Nothing quite prepares you for the power of the salsify dish at the Royce. A vegetable that’s a lot of trouble to work with, its earthy, dark exterior has to be peeled to reveal white flesh with the texture of a carrot but that must be cooked. The French use it less for its taste than as an evocation of the native soil. At the Langham hotel’s new restaurant, chef David Féau just goes off on the root: A dab of puree serves as a base for oven-dried chips and braised batons, which, when rolled in leek ash, look like they’re once again covered in the loam in which they grew. Cajun spices sprinkled on the border of the plate make the whole even less genteel. “Take that!” the combination says to the whispers of diners, to the ceremonious tableside uncorking of premier cru, to the stream of waiters marching out of the kitchen bearing silver trays.
In an era of informality the Royce is defiantly formal: Women put on something special before coming here; more than a few men wear ties. The staff is also nattily dressed, carrying oversize showpiece china in a gorgeously redesigned dining room. Decorated in all-white Hollywood regency furniture, cushions strewn on the banquettes, it sports a pair of modish glass-and-steel chambers by the entrance that house the great wine collection overseen by general manager Eric Espuny. More dramatic is what looms across the floor: a full-size glass wall looking onto a verdant garden once hidden from view. It used to be that the experience of dining here was slightly twisted. As dusk was filtering through the oaks, you’d drive along some of Pasadena’s more moneyed streets, arrive at the stately 1907 hotel, and make your way to…a windowless warren that resembled a men’s club. The last two chefs struggled mightily to counteract the dullness. Craig Strong embraced the stateliness with a style that was all proportion and rounded, buttery notes. Michael Voltaggio followed with a blend of the molecular and the impish, where tomato seeds might be a garnish and brined pigeon was transformed as pastrami. It still wasn’t enough of an antidote.
Not that Féau doesn’t have his own set of hurdles to clear. He’s whipping up classic French cuisine in a palatial hotel, after all. Just writing that sounds boring. There’s also the risk, a case of guilt by association, of appearing distant or pompous. Féau negotiates these hazards with skill. His food has an almost atavistic appreciation of the nation, communicating the soul of the land through a vegetable like that salsify or a lustrous sauce, understanding French cooking not as a puffed-up homage to a culture but as an evolved dialogue with what’s available at the market. In mushroom season plump morels make a fantastic appetizer, their honeycomb surface draped in a light cream sauce bolstered by pureed watercress. A soup of mousserons, tiny flavor bombs of the forest, has enough acidity to keep their richness from overwhelming the palate. Sautéed girolles, golden and firm as if picked that morning, are scattered over slivers of late-season apricots served warm with a light vinaigrette, a deft move that brings out the underlying autumnal notes.
Féau is that rare chef who thrives in the middle ground: He does best when he doesn’t impose his originality on an ingredient but lets the ingredient showcase his talent. He revels in nuance rather than effect. A buckwheat crepe provides a thin layer between foie gras custard and sautéed foie gras, its rustic tang keeping the characteristics distinct. A single strip of charred leek creates an austere contrast to flaky white turbot seared a la plancha and served with a ragout of fava beans. Féau can get a lot from little touches: To amplify the lamb jus, he adds a hint of chocolate. He incorporates teeny cubes of herring to the fingerling potatoes that come with the tender wagyu beef; the marine accent—briny without being salty—intensifies the very French sauce au poivre yet has a clean, tingly-palate feeling that is very Japanese.
It’s when the chef departs from this middle ground that he trips up. Chilled into pellets with liquid nitrogen, the nibs of horseradish dotting the white asparagus lack zing. They drive home how poorly molecular tricks suit him; the technique shouldn’t even be in his repertoire. Some of his dishes also wind up lost in allusion. The steamed poussin with barley mustard emulsion—presented whole on a cutting board before being whisked back to the kitchen for carving—barely registers. The kaffir lime leaf placed under the skin is supposed to remind one of the honking truffle slices legends like Michel Guérard might slip under the skin of a blue-legged poulet de bresse, but a citrus leaf is never going to inject the same kind of musk. Somewhere amid the fennel, the artichoke, and the fish soup sauce that accompany the poached black cod lies an homage to Provence, but the tribute is so indirect that it never moves beyond the abstract. The lobster, meanwhile, manages to be both timid and overwrought: Presented with raw and cooked carrots—some shaved into curlicues—and resting in a watery sauce made from roe, the crustacean is awash in a sea of orange. Féau may be channeling homard à l’américaine, a no-holds-barred warhorse in which the pounded shells are flambéed in cognac, but the lobster is wasted in the effort. If France is the mothership, the satellite isn’t receiving the signal anymore.
The desserts of Robert Bardwell parallel Féau’s finest creations in their understated elegance (though he, too, gets jiggy with the liquid nitrogen in the two-act chocolate special). A thin apple tart, the slices roasted and lacquered with butter and sugar, is paired with calvados ice cream and grated Roquefort. Circles of perfectly formed meringue in the floating island are garnished with fresh berries and a quenelle of sorbet before they are finished at table with a syrup of pineapple and sage chilled until it almost forms flakes. Requiring a multipart process that must be timed so sorbet and syrup meet in frosty conspiracy, this is a dessert that only a big-ticket destination restaurant can pull off.
Of course, when choosing to reserve a table at such a restaurant, the mind suffers one of those twinges of self-doubt. Will I feel like an interloper, like I’m party-crashing someone else’s more urbane life? If the idea of waiters in anything but jeans freaks you out, the Royce may not be for you. If you’re more open to a lighthearted formality, you will be jolted out of your routine but not in an awkward way. This isn’t the proverbial expensive hotel dining room that chugs along on rote. Sure, the service can gas on a bit when explaining the food that’s growing cold right under your nose—some editing could help transform a laundry list into an insight. But you have only to hear the busboy describe the spiciness the Basque piment d’espelette lends to the after-dinner chocolates to appreciate the shared delight in making the endeavor singular. This isn’t a stuffy experience; it’s too personal for that. Wine director and general manager Eric Espuny even keeps a dry saucisson and a picture of his parents, smiling at the counter of the provincial bar he grew up in, among the vintages in the red wine room. For him this is a way of life, and his close work with Féau is one of the great pleasures of the Royce.
The two first teamed up at Lutèce in New York—when Féau arrived after years at Guy Savoy’s Paris bistros. Sommeliers can be a dour bunch, more concerned with the proper glass than in communicating the uniqueness of what will be poured into it. Espuny, who was at Patina for five years, is the opposite. He is a person who feels wine.Standing tableside giving a description, say, of a chardonnay from a tiny appellation in the Loire (land of sancerre), his entire being gets involved as he lends body English to his explanation. A riesling in the champagne style, a deep red from South Africa’s first black female winemaker—these are wines that excite him, and as he searches for the right word, his hand raising the bottle by the punt to pour, he always brings the point back to the meal and what this wine will reveal, what it will coax out of the food it is accompanying. At the Royce wine and food are in a pact to reach heights neither is capable of quite reaching alone. I can’t think of a better definition of gastronomy.
langham huntington hotel // 1401 South Oak Knoll Avenue // Pasadena
Best dishes: Oregon morels à la crème with upland cress, girolles with apricots and summer truffles, salsify with Cajun spices, turbot fillet plancha with charred leeks and fava beans, wagyu beef au poivre with herring, apple tart with calvados ice cream, floating island with fraises des bois. Drinks: World-class wine service and selection ranging from the legendary to the little known. atmosphere: Welcoming and refined. Noise level: Pleasant. Kid friendliness: They’d have to be adventurous eaters and well behaved. Price range: $10 (La Vache de Chalais cheese plate) to $42 (lobster). Hours: Dinner: Tue.-Sat., 6-9:30. Parking: Complimentary valet with validation. Reservations: Recommended. Credit cards: AmEx, MasterCard, Visa. Contact: 626-585-6410 or roycela.com.
Photograph by Lisa Romerein