Think about your favorite restaurant. How many times did you go there this year? How much did it cost? How often would you go if price and time were no object?
Here at L.A. Weekly, we're obvious fans of Curtis Stone's elegant tasting-menu restaurant in Beverly Hills, Maude (our restaurant critic, Besha Rodell, named it No. 1 in her list of L.A.'s 20 Best Restaurants). But it turns out that our fandom is dwarfed by Los Angeles–based wine marketing and event planner Allison Levine.
Maude is well known for its strict and difficult reservation system (until October, bookings could be made only by phone), but through sheer force of will, Levine dined at Maude for every monthly ingredient-themed tasting menu in 2015. Of course, the main barrier to eating at a high-end restaurant 12 times in a year seems like it would be money (Levin admits she spent around $3,000 in her personal quest), but with Maude the added level of dedication required in organization is daunting.
Fascinated by Levine's journey of obsession, we asked her to share with us her yearlong process in becoming Maude's No. 1 fan. To be clear, Levine was never given comped meals or priority seating by the restaurant. She had to elbow in for a seat at Curtis Stone's table like everyone else. Below is her story, shared in email transcripts with the Weekly.
LAW: What made you decide to eat all the monthly menus at Maude? Would you call yourself a huge Curtis Stone fan?
AL: When Curtis Stone opened up his restaurant in Beverly Hills in January 2014, I was actually unaware. I knew Curtis Stone as a television chef with shows like Top Chef Masters and Take Home Chef but wasn't familiar with his restaurant pedigree. As a “foodie,” I want to eat at every new restaurant when it opens, so when I heard a few people talk about their dining experience at Maude that first month, I immediately called to make a reservation. Little did I know what I was getting into. I called at the beginning of February thinking I would be able to get a reservation for that month, only to find out that February was already booked and they were taking March reservations. I reached out to some friends to see who was interested in joining me and pulled together three people to join me for the artichoke dinner in March 2014.
After that, I was hooked and a definite Curtis Stone fan. I was fascinated by the concept of selecting one seasonal ingredient each month and featuring it, sometimes dominantly and other times subtly, into 10 or more courses. I was also intrigued by the creativity in how the ingredients were utilized and the beauty of every dish. I couldn't resist and took lots of photos and posted them on social media. I began getting emails from friends who wanted to join me when I went again. I took down names and managed to visit Maude six different months in 2014. I loved how each experience at Maude was unique and unexpected. So I made my New Year's resolution in 2014 to eat at Maude every month of 2015, regardless of the theme or cost.
LAW: What was your secret to making phone reservations?
AL: Eating at Maude takes a lot of pre-planning, organization and focus. As an event planner by day, I was happy to take on the role of organizer among friends. But this was quite an undertaking, and unfortunately there are no secret tips. Reservations for Maude were available the first of the month, for the following month. For example, April reservations are available on March 1. With seating for only 25 people, and only two seatings per night, reservations are obviously limited. The first of each month at 10 a.m. — except if that date fell on a Sunday or Monday — a single phone line would open. If and when one got through, you hoped that the date(s) desired were still available or you had to accept whatever was offered.
As I set out on my mission to eat at Maude every month, I reached out to the friends who had joined me in the past or who had expressed interest in joining me. These friends were bloggers, wine industry colleagues and food-loving friends. I compiled the featured ingredient for each month and sent out an email to everyone asking them to tell me the months they were interested in. Most people responded to me, some telling me they were interested in every month and others picking one or two. This was the first step. I sorted the responses and put them in my calendar for each corresponding month, as well as a reminder alarm to go off two weeks before the first of the month.
Two weeks prior, I would reach out to everyone who expressed interest in the upcoming month. The challenge was to find enough common available dates to accommodate those interested that month. As there was only one six-top table at Maude, with only one seating per night, there were less options available to us. I put together anywhere between three and 10 dates that would work for the group and then wait until the first of the month.
On the first of the month at 10 a.m. on the dot, I would start calling the reservation line. I do not have an assistant that I could delegate this to and had to make time in my schedule to do this. I never knew how long I would be trying to call in, so I would block out the morning so that I could not get distracted by meetings and phone calls. The reservations for February began when I was in San Francisco for the Fancy Food Show, so I went to the trade show and walked the floor while dialing and hanging up, over and over, for two hours until I got through. On Tuesday, June 2, when I needed to make reservations for July, I had an 11 a.m. flight to Chicago, so I went through security at the airport and starting calling Maude at 10 a.m. hoping I would get through before the flight took off. As I was boarding the plane, the reservationist came on the line and I had to ask her to hold on while I lifted my bag into the overhead bin.
Each month I spent anywhere between one and three hours calling. But then in August, while calling for September reservations, I was the first call of the day! I was in shock but also acquired an arrogance that I had figured out the system. Unfortunately, I had not. When I called on Sept. 1 for October reservations, I had to dial the number 392 times before I got through at 10:49 a.m.
Then in October, for November reservations, Maude shifted to an online ticketing system. You no longer had to call and call and call until you got through. Now you could go online at 10 a.m. on the first of the month (including Sunday and Monday) and select a date. But with this new change, you also have to prepay for the entire meal (food, tax and gratuity). It was a somewhat seamless transition but added a little more stress in having to front the money for everyone and request payment after.
LAW: You mentioned you dined with six other guests. Who were these people and was it always the same people?
AL: There was only one six-top table at Maude and that table became “my table” for one night each month. Some friends joined me multiple months and others only once, but each month there was a different group of six people. This is what made the dinner all the more interesting, as most of the time not everyone knew each other when they arrived. Of course we all left as friends though.
LAW: Did you meet anyone else who had accomplished what you had? What was their motivation?
AL: According to Maude, I am one of less than two dozen people who have made it to Maude every month in 2015. I have yet to meet any of them.
LAW: How much would you estimate the dinners cost, all told?
AL: The menu each month ranged from $90 to $140 per person, except for white truffles in November ($375) and black truffles in December ($225). There's also a wine pairing option. But as one of my regular dining companions (who attended eight of the 12 dinners) works as the wine buyer for a large auction house, he would graciously bring wines from his cellar to share with the group. Some months he brought wine collector friends with him to the dinner, who would also bring wines to share. So, in addition to the meal, we would typically order a bottle of Champagne from the Maude menu and then pay a corkage fee of $50 per bottle for the wines we brought. In total, I probably spent a little more than $3,000 on my year at Maude.
LAW: What was your favorite theme? And favorite dishes from that theme?
AL: When I first looked over the 2015 list of featured ingredients, I was most interested in pomegranate, avocado, fig and, of course, white and black truffle. I was least interested in the chili theme in July and if it wasn't for my challenge, I probably would have skipped that month. But the two months where just about every single dish resulted in a resounding “oh my god” were passion fruit and, surprisingly, chili.
I expected the chili menu to be about the heat and spice. Instead, Curtis prepared dishes where you could taste the actual subtle and delicate flavors of the chili. The dinner started with amuse bouche of Padron pepper with ricotta and panko bread, and Beausoleil oysters with sake granita and pickled jalapeños. Then, course after course, we continued to be impressed.
The passion fruit menu was also a favorite from start to finish, each dish balancing the sweetness and tartness of the passion fruit with spices. Hot and sour soup with pickled green tomatoes; beech mushrooms, hearts of palm, mushroom stock and Indonesian sambal; golden beet marinated in passion fruit juice with mascarpone, marjoram and olive oil; surf clam with kiwi, Thai basil, passion fruit gel and froth; and John Dory served in a passion fruit beurre blanc with dehydrated capers, purslane stems and leaves.
Some of these dishes still make me drool thinking about them months later.
LAW: What was your least favorite theme?
AL: While some months shined above the others, there was not one month that I really disliked. Some menus did not excite me as much, though. I love pomegranate and, while I enjoyed the meal, in comparison to passion fruit, the pomegranate was more one-dimensional, with the tartness of the pomegranate dominating each course.
LAW: What is something you learned about Maude that you didn’t realize during your first visit?
AL: One thing I learned about Maude after the first visit was how talented Curtis Stone and his team are. They do not begin developing the menu until a few weeks before the menu goes live. As the ingredients are seasonal, they're not able to create and test recipes until the ingredients are accessible.
While I knew the featured ingredient each month, I did not know that we would be given a printed menu at the end of the meal. As the food is presented, the server offers a detailed description of the dish. I began to write down the dishes and ingredients as they came out. Even though I then learned that I would have a menu at the end of the dinner, I continued the tradition of writing down everything as they would describe it. The Maude staff is so familiar with me now that they make sure to stand near me as they describe the dish. They speak slowly and are ready to repeat everything for me so that I can take my diligent notes. Whenever Curtis Stone is in the kitchen and serves at least one course himself, my note-taking ability diminishes. One time when he served the course and offered an eloquent description, he walked away and not one of us as the table could remember what he said. We were so enamored with him and the Australian accent that we were distracted.
LAW: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do the same feat? Will you try again in 2016?
AL: Well, with limited seating and the demand for those seats, do I want to encourage others to do this? Not really. It takes planning and coordination and money, obviously. Now with the ticketing system, you have to pay upfront. So not only do you have to coordinate dates with your friends but you have to fully commit to the date.
The creativity in ingredients and diversity in the menus, month after month, is what keeps me coming back. I completed 2015 and have a reservation already for January 2016 and am working on February 2016. But do I have another year in me? I guess that will depend on my budget.
Maude dinners of 2015
January – Pomegranate
February – Parsnip
March – Fennel
April – Asparagus
May – Almond
June – Avocado
July – Chili
August – Fig
September – Passion Fruit
October – Apple
November – White Truffle
December – Black Truffle