89: Live Santa Barbara Spot Prawns at Providence.
Providence is the sort of place where you expect to be impressed, perhaps even astonished. Michael Cimarusti's Hollywood restaurant has been open now for seven years -- a suitably biblical number for a restaurant that easily duplicates both fishes and Michelin stars -- and it seems to avoid both trend and complacency with a similar ease. Sure, there's seaweed in the bread and yuzu kosho in the mayonnaise, but it seems as logical as the lobster tank in the kitchen: an alignment of taste and style and execution. A miniature taco of diced raw fish, a nasturtium leaf pressed up like a tortilla, is exact, locally specific and disproportionately hilarious, as if the characters from Tuck Everlasting were hiding behind the pots in the kitchen.
There are plenty of crescendo dishes, the ta-da plates of foie gras ravioli with pickled summer truffle or exquisite bowls of kampachi and oro blanco and edible flowers like jewelry in an open box. But perhaps the most remarkable dish at a restaurant with a baffling number of them is the simplest: A bare white plate upon which have come to rest a few split Santa Barbara spot prawns, very recently alive and kicking, accompanied only by lemon wedges and a bit of French olive oil. Ta-da yourself.
It is an utterly local and seasonal dish, of course, the local being Santa Barbara, the season being as long as we have them for, and it's been on the menu since the restaurant has been open. How the prawns get to your minimalistic plate is the story, as much as is the eating of them. If you've been sitting at the bar for a while, say, drinking your drinks and talking with the ghost of Joachim Splichal (just kidding: The location previously housed the old Patina), you'll have seen the cart wheel by. It looks like a cheese cart and perhaps once was: It runs with the silence only German engineers can create, and it probably cost more than your 2008 Toyota. Thus you've smelled the carts before you've seen them, much less heard them. A cloud of rosemary. A marine layer of salt.
The prawns have been placed, still quite alive, in a copper pot like the kind normal people cook cassoulet in, then buried under salt that has been first heated to 400 degrees and embedded with fresh rosemary. Into the oven, also at 400 degrees, for exactly 3 1/2 minutes. Then wheeled to your table, where the prawns are disinterred, brushed off nicely, butterflied and arranged pristinely before you.
At this point, the only thing to do is to eat your dinner with your fingers, which may seem at odds with the general atmosphere of the room -- the people in good suits, that German engineering -- but really is the only way to do this justice. And considering the price tag (an appetizer is three prawns and $39; a main is six and $65), you'll want to be sucking the last bit of A.O.C. French Provençal extra virgin olive oil and perfectly seasonal prawn out of that shell. Enjoy yourself thoroughly. They'll give you a finger bowl when you're done.