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Money Changes Everything

As someone whose midday meal usually consists of leftovers, or a tamale from the cheapie-but-goodie taco hut up the street, I am not even on a last-name basis with the $65 lunch. Not that this renders me immune from ladies-who-lunch envy, and lately, no place has inspired more food-lust than Melisse, a French restaurant owned by chef Josiah Citrin (formerly of Patina and, more recently, JiRaffe) that, since opening last year, has earned “Best New” status from all the big culinary magazines and drooling praise from many a Westside acquaintance. When a friend mentions that Melisse serves a marvelous prix-fixe lunch, I see a way to have my cake and pay rent, too.

Seated in the frankly feminine dining room, amid enormous sprays of lilies and beneath a chandelier that reminds me of the shimmering dreamscape opening of Family Affair, two fellow freelancers and I, in our best day dresses and thus hoping to pass for regular customers, allow a graceful squad of stewards and sommeliers to proffer plump slices of brioche, wine in a glass as fragile and beautiful as any I’ve seen, and a “gift from the chef,” espresso cups brimming with an ice-green froth that turns out to be a tart, intensely flavored cold cucumber soup. Wow.

I tell S., who is already saying yes to more bread, that she looks a little thin.

“Poverty,” she says.

Our plan, to order from the $40 prix-fixe menu, is foiled when it turns out to be a very fixed menu: one lunch, with small portions of three entrees -- scallops, ahi tuna and roasted lamb. None of us wants all three; each of us wants one. Then there‘s the array of starters beckoning from across the page. Our gentle host mentions that prix-fixe items may be ordered a la carte.

We may never pass this way again . . .

We begin with foie gras, barely seared, quivering like a living thing when cut into, its flavor deeply nutty, filling the mouth, and perfectly complemented by a pool of huckleberry reduction and one fleshy black fig, tasting of smoke from its poaching in Banyuls. Butternut-squash soup, lightly sweet, lush though not creamy, harbors treasures in its depths -- ravioli smaller than dice, stuffed with chestnut puree, and a chiffonade of sauteed black chanterelles. This is a tremendous soup. Maryland lump crab salad brings summer’s cool and fall‘s colors, a pink grapefruit dressing brightening large morsels of crab, avocado and diced Fuyu persimmon.

Melisse is not a power-lunch spot; no one appears to be rushing, and not a cell phone is heard. The only noise at all comes from the patio (with its bubbling fountain and retractable roof), where a charity event is under way. From our table, we see three dozen women in casual couture, appearing as though this repast is an everyday thing.

“Imagine . . .,” I whisper to S. and A., and the three of us muse on a life of delicious privilege until the entrees arrive. Maine scallops have a bronzed exterior crackling with the kick and slick of lemon and butter, but inside are tender and as white as milk. Roasted loin of lamb, cooked exactly as ordered (rare), arrives around a jumble of haricots verts, fresh corn, chanterelles, and shallots roasted until so sweet that I mistake them for apricots. Though this is A.’s plate, I cannot keep my fork out of it. I am a bit less impressed with the ahi; while the cubes of tuna are chubby and pink, the accompaniments are a bland parade: loose carrot puree, baby (yawn!) bok choy and a pool of Asian nage tinged with ginger and lemongrass.

We linger over dessert, a flourless chocolate almond cake bearing no resemblance to those dark, wet slabs that prove artless if delicious. This has a delicate and crunchy shell, dusted with almonds, and a silken chocolate center. Lemon raspberry meringue tart and a lemon ice box turn out to be two snazzy desserts on one plate. Only the profiteroles fall short, as they are dry and difficult to maneuver, their centers filled with very cold banana, chocolate and coffee ice creams. A silver pitcher of bittersweet chocolate sauce helps, and is quite easy to eat with a spoon.

“What a treat,” A. says, and I agree, until the bill comes -- $193 for lunch, with but one glass of wine. Part of the reason: While no lunch entree is priced higher than $21 (for filet mignon), the prix-fixe items, when ordered separately, are stratospheric, as in $36 for eight scallops. And that bottle of mineral water we‘d ordered once kept coming. Ah, well, the trade we make for memories of squash soup with chanterelles.

Waiting for our cars, next to planters profuse with purple basil, lavender and lemon balm (whence Melisse takes its name), S. and I realize we have no cash for parking. Back to the real world, so harsh. And yet, perhaps . . . yes . . . two tamales tomorrow.

1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 395-0881; www.melisse.com. Open for lunch Wed.--Fri. noon--2 p.m.; dinner Mon.--Thurs. 6--10 p.m., Fri.--Sat. 6--10:30 p.m., Sun. 6--9 p.m. Appetizers, $8--$19; entrees, $17--$38; prix fixe lunch, $40; tasting-menu dinner, $65. Full bar. AE, DC, MC, V.

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Melisse

1104 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401

310-395-0881

www.melisse.com


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