Michelin Star... take-out?
In accordance with shelter-in-place/stay-at-home orders, fine dining restaurants all over Los Angeles are switching to take-out. Like their more reasonably priced brethen, they too are struggling to stay in business during the global pandemic.
First up is the legendary n/naka, recently awarded Michelin 2* and one of the most difficult reservations to get in Los Angeles. For the incredible price of $38, they not only beat expectations on price (normal dine-in is $275), but they blew away expectations. They somehow managed to make cardboard feel special to a level beyond any of their competition.
The food is exquisite; you would never guess this was such an affordable (for fine dining) meal. Umeshu jelly, miso-marinated black cod... even the sashimi salad had a rare balance, that even if you can execute in-house (which isn't that rare), almost never translates to take-out. Yet this did. And the sushi had tuna rolls clearly a grade or two above even nicer places, the salmon also didn't look like much, but was superb.
Next up is Shunji, recently awarded 1* by Michelin. They don't do nearly the job n/naka does, but you wouldn't expect a 1* to compete with a 2*. However, they charge nearly twice the price ($70 vs. $38), which merely underscores just how crazy n/naka's pricing is. And at $70, honestly, the pricing is still a discount on what you would expect if you were to dine-in at Shunji.
Grilled shrimp, grilled fish, quail egg with uni... and pumpkin tofu?? It's delicate and tasty, but not the experience on your taste buds that the previous meal was. Being a sushi restaurant, tho, the sushi was indeed the focus: toro and scallop were both up to Shunji's usual excellent standards. And the salmon, which didn't look like much, was excellent.
Third meal of the gallery was Vespertine, another Michelin 2*. Unlike the first two meals, Vespertine picked up 2* not only on their food, but their whole experience. They built their own building (!), and that's just the opening shot in what Jonathan Gold called an otherworldly experience.
Sadly, at least this particular take-out menu of theirs didn't work for me. Chef Jordan Kahn dipped back to his Red Medicine days for an Asian fusion menu and the ton of food approach. It's good but not extraordinary or even particularly outstanding, with a massive bag full of boxes that feels more Costco than Michelin. Some of the menu items chosen, such as pork belly banh mi, were sub-optimal choices for take-out. Brisket, done Thai papaya salad style, is tasty but seems to miss the character of the meal? The porridge was rich and decadent, but that was the sole highlight? Even the grilled veggies were, while tasty, decidedly uninspired for a 2*.
That said, Vespertine just rotated their menu, and they probably deserve a second chance...
Next meal is back at Shunji-- their toro-don box is superb. They literally just got a bluefin in from Spain and proceeded to serve it up-- who could resist?!?! But it was also priced accordingly, so there is that. It's followed by an impromptu, decidedly not-fine-dining take-out of tsukumen from Tsujita LA. Which can be among the very best tsukumen in SoCal on some days, and merely very good others.
Sixth and final meal-- and the fifth fine dining meal, is Dialogue (1*). Price-wise, a middle ground, $39 and $49, and much like Vespertine, they changed their menu to fit take-out. Only much unlike Vespertine, they nailed it with their dishes. Chicken pot pie and beef shortrib wellington were both perfect choices for take-home, even the Basque cheesecake was NOMNOMNOM.
Regardless of COVID-19 ravaging the world, the first blooms of spring begin to appear.