The Studio and The Tasting

Saturday, January 10, 2009

This past January 3rd Andrew surprised me for our five year wedding anniversary and took me for an upscale meal at The Studio, located within The Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. Chef James Boyce prides himself on using seasonal, local ingredients for his "elegantly casual approach to the dining experience."

Studio is located right on the cliffs with panoramic views of the ocean. Almost tent-like from the outside, once you enter the large glass doors you are greeted by cascading waterfalls of white orchids and an enthusiastic staff clearly proud to be working there. The decor inside is minimal - simple white linen clad tables with a modern arrangement of 4 roses and sea urchin candle holder - a canvass on which the chef will soon display his culinary works of art. Most of the walls are open glass, offering what probably is a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately at night, it just gives way to utter and total darkness, and makes for a rather depressing ambiance. Lighting is very dim...almost too dim. The chef goes through all the trouble to present beautiful food but one can barely see it with the below-candle light lighting throughout the restaurant. I could also barely see Andrew!

In addition to his seasonal menu (which seems to always include John Dory), Boyce also offers his tasting menu. Andrew and I excitedly agreed to try it with the appropriate wine pairings for a mere $75 extra. The wine list is extensive, and with a sommelier on staff you would be best served taking advantage of it! With the menu, we were presented with the Encyclopedia of Wine List - a rather extensive collection of various libations perfectly designed to highlight the rich and robust menu soon to be enjoyed. The staff is rather enthusiastic, as they excitedly kept asking us what we wanted to start off with and we had difficulty quickly going through this book o' wine in the dark!

After ordering a half bottle of champagne, we very much were looking forward to our tasting menu:

Soup of Main Lobster
with brandied truffle cream
Ca' del Bosco Brut, Franciacorta, Lombardy, Italy NV
Butter Poached Nantucket Bay Scallops
royal russian osetra caviar and wilted greens
Weingut Kurt darting Riesling Kabinett, Trocken, Durkheimer Fronhof, Pfalz, Germany 2006
Grilled Atlantic Swordfish Medallion
main lobster and alba white truffle broth
Louis Carillon et Fils Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France 2004
Terrine of Housemade Canadian Foie Gras
quice shortbread, 100 year-old balsamic
Royal Tokaji Wine Co., 5 Puttonyos, Tokaji, Hungary 2003
Tenderloin of Broken Arrow ranch Elk
puree potatoes, turnips, sauce perigueux
Meerlust, Rubicon Bordeaux Blend, Stellen Bosch, South Africa 2001
Semolina Savarin
confit kumquats, medjool dates, cinnamon creme fraiche
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris, Clos Jebsal, Alsace, France 2002
In all honesty, given it was our anniversary and our two cocktails a piece prior to the tasting menu (and that would not be including the half bottle of champagne before dinner also), we couldn't enjoy the meal as much as we should have. I came down with the worst case of heartburn right after the soup and that pretty much marred the rest of my experience. To read more about it, check out my other blog here.
Despite my alcohol and acid-fueled haze, I did manage to be impressed by some of the dishes and was left desiring more by others.
The Lobster Soup we began with was amazing. The sweet "lobsterness" came through immediately, making this what every lobster "bisque" should be. The truffle cream accompanied it, never overpowering it, creating this warm, sensual, lobster heaven that after having will be difficult for me to now have any old lobster bisque ever again. It was incredibly rich, so the high acid brut cut through very nicely and was welcomed by my palate.
The next course, the scallops was life changing for Andrew. After swearing off scallops for the rest of his life, he was actually rather tentative about trying these. I personally am not a huge fan of them either. Simply put - we've had too many bad scallops so now we're ruined for life. Until we had these scallops. Small but packed with sweetness, by poaching them in butter Boyce made them fluffy and light as a cloud. They floated in a beautiful light cream broth, and were served with wilted greens and osetra caviar. This was a perfectly balanced meal: creamy broth, sweet scallop, bitter green, salty caviar. Every culinary sense was touched on so delicately. It was like sweet foreplay before the "main event."
The third course, the swordfish, was by far my favorite of the evening. Medallion of swordfish perfectly seared on both sides in a white truffle broth with braised leeks, lies solidly on top of pieces of main lobster and garnished with freshly shaved black truffle. This Was AMAZING. While the previous dish hit every point flavor-wise, this one hit it with texture: crispy swordfish, creamy broth, delicate truffle shavings. I really enjoyed how predominant the leeks were as well. I think leeks are the most underutilized ingredients of cooking, both in every day and fine dining. such a delicate but present "onion" flavor that whether sauteed, grilled, blanched or braised, they always serve nobly in whatever capacity they are used in a dish. Whether they are the base of a soup or sauce or a bolder side accompaniment, the leek is a beautiful thing. And it was nice to see it more predominately placed within a dish. I have been literally dreaming of this dish since I had it. For days after the flavors still lingered in my mouth, and I was tortured to enjoy it once more. I'm trying to convince Andrew to go back so I can have this and only this, just one more time. The accompanying wine, the Montrachet, was fabulous as well.
If the scallops were foreplay and the swordfish was rounding first base, then the fourth course, the fois gras, was certainly second base. Who doesn't love fois gras?! This was cut into a round and served with an equally cut quince shortbread which was quite surprising and delightful. Topped with a confit of apple and I believe a very small touch of frisee, the partner to the fois was really the 100 year-old balsamic vinegar. Personally I wasn't a fan of the presentation: the balsamic was a smear (think paintbrush) which personally I find "done before." I also felt by distributing the balsamic so thinly, Boyce destroyed its potency. I would have preferred a more concentrated presentation, perhaps in the form of a drizzle or underneath the fois so I didn't have to drag the delicate fois all over the plate to get the balsamic on it. The Tokaji was excellent. I'm used to the traditional muscat going with fois, and although a branch of the same tree, the Tokaji was a nice updated change. Ironic given the wine's rich history.
The main event of the tasting menu was dubbed to be the elk. It did not disappoint. Small piece of perfectly cooked elk with beautiful perigueux sauce and roasted root vegetables was Superb. This course was rich, bold, warm, and satisfying. It confidently charged my palate as the elk himself. And every bite left me content while wanting more. This was the climax and it didn't disappoint.
Unfortunately, the only thing this evening food wise to disappoint was the dessert. The semolina cake was far too sweet - totally saturated with a sweet syrup that completely destroyed the semolina flavor. The confit of kumquats tasted like orange marmalade, the dates seemed redundant at this point given the overall sweetness, and the cinnamon cream seemed out of place. The dish was presented with your standard berries trio - strawberry, raspberry and blackberry - which I found cheapened the overall attempted sophistication of the dish. Had the berries been removed or reduced into a sauce and the overall sweetness more clearly directed, I think he would have had a very successful dish. Frankly the sweetness made it almost inedible, and believe me, I can eat sweet!
Overall, I highly recommend The Studio. Be ware, however, that prices are very high - appetizers are on average $25, mains are $50 and up and desserts are all $15. Wine is incredible but you are paying for the best. I would also recommend going early enough in the day to actually be able to enjoy the spectacular view. And if you're up for it financially, try the tasting menu - it's always lovely to let a professional do what he thinks best. The sommelier is a woman, which is rather rare in the field, and extremely lovely and patient and nice. She's willing to talk for hours about wine and no question is too stupid. A word of caution about the staff - they are rather enthusiastic and perhaps a little too helpful. I found that they came to clear plates too soon and brought the next course far too quickly. Make sure you let them know you want to take your time in between courses so as to actually enjoy the food and wine.
And now, if only I can convince Andrew to go back...

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