of Espelette pepper from French Basque country, and a smoky scrap or two of Japanese dried bonito, it becomes something else entirely.
When he left the stoves at Water Grill last year, well-heeled fish lovers waited expectantly for his new restaurant, which was widely rumored to become the Los Angeles equivalent of venerated fish temples like Le Bernardin and Oceana in New York. Providence occupies Joachim Splichal’s old Patina space, but the hollowed-out apartment building has been converted into something like the underside of a fishing pier as seen by an octopus, all watery lighting, sea anemone candle holders, and walls encrusted with crumpled ceramic discs that resemble a mutant cross between barnacles and sand dollars, with friendly dude-like service. At this glowing new restaurant he managed to fulfill even those superhigh expectations — this is among the best restaurants ever to hit Los Angeles. Cimarusti cooks each piece of seafood exactly the way it ought to be cooked; his preparations never get in the way of the fish. It just doesn’t get better than Cimarusti’s spectacular tartare of live spot prawns served with buttery leaves of brik pastry, sautéed squid with piquillo peppers and meltingly soft slivers of stewed pig’s ear, or a terrine of foie gras with muscat gelée that may be the best foie gras preparation in this whole foie gras–happy town.
As with many modernist dinners, Cimarusti serves so many small courses that it is sometimes hard to ascertain when the palate ticklers end and the proper meal begins. Perhaps you will see tiny, creamy Nantucket bay scallops, the first of the season, sprinkled with minced hot Thai chiles and a few drops of yuzu juice, or a Santa Barbara spot prawn, cooked and chilled, served with a small puddle of jellied tangerine juice and a dusting of its own orange-red eggs, which pop in the mouth like champagne bubbles.These may in turn take you to other dishes only marginally more substantial, which may include a rich, microscopically chunky salsify soup garnished with a bit of grilled mackerel and a wisp of the fried vegetable; a slice or two of pink-fleshed Tasmanian trout served over diced squash in a porcelain spoon; and a minuscule rack of rabbit served with an ounce or so of rare loin, a loose tapenade, and a small dice of the rabbit’s organs, infinitesimal cubes of liver and kidney and heart strewn around the plate as casually as if they were minced black olives. Cimarusti is clearly most comfortable as a miniaturist, a chef whose intentions speak in small, precise gestures, and the basic unit of consumption at Providence is the “market menu,” a multicourse degustation of five or seven courses that change each day, accompanied if you like by glasses of wine chosen from the vast cellar, punctuated with a selection of artisanally ripened cheeses from the cart.
By the time you have experienced the ecstasy of his slow-scrambled eggs with fresh white truffles; his basil-scented grouper with the Provençal chickpea fritters called panisses; his crayfish sauteed with sweetbreads and porcini; and his plate of matsutake mushrooms served three ways — shaved into raw slices and draped over sugar snap peas, slivered and lightly pickled atop monkfish, and shredded and fried into something resembling Don King’s hair — your hunger will be sated, your synapses on overload, your senses heightened to the point that an after-dinner chocolate becomes as eloquent as a sonnet, and you will have ingested nothing larger than a passed hors d’oeuvre.
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Providence, 5955 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 460-4170 or www.providencela.com. Open for lunch Wed.–Fri.; for dinner Mon.–Sat. AE, MC, V accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Main courses $32–$38; tasting menus $70 and $90.