March 3, 2016
Everything about Papilles was a surprise.
To start with, there’s the location in a minimall on a difficult stretch of Franklin Avenue, almost underneath the 101 overpass, and just past the on-ramp. By the time you turn into the parking lot you feel you’ve been in some kind of crazy collision car chase.
Then you park, noticing with some dismay the stores surrounding the restaurant. Are you really in the right place?
And then you open the door.
Some of the best meals I’ve eaten have been in minuscule Paris restaurants whose chefs decided they were tired of feeding rich tourists. They stopped shooting for the stars, decamped to little storefront places in unimpressive arrondissements, lowered their prices and their expectations. Papilles feel like part of the bistronomie movement. The menu’s a flimsy sheet of paper, the tables are tiny, the chairs mismatched. And should you want a bottle of wine it’s probably on the shelf behind your chair.
You are, for all intents and purposes, eating in the kitchen. Or perhaps the chef is cooking in the dining room. You’re all in this together.
But the ambitious menu (and the interesting wine list), tell you that the owners are not novices. Chef Tim Carey worked at Patina; his partner Santos Uy was a sommelier at AOC. They intend to feed you well. And generously; there is nothing mingy about these portions.
This was the menu a few nights ago:
Prix Fixe $37
First, Main, Dessert
Mustard Frills, Shaved Vegetables, Citrus, Pecans, Manchego
Nettle Velouté, Pickeld Cauliflower, Spiced Pepitas
Cauliflower Panna Cotta, Uni, Trout Roe, Brown Butter +5
Chicken Liver Mousse, Brioche, Raisin Gastrique
Foie Gras Torchon, Orange, Guava +13
Monk Fish, Bok Choy, Radish, Dashi Broth +3
Flat Iron Steak, Broccolini, Spring Garlic, Flowering Rapini
Selection of Cheeses +5
Meyer Lemon Curd Tart
Butterscotch Pot de Crème, Cajeta
The picture at the top is the panna cotta, a riff on a famous Robuchon dish. I would have liked it served in a smaller, deeper pot so the proportions were heavier on the panna cotta, but you can’t argue with generosity. The flavors are intense, the cauliflower and cream taming the trout roe and framing the sea urchin. I’d happily have eaten two.
The foie gras was a huge slab – and that orange cream on the side an inspired touch. Definitely worth the extra money.
“You’re not making much on this dish,” I said to the chef. He looked rueful. “You’re right,” he sighed, “but it’s not often I see such lovely monkfish.” He cooked it so carefully that the fantastic texture of the fish (it used to be called “poor man’s lobster”) was emphasized. I loved the bit of rouille on toast. The crispness of the vegetables. And that dashi broth? Beautiful. Eating this I remembered that the chef started out as a fish monger- and likes to go fishing in his spare time.
But he has a good hand with meat as well. This was a fine piece of beef – beautifully cooked – and crowned with that splendid bouquet of rapini flowers.
Desserts? Both simple. Both splendid. I’ll be back.
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