Could this be the most exciting new restaurant to have opened in Los Angeles in a long time? From the evidence at hand (and on my plate), the answer is a resounding yes. Since it has only been two+ months since it began serving its prix-fixed nine-course menu, MAUDE (212 S. Beverly Drive, BevHills 90212, (310) 859-3418, street parking and in public lot right next door) is still a work-in-progress, but all indications are that we have a major new contender here for the title of best new restaurant in the city. Food critic Ruth Reichl dined there opening week and then suggested we wait awhile until they settled in before reviewing it, but we may have waited too long. All the adjectives are already taken. The only negatives I've seen on the usually-harsh Yelp website have been about the difficulty of getting a reservation. The delightful woman who handles that task was cordial and accomodating when I called for my first reserve. She detected my accent and asked if I was from New York. When I answered in the affirmative, we discussed living in the Big Apple: she said she missed it and I told her I didn't. So when you call for your reservation (as I know you will), perhaps mentioning that you read about it on my Huffington Post blog may help ease your way in.
The cacophony of calls and reports I've received in recent weeks indicated that something very special was happening in this tiny 25-seat eatery a block and a half below Wilshire in the heart of Beverly Hills restaurant row. I had first seen celebrity TV Australian chef Curtis Stone on the TV show, Top Chef Masters, when Ruth was a judge. I was struck by the ingenuous charm of the handsome youngish guy. A little research indicated that Stone had been the top toque for Marco Pierre White's Quo Vadis in London for four years, and helped earn a Michelin star... and anyone who could work with the mercurial genius White for that long had to have more on the ball than good looks. At an early meal, I asked him why the name Maude and he explained it was named for his grandmother, whom he had started cooking in the kitchen with in Melbourne when he was just 4 years old. (He was born in 1975.) On a Friday evening in March when I first dined there, I was struck by the lovely restrained elegant atmosphere here in the small space. No name on the black door (which had been a restaurant called Pici Enoteca before this), just a big 'M.' And how often do you go into a restaurant and stop in wonder at the smart feel of it? I was greeted by the affable bearded manager Ben Aviram, a veteran of four years with Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago, and we talked about that chef's new Next restaurant, which changed menus every three months, somewhat similar to the concept here.
I took one of the five seats at the counter facing the open kitchen. There are only ten tables in all, and reservations are a must... no walk-ins. They have a policy of telling you when you reserve, taking your credit card number, that if you don't cancel 48 hours before and then not show up you may be charged a hundred dollars a person. Totally understandable when you are so small and every seat is a profit center. The 9-course meal is priced at a ridiculously low $75 a person, with a $55 wine pairing option which I strongly recommend..for there is a sommelier who knows his stuff. There is also a comprehensive and interesting wine, beer and sake list, and one night I dropped off a bottle of my personal passion, Laetitia Brut Cuvee, as they were deficient in California sparkling wines. I only suggest if you take the wine pairing that you have a designated driver or use Uber 'cause the pairing will be a lot of wine. I happen to only live a dozen blocks from Maude so I just have to start my car and point it in the right direction to get home safely but... don't drink and drive is the axiom. There is an obligatory 18% tip added to your tab, so all members of the kitchen staff can partake, but I did leave another twenty since the service was so neat and effortless.
Now comes the kicker... the simple, stunning concept which lifts it into the stratosphere. Each month Curtis selects an in-season local ingredient to center his menu around... and all nine courses feature some aspect of it. To me that's the quintessence of California cuisine. February was 'citrus' and March was 'artichoke,' while April is 'peas' and May will be 'rhubarb,' while June is going to be those heavenly 'morel mushrooms.' He told me that July was berries, August was tomatoes, September was corn, October was pears, November was winter squash and December was (yes!) truffles. When I asked him why artichokes tonight, he laughed and said, "Did you know that Marilyn Monroe was the first ever California artichoke festival queen? This year marks the 55th anniversary of the first festival. Almost 100 percent of the U.S. artichokes come from a tiny town called Castroville, the 'artichoke center of the world, a hundred miles south of San Francisco. I just love those thorny thistles, from their meaty stalk to their fleshy heart." I'm sorry I asked. Don't worry, the variety of the dishes is startling and stunning in their execution, as you will see here.
We started with a few amuse-bouches... a small bowl of intense artichoke consommé, and my server told me that it was the essence of twelve whole bulbs refined down to the three spoonfuls of soup, augmented by rutabaga, turnip and celery... a wonderful way to get into the meal. This was followed by a shredded crab, with saffron, artichoke mayo, and radish. We were drinking a Spanish champagne with it. The next amuse was a blini, with creamy uni and artichoke salt, added to a crisp cracker. Lovely. The fourth amuse was a croquette, with artichoke cream and pickled japapeno. The shell was not too thick and the filling was warm, the pepper giving it a mild kick.
The first of the main courses was Ocean Mist Artichoke Barigoule, with smoked Crosnes (Chinese artichokes, I was told), pomegranate, and black radish. With it we had a sparkling Portuguese wine. Following was a sensational taste, the Scallop Crudo, thinly-sliced raw scallop topped with a dollop of caviar, fennel, and a nasturtium flower. A small pour of excellent sake accompanied it. Then came my least-favorite course, the Pork Rillettes, rather salty, but made whole with its pickled beets, mustard greens, and herb pistou. A French red was poured. The sommelier told me that this wine, Domaine du Trapadis, was from a vineyard near the Chateauneuf du Pape area. When I expressed my admiration for that expensive wine, he poured me an inch or two from an open bottle behind the bar.
The very main entree, the hit of the evening for me, was the Bacon & Eggs Breakfast Ravioli, with a duck egg, artichoke ricotta (made in house), with everything bagel crumb. I was seated at the bar next to a private chef, Lulu Powers and her husband, and as we both cut into the egg and watched the yolk seep into the ravioli we looked at each and smiled a satisfied grin... this was ecstatic. The bacon was thickly-cut, smoky Nueske applewood-smoked, the onion jus, stinging nettle, sesame seeds, poppy seeds... all contributing to making it a standout winner. I could eat one of these ravioli every morning for breakfast and be very happy. Next up was Skate Wing, the crisped pan-fried fish served with Savoy cabbage, pommes anna, creamed carrot puree, pickled artichoke..and then Ben came by and shaved some slices of French black truffle atop the dish. Skate is a difficult fish to cook properly, but this kitchen staff (ten men and women of skill and good attitude) did it well. A 2012 Talbott Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands of California accompanied it, and I opened my big mouth and suggested that they get the Justin Isoceles one night for the same dish. A cheese course came along, and I was pleased that it was a French raw cow's milk Camembert, served with an artichoke foccaccia. Of course I foreswore my year-long gluten-free diet for this delicious course. The woman chef and I guessed correctly that the artichoke had been cooked right into the bread.
The desserts by pastry chef Vanessa Garcia were as exquisite as the rest of the courses. Dark Chocolate Semifreddo was accompanied by roasted artichoke ice cream., blood orange, crushed hazelnut. A sweetish Banyuls from France was the perfect endng for this. We finished the feast with Mignardises: strawberry lime gelee, Sicilian pistachio kumquat macaron, and espresso truffle. As I paid my check and said goodbyes, the lovely server came by with a take-home gift of a small jar of Scott's lemon curd (needs to be refrigerated when opened; great atop hot buttered toast)(, a few cookies, and a copy of tonight's menu. How nice! A word must be given to the overall quality of cooking and service. Chef told me that his small team of chefs and dining room staff came from restaurants including Alinea, French Laundry, el Bulli, Joel Robuchon and Torrisi. His top team included Brandon Difiglio (The French Laundry, a year at El Bulli) and Chef Gareth, an English lad. It was functioning as a well-oiled machine... everyone worked with each other and each person bussed dishes and served others. Superbly orchestrated.
As you read this, they will be serving the April 'pea menu.' Talking about peas, Curtis said that when he was growing up in Australia there was always a bag of peas in the freezer. "But you can't beat the sweetness of flavor from a pea picked fresh from the garden. There's a great variety of peas grown in California, from English, snap, snow and yellow split peas. I love the fact that you can eat their tendrils, leaves and flowers too. Pea pesto, pea tartare and pea oils paired with incredible produce and protein such as spring lamb, ocean trout and burrata are just a few examples of how we will let this little vegetable influence this month's tasting menu." So you may well look up from your table and see me seated at the corner of the bar, minding my p's and q's, spooning up some intense pea soup or gobbling a plate of pea ice cream. So pea it.
Maude is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 pm to 9 pm. Reservations can be had by calling 310-859-3418. Plan on spending abou 2.5 hours for your dinner. Corkage for one bottle of wine per guest is $30. If notified at least 48 hours in advance, the kitchen can accommodote a vegetarian menu.
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