I'm turning 50 next month and I'd like to go somewhere with an outstanding tasting menu. I'm willing to splurge, but I am not a fancy girl and prefer somewhere that's not stuffy or where I have to wear high heels.
--L.M., Los Angeles
Dear Ms. M.:
Fifty! That's a big one. Congratulations. The grandfather of all birthdays divisible by five. You deserve an appropriate celebration. If it were me, I'd be thinking along the lines of an entire herd of organic, sustainably raised rare-breed swine, roasted in a backyard garden and served dripping, fragrant and impossibly crisp, arranged on a massive table like porcine Floradora Girls with apples in their mouths. But that's my own particular obsession.
The town is rich in grand tasting menus, however, and you're going to do just fine. Mélisse, which specializes in tasting menus, has more permutations of its degustation feasts than there are days in February, yet I feel that it may be a bit more fancy-girl of a place than you have in mind, as is Valentino probably, unless you can arrange for your consort to refer to you as La Contessa throughout the evening. A tasting menu at Spago, while one of L.A.'s great experiences, often feels less like a singular occasion than a glimpse into the lives of people who dine like this on a fairly regular basis. (Unless you have recently Thanked the Academy, or happen to be Lady Gaga, there is no way you are going to be the star of that particular room.)
Would the pasta tasting menu at Osteria Mozza be worthy of the occasion? I think it might be. It is an awful lot of pasta, exquisitely prepared, and afterward you get to say that you have eaten calves-brain ravioli with sage. Might a menu at Rivera work? Possibly, although the cross-cultural juxtapositions may leave you thinking you've ridden the roller coaster one too many times. Is Nobu a possibility? Of course, although in this case the ground may be a bit too trodden -- surprise is no longer a tool in Mr. Matsuhisa's arsenal.
This leaves us, I suspect, unless your pocketbook is up for the $500 per person that a meal at Urasawa might run, with Providence, Michael Cimarusti's subdued, tasteful palace of Japanese-accented modern seafood cookery. The contents of Providence's tasting menus shift more often than the tides, but small, exquisite courses of fish and crustaceans are presented with an artist's exactitude, service is understated and close to perfect, and the matching wine pairing may well include a rare sake or a cocktail custom-crafted to go with the dish. You will enter your second half-century serene, relaxed and a bit wiser than you left the first.