Sunday, January 08, 2012

Top Chef restaurant tour: Wilshire

My favorite food shows are cooking competitions like Top Chef, Chopped, Next Iron Chef, Food Network Star or restaurant rehabs like Restaurant: Impossible or Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (BBC version). As an amateur in the kitchen, I haven't been able to learn anything from these shows that I can use when I cook, but I have learned stuff. I've learned something about how to eat, which was a gap in my knowledge that I didn't even know I had, and more importantly I've learned where to eat. I'm lucky enough in L.A. to be in a city that has so many excellent restaurants. 

So far I've eaten at Craft, which is owned by Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio; The Yard, where cheftestant CJ Jacobson is head chef; Red O, where Top Chef Masters winner (and fmr Top Chef guest judge) Rick Bayless designed the menu; Ink Sack, which is Top Chef Vegas winner Michael Voltaggio's gourmet sandwich shop; and Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood. They have been wows across the board. The latest stop on Dec. 28 was Wilshire, where current season Top Chef competitor Nyesha Arrington is executive chef. Though Nyesha went out fairly early in the competition, it was because of her partner in a double elimination challenge and she is owning it on Last Chance Kitchen (web only). Plus having watched her land the job at Wilshire on the tv show Chef Hunter, I was intrigued.

Even on my parents' not-quite HD tv, Wilshire looked like a physically great space: modern decor with dark wood and an overall dark color palette, but not so trendy that it would feel dated any time soon and inside and outside seating. The restaurant's GM said on the TV show that they pride themselves on being a neighborhood restaurant with lots of regulars. As usual in my fine(r) dining forays, this is not a place that I could afford to become a regular at. But that's the point, right? It makes meals like this special.

We had 7:30 reservations on a Wednesday night. The dining room was less than a quarter full, but the outside dining area in back was had only a few open tables. Obviously, we didn't need the reservations that night, but we didn't want to risk having to eat at 6:15 like last year when we waited to long to make reservations at Red O and had to choose between 6:15 and 10 p.m. We were warmly greeted and immediately seated at a half-circle booth, though we all noted how nice the outside dining area looked particularly with our gorgeous weather. While Steph and Erin went to the restroom, Guianna quickly asked out moving outside and voila al fresco dining on Dec. 28. Suck it, east coast and northwest.

Our new server, sorry first server, comes to the table quickly and asks what we want to drink. The ladies start with wine while I go with Macallan 12. Btw, Wilshire has Pabst Blue Ribbon. PBR! We all munch on bread, which was good (chewy, with a good crust), while studying the menu and trying to decide on appetizers. (Apologies for not knowing what everyone ordered for this course. This is what happens when I wait to blog.) I was debating between the black truffle risotto and the chicken liver terrine, when our server told us about the scallop appetizer special, seared scallops with brown butter, asparagus and some other kind of sauce (again too much time passed). He strongly recommended it because of its bold flavors. Someone ordered pork belly, which she liked. But I think I came out the big winner with the appetizer course. The scallops were stunning. Guianna noticed that I made that foodgasm face. It's true. So succulent and though I don't like vegetables the asparagus was good and the brown butter sauce was so rich but not too heavy.

When it came time for my dinner, I debated between the butternut squash gnocchi, monkfish with cauliflower puree, pan-roasted halibut with trumpet mushrooms and duck breast. I've spent the last year developing a love for duck thanks to Beer Belly. Ultimately I chose the monkfish, in part because Steph and Erin were going with the gnocchi so I knew I'd get to sample some. I also asked our server to choose the wine. I don't know jack about wine really save for basics, like red sauces and dark colored foods go with red wines. Our server said he would choose something and asked a couple questions but I couldn't understand him very well because of the combination of the not quite loud, but noticeable conversational buzz (we think that we were the loudest in general though since there's a good buzz in the atmosphere we didn't think we were rudely loud), his accent and my slight hearing loss. But I think it was Austrian or German. Later he would say something else about it that seemed to contradict what he said earlier, prompting Guianna to remark that he didn't seem to know wine that well. Nevertheless, it was a wine that I liked and that paired well with my monkfish.

My only small complaint would the be the pace of service. I've learned that when fine dining, it's not about speed but about the experience. I would say that two hours is a standard amount of time to expect for a meal. But still, at this point it's about 8:30 p.m. and we're just getting kinda hungry. A couple who got seated after us had their entrees before us, only a couple minutes, though. As soon as we collectively noticed that it has been a while our server came up and apologized that things were taking so long. And then literally seconds later food runners brought our entrees.

The wait was worth it. The monkfish was amazing. Not as good as the scallops, but wow nevertheless. For the most part the perfectly moist pieces flaked off with just a gentle downward push from the edge of my fork. Swirling them in the cauliflower puree added an earthy creaminess. And the salting was perfect, just enough to enhance the flavors. So good. I tried one of Steph's gnocchi which was great. Not so good that I wished I'd ordered differently though. The texture was so light and pillowy, which is a word that judges on cooking shows use to describe great gnocchi and they're exactly right. And the butternut squash flavor was sweet and earthy. Mmmmmmmmm. 

And the portion was perfect sized. When I was finished I was just hungry enough that the desserts tempted me. Erin and I really drove the bus on dessert being the two least full. We decided to split an order of sticky toffee pudding and our server was smart enough to bring out four forks. Fantastic dessert. Very sticky, very sweet, rich but still balanced.

One cool thing about eating at Wilshire or The Yard is that Nyesha and CJ actually cook there regularly. We saw CJ while we ate at The Yard and Nyesha came out and said hello to the table next to us. She even posed for a photo. Guianna or Steph asked me if I was going to go up to her or ask for a photo. I said that I would talk to her but only if she came up to us. I don't think I would have done the photo thing, but looking back I think I would have.

Split four ways, it was $57 and change per person. My appetizer was about $14, scotch was $12, my wine was $9 and my entree was $26. Since mine was by far the most (it was the scotch that really elevated it since I was the only one to get two alcoholic drinks) I paid extra. But given how high the overall satisfaction was, I'd say totally well worth the price. And we even got free parking a block away!