The purest expression of chef Gary Menes' vision comes early in a meal at Le Comptoir, the new, permanent iteration of what had been his transient pop-up restaurant. Following a small amuse, perhaps a blistered shishito pepper over a tablespoon or so of crispy rice, and after a silky soup of early heirloom tomatoes poured over a Japanese sweet potato velouté with creme fraiche and fried bread, comes the "vegetable and fruit plate," a gorgeous and artful arrangement of the day's bounty. The description of this might read "potato, broccoli, corn, cauliflower marrow, beet, celery, celtuce, calamansi, pickled onion, persimmon, carrot, tangerine, cucumber, peas, broccoli, grape and more ..."
Menes has been making versions of this plate, with its multitudes of flavors, for years, though never in his own space. That has now changed, and while "permanent" is the differing factor here (Menes signed a 10-year lease), it's not a word I'd use to describe the feel of the place. It's as if Menes' aesthetic remains tied to the restlessness that has been a mainstay of Le Comptoir thus far.
In the world of ever-more-stripped-down, ever-less-luxurious "fine" dining, no operation is more spare than Le Comptoir, which now is fixed in a small storefront attached to the Hotel Normandie. The restaurant is nothing more than a counter facing a kitchen. There's no sign, no art on the walls, no stove in the kitchen (the cooking is done on hot plates) — barely anything that would indicate this is a place you might come to be fed, and not a bar of some sort that's still under construction. Even more so than Alma or Trois Mec or Starry Kitchen or any of our city's many experiments in austerity, Le Comptoir raises the question of how much one can remove from the restaurant experience before it ceases to fulfill its main objective. And what is that objective?
Menes himself has been working at this particular form of dining for a long time, since before the sparse chef + food + diner – anything else style of eating became a trend. Prior to Le Comptoir's arrival in late December, Menes had been surfacing in various spaces for years, always with the same format. You sit at a counter (Le Comptoir means "the counter" in French), he does the cooking with perhaps a few helpers (generally nonprofessional chefs, including, in this iteration, a UCLA biochemistry major and a bartender), and over a couple of hours he presents a tasting menu. His menus have always been vegetable-focused — since way before the glut of "veggies are the new pork belly!" trend pieces of the past couple of years. In this latest configuration, there are supplements that can be subbed in for several courses, and many of those are meaty, but a serious focus on vegetables remains Menes' passion. In fact, without the supplements the six-course, $69 menu is pure vegetarian.
Since leaving the traditional restaurant world in 2011 (he trained at the French Laundry and cooked at Palate Food + Wine, Patina and Marché before launching Le Comptoir as a pop-up), Menes has devoted himself to a simple task: growing vegetables on an organic farm in Long Beach and cooking and serving those vegetables to just a few people. This is the format; he's never wavered from it.
In this particular room, there are 10 seats at the counter, though I've eaten here with as few as three other customers, the four of us served by Menes and two helpers. It's dining as intimate as it comes (if intimacy with your cooks and not necessarily your dining companion is what you're after).
Menes' farm and its harvest provide the basis for the six-course meal he serves, courses that pair decidedly unsweet butternut squash with the sugary pop of preserved blueberries, or stone-ground polenta with sweet onion, onion jus, apple, almonds and romanesco. Though veggies are Menes' main infatuation, other obsessions reveal themselves: the stretchy, chewy, crusty bread made from a 20-year-old starter; the single-origin coffee; the optional cheese course with rare cheeses. For any and all of these items, Menes will give you the rundown as he serves you, gushing about the 90-year-old who produced your creamy Roquefort or describing the exact roasting process of his coffee beans.
For an extra $25, you can forgo the vegetable and fruit plate and instead have a slab of foie gras terrine, or give up the decadent oeuf en cocotte — an egg bathed in brown butter, served with delicate baby lettuce and slabs of bread — and opt for the Santa Barbara rock lobster with a "bisque" foam and cauliflower leaves. These supplements are more in line with what you'd get at a traditional tasting-menu joint and can provide a nice contrast to the grains and roots and berries.
About those supplemental items: On my visits to Le Comptoir, many customers (myself included) played the game where one person in the party got all the optional dishes while the other had the regular menu, thereby allowing both guests to share and try everything on offer. This is entertaining but makes the meal insanely expensive and far too rich (if you swap out every possible item, your personal bill will be around $170 before drinks, tax or tip). My feeling is, that's not how Menes intended the supplements to be experienced. Instead, I'm guessing he imagined folks might opt for one or two of the alternative dishes, treating themselves to a $30, showered-with-truffles tagliolini or a $16 dry-aged prime beef, which might bring the check closer to $100 a person and make it slightly more personalized.
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There's a lot at Le Comptoir that will frustrate the traditionalist. There is a wine pairing, full of oddball and delicious finds, and it's basically the only option for wine. "We can, of course, sell you a regular glass of wine," one of the helpers/cooks/servers said to me on one occasion; another evening they seemed uncertain of that possibility. You cannot buy wine by the bottle, though you may bring your own if you're willing to pay $42 per bottle for corkage. You'll settle up at the end of the meal by swiping your card through a device on Menes' iPad or cellphone. The high stools you'll sit on are hardly plush comfort. The entire experience is calibrated for focus on the food and nothing else.
In the end, it comes down to whether you're willing to remove your own ego from the dining experience and give in completely to the will and vision of this particular chef. It's not something we're used to in the States, though it is a tenet of Japanese dining, where the sushi chef is the master and obeying his whims is part of the experience. In fact, eating here is very much like eating at the sushi bar of a serious omakase-only spot, albeit a little friendlier overall. But for this kind of money, Le Comptoir is a little too austere, even for my tastes. A certain amount of wine and revelry and indulgence is appreciated when it comes to $100-plus–per-person meals.
This doesn't change the fact that Le Comptoir is so much more interesting, and memorable, than many of L.A.'s more luxurious endeavors. Menes is not here to please everyone, and some will question whether his enterprise could really be called a restaurant at all. It's a place where one man cooks the food he wants to and serves it with the wine he likes. He's excited to share these things with you, to let you in on his passions and have you enjoy the literal fruits of his labor. For the right diner, this level of personal ardor will feel superior in every way to the more comfortable but purely transactional experiences available everywhere else.
LE COMPTOIR | Three stars | 3606 W. Sixth St., Koreatown | No phone | lecomptoirla.com | Tue.-Sat., seatings at 6 & 8:30 p.m. | Six-course tasting for $69; supplements available | Wine | Valet and street parking