Thirty-year-old Alex Scrimgeour, the chef/“proprietor” of the new, eponymous Alex on Melrose, has taken a famous, seminal restaurant space — Michel Richard’s Citrus — and remade it in his own image, thus writing another chapter in the ongoing story of Los Angeles restaurants: The inventive, groundbreaking older chef gives way to the talented A student.
Citrus’ logo was written in clean, slim, block capital letters; Alex’s is in gold art nouveau script, replete with flourishes. Citrus, with its solarium-bright dining room and open kitchen, was all about sun and visibility — the rich and famous saw each other there in heightened daylight; Alex’s sage-green walls and heavy mahogany beams and chairs pay homage to romantic dimness, to a certain clubby, upholstered privacy — dare I say stodginess? The open kitchen has been partially scrimmed behind green-and-yellow stained glass, the colors, we’re told, of Scrimgeour’s tartan.
Richard, a Frenchman, was one of Los Angeles’ first celebrity chefs and a formative force in California cuisine. Nancy Silverton, of Campanile, once explained to me why Richard was a genius and she was not: “I improve on things, but he invents them.” Scrimgeour, an Englishman, trained at both the London and Paris campuses of the Cordon Bleu, and graduated at the top of his class. His cooking speaks of studious achievement; while you can attribute almost all of his dishes to other chefs, his versions are consistently adept and often excellent.
Scrimgeour’s résumé includes stints at Jeremiah Tower’s Stars in San Francisco, the Ritz Carlton’s Aspen Grill and, most recently, the Saddle Peak Lodge in Malibu. At Alex, his cooking reflects California cuisine’s allegiance to fresh ingredients and classical French technique; he has a facility with game and, less fortunately, a penchant for the corporate ambiance of hotel dining rooms and banquet facilities. As for those huge flower paintings on the wall — Scrimgeour’s mom painted ’em. (We thought as much.)
Meals may be ordered à la carte or as a four-course $58 prix fixe menu assembled from a wide variety of choices — but I’m not certain this is the best deal. Also, for $95 a person, Scrimgeour will cook a nine-course tasting menu.
First-course stunners include sea scallops with yellow beets, marinated fresh anchovies with Spanish ham and spirited red piquillo peppers, a well-executed tapas dish; a skate wing crusted, like so many other fish in restaurants, with coriander; and the California cuisine standby, a goat-cheese soufflé on a nice tuft of frisée tossed with good bacon.
The “middle” course is smaller and less interesting. That’s why I’d skip the prix fixe in favor of a three-course $58 à la carte dinner of slightly larger portions. The asparagus and quail’s-egg salad is a heap of teeny boiled asparagus and a teaspoon of “egg salad,” the (unpeeled) langoustine with anchovy butter a chore to eat for small return. A white asparagus flan was bitter, and its pairing with flecks of shiitake mushroom made little sense. Our passions were stirred only by the smoky grilled quail.
The kitchen shines, however, in the main courses. Pancetta-wrapped sea bass is a thrilling balance between the pure-white mild fish and the crisp, smoked saltiness of bacon. Superb veal tenderloin — you can taste milk in the meat — is drizzled with a foie gras butter emulsion that is pure gastronomic eros. The fine flavor and heartbreaking tenderness of the filet mignon eclipses the bland ricotta gnocchi. Dry aged cote de boeuf (for two) is not for the faint of heart; you really taste the full cheesy tang of artfully induced decomposition.
Except for the fluffy banana millefeuille spiked with dark rum, desserts need help. The chocolate soufflé and triple-chocolate marquise have only the faintest chocolate flavor, and the tarte tatin with toasted-almond ice cream is almost too sweet to eat.
Alex’s prices and reservation policy are on a par with Spago’s: Reservations for us unknowns are limited to 6:45 and after 8:45, with the prime hours blocked out for God knows whom. When we dined at 6:45, the place remained half-empty until well past 9 o’clock. Such an attempt to create buzz seems haughty and self-defeating.
Alex has its clientele — there is a non-hip Hollywood! And Scrimgeour’s and chef du cuisine Anne Conness’ talents in the kitchen are sturdy and inarguable. But the remodeled room is dark and staid, the heavy chairs uncomfortable, the live piano bland, the waiters too detached (and hard to find) and the reservation policy too restrictive.
It may seem that I’m mourning Citrus at the expense of Alex, but the truth is, the last meals I ate at Citrus were expensive and forgettable — the very menu seemed dispirited. My first meals at Alex have been impressive and largely delicious. The menu exudes a refreshing ambition and energy, and Scrimgeour, star pupil that he is, will doubtless continue to excel.
6703 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 933-5233. Open for lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner Mon.–Sat. Entrées $29. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V.