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At Disney Hall’s house restaurant, chef Tony Esnault rocks the classics
Photograph by Misha Gravenor
If there’s any place left in L.A. that plays by the rules of the all-frills grande maison restaurant experience, it is Patina. Food runners, captains in dark suits, sommeliers, and cheese experts gracefully execute their duties around a chef—the name changes every few years—who invariably has a résumé filled with posts at legendary establishments heavy on Michelin stars. A busboy in a natty smock dragging his silver-plated crumber across the high-thread-count tablecloth is but the coda to the evening. ¶ Patina founder Joachim Splichal clearly has personal reasons for maintaining these standards. A German steeped in the highest levels of French dining, he worked at the storied Hotel Negresco in Nice under Jacques Maximin in the late 1970s—a period when Provençal cuisine was figuring out how olive oil fit into the haute world—and made his name when he opened L.A.’s Max au Triangle in the early ’80s with similar goals in mind for the local cuisine. He followed the 1989 opening of Patina on a dark stretch of Melrose with a string of restaurants that soon became a ubiquitous force. The Pinots in Hollywood, Pasadena, and wine country were duds, but the strategy of glomming onto cultural institutions has been a fabulous success. Want to have a bite after viewing the Zurbarán still life at the Norton Simon, eat something before catching Tony Bennett at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, carb up at Downtown Disney before entering the park, or take a break from touring LACMA? The Patina Restaurant Group has you covered.
But to have Armani Exchange, you must have Armani, and this is where Patina, which moved to Disney Hall in 2003, comes in. It is the lodestar, offering the highest version of a house style that Splichal devised when he was at the stove in the restaurant’s early years. Though classic in its reverence for stocks and butter, it’s smart enough to incorporate Mediterranean influences. Whoever’s heading the kitchen may work his own predilections into the menu, but all of the restaurant’s chefs stay within the bounds of a Europe-inflected formality. Almost a decade ago, it was Theo Schoenegger, an Italian from near the Austrian border, who injected the menu with a quasi-Tyrolean accent. He was followed by David Féau (now at the Royce), an alum of Guy Savoy in Paris who drew a modernist rapier across the abundance of the French countryside. For the past two years the chef has been Tony Esnault, who worked with the two Alains—Dutournier and Ducasse—and helped relaunch the storied Boston Ritz-Carlton before coming to L.A.
The formality that bubbles beneath his approach is a refreshing departure from the small plates and pig parts that dominate the restaurant scene. As remarkable as the new order can be, there’s still room for tradition that rides on measure, nuance, and proportion. Fancy doesn’t mean fossilized. Esnault can take potage Du Barry, a cream of cauliflower soup drawn from the crypt, and update it by roasting the florets in a cast-iron cocotte, then adding fresh marjoram to bring out the essence of the vegetable. In winter he practically runs a master class on Dover sole—the real stuff, no petrale here—serving it on the bone and dredged in flour meunière style or with vin jaune.
Esnault’s food shines because of its reticence. The bite of cucumber vinegar (something he learned to use working at Alsace’s Auberge de L’Ill) tugs gently with the scent of pickling spice under the hamachi with avocado crostini. A galantine of hare is one of the ballsiest appetizers I’ve seen in a long time: All you get is a circular slice of terrine on a bare plate. But what a terrine. Marinating the hare in a mustard, green Chartreuse, and ground juniper mix ratchets the intensity, while cubes of foie gras and sweetbreads enhance the forcemeat; the juices are retrieved and used to finish the whole at the moment of serving. Both haute and unembellished, it’s a preparation so devoted to the central ingredient, it embodies the cuisine bourgeoise that New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling described as “peasant cooking elevated to its greatest possible heights.”
Not that Esnault is at any risk of taking the whole pea-sant thing too far. There’s plenty of Alba truffle being shaved tableside for opera backers who think nothing of spending an extra $80 to give the parsnip risotto a boost. (I’m like an ex-smoker, craning my neck in their direction and taking in deep breaths.) Occasionally the chef seems to forget his own principle of placing craft before appearance—like when he finishes a poached egg with wild mushrooms and shards of gold leaf. As a neoclassical flourish, the precious metal is far surpassed by the toast points shaped like waning moons that surround the skate wing meunière, nodding to a tradition but also helping to mop up the delicious acidic sauce.
His cuisine is intent on straddling the rustic-refined trench. For the vegetable mosaic, each vegetable (beets, salsify, jumbo carrots, and sunchokes in winter) is braised in a different cocotte before being arranged like pavé diamonds. Esnault achieves the same kind of traction, playing ideal against ideal—earthy against elegant—with the John Dory, which comes with big cross-cut wedges of fennel that are browned until almost caramelized; robustness nudges the fish into being more than just sautéed pearly fillets. But the warm slices of leek and potato terrine that arrive with his seared scallops cannot pull off the same feat: The dish is more muted than subtle, leaving your taste buds in search of something to latch onto.
Esnault’s obsessions are meat, game, and the sauces that go with them. His kitchen browns and braises veal breasts for stocks and deglazes roasting pans multiple times for reductions. Rather than degreasing his stocks in the traditional manner—a sure way to water down the taste—and adding butter, he strives to maintain the right amount of oils to create an accompaniment that’s both limpid and potent. The beef tenderloin served with roasted carrots reaches a high note with a rustic sauce made from roasted trimmings. When you order the $62 bécasse, or woodcock, Esnault sends out the bird with a cruet of dark, rich liquid that holds a tangle of bones, vegetables, and herbs but becomes a clear, luscious sauce when poured through a mesh screen at the neck. It’s as if you’re the saucier’s apprentice straining the goods. Esnault stuffs the woodcock with foie gras, placing a leg confit with garlic in the center—a touch designed to counter the richness. Attuned to the chef’s sensibility, sommelier Silvestre Fernandes, who finds room amid the grand crus for nicely aged varietals from his native Portugal, suggests a $12 glass of Fronton A.O.C. Rather than coddling the bird the way a pinot noir would, the hearty négrette grape brings the dish out of its gentility, like a hayseed who wins over a deb.
The night I had the milk-fed veal rack for two, it was presented in an oval copper sautoir before general manager Christian Philippo did the carving. After setting the pink slices on plates bearing roasted Weiser Farms potatoes and turnips, he separated the bones. “The best part,” he said as he laid them on side plates. It was an insider’s comment communicating that, however grand things get, no one forgets that the tastiest morsel will always be the bone.
From the start Patina has been an eater’s restaurant (Esnault calls customers who want to know when the kitchen gets grouse in), but that m.o. was compromised with the move to Disney Hall. I’ve been there at nine o’clock when only three other tables were seated. It is at such instances you see the price of hitching a top restaurant’s languid pace to an unmovable curtain time.
Around 7:30 there’s a general rustling, a movement of many parties toward the exit, which precedes the fluttering of tablecloths as tables are reset. Sometimes people have left room for dessert but skip it because they’re up against the clock. Which is a pity. Barely 30, pastry chef Sarah Koechling is a brilliant new talent. She carries on the classical theme while reimagining the sweet offerings. Vacherin arrives on a disk of meringue that looks like a Wedgwood bas-relief. Balanced on top are tiny quenelles of guava and passion fruit sorbet, vivid flavors barely tamed by dabs of coconut cream. In season her pumpkin chiboust—a dreamy mix of Italian meringue, pastry cream, and pumpkin puree—sits on a sliver of brown butter tart dough. Despite the scattering of diced beets and carrots, the dough’s slightly nutty taste grounds the creativity in the taste of home.
That vaguely extravagant hominess may in fact be Patina’s signature. It is probably why the move to Disney Hall must have seemed preordained to Splichal. Patina would be the destination in the ultimate L.A. destination. If it hasn’t completely worked out—the restaurant today is part high-end commissary and part special-occasion temple—what remains unchanged is the quality and focus that each new chef brings. At the right moment Patina captures a rare snapshot of the city, as dressed-up diners walk through a flurry of activity in which ushers in gilt-sleeved uniforms keep ticket lines in order and musicians in white ties rush to the stage door.
141 South Grand Avenue, Downtown
Best Dishes: Wild Scottish hare galantine, braised radicchio with red quinoa, milk-fed veal rack for two, game, Dover sole, exotic-fruit vacherin, pumpkin chiboust with brown butter tart
Drinks: Interesting choice of $45 bottles in a world-class wine collection
Noise Level: Subdued
Kid Friendliness: Difficult for younger children
Price Range: $18 (garden salad) to $90 (veal rack for two)
Hours: Tue.-Sat., 5-9:30; Sun., 4-9. Post-theater on L.A. Phil performance nights
Parking: $8 valet, with validation; $9 in the building
Credit Cards: All major