The Curtain Strikes Back

Photo by Amy TheligLastNovember,NewportBeachrestaurateursTim and Liza Goodell opened their first Los Angeles restaurant, the Spanish-influenced Meson G—and LA food critics went livid. LAWeeklyfood god Jonathan Gold veered from his usually positive reviews to trample the couple's debut—”OGs from the OC? Pimp my appetizer? Something like that,” my mentor wrote—while the LosAngelesTimes'meal baroness, S. Irene Virbila, grudgingly bestowed two and a half stars. Even Patric Kuh, the genteel food critic for LosAngelesMagazine,found space in his otherwise-laudatory story to sniff at the restaurant staff's “ingratiating eagerness to please.”

Each writer did have valid critiques of Meson G, but you couldn't help but sense an air of superiority reeking from the three, a suppressed chuckle at the thought that some upstarts from Orange County dared invade their hallowed land (“To my ear, [the widowed G] didn't so much stand for Goodell as for Ali G,” Kuh sneered). It's all part of the urban insult chain, of course—London cracks jokes at New York's expense, the Big Apple slams Los Angeles, and now Angelenos wipe their ass on what they call the Orange Curtain, but we call Downey.

But Gold, Kuh and Virbila are letting provincialism get their better. Meson G remains rightfully buzzy, with foodies and the beautiful people storming to feast at the Goodells' latest culinary Rushmore. Even on a monsoonal night, Meson G shines.

After shaking my umbrella dry, a waitress showed me to a table. A delicate white curtain separated me from the cocktail lounge, where I eavesdropped on many drunken come-ons. Not as demure, though, was the locker-room banter broadcasting from the open kitchen, where burly head chef Eric Greenspan (since fired) held court like a Big 10 football coach

Greenspan has a reputation as large as his arms, so I entrusted my night to his eight-course tasting menu. A handsome waiter began the festivities by presenting a cup of ajo blanco (white garlic), a frothy soup that looked like an espresso shot. Greenspan roasted the garlic enough so that the broth retained a burned pungency but wasn't acrid and included delightful halves of grapes, almonds and raisins along with a sweetened, gnarled strip of dried eggplant. After the soup came the escabeche salad, pickled strains of baby vegetables constructed around a perplexing cauliflower sauce. While the pickled vegetables refreshed my soggy soul, that cauliflower sauce was like the vegetable itself—almost tasteless and what little flavor was present tasted like paste.

I worried. While I'm a scallops admirer, to offer them as a course in a tasting menu as Greenspan did following the escabeche was unimaginative, a culinary clich. And the fourth course, a slice of sea bass, suffered from eighth-degree burns. So far, middling—was Gold and company correct in disparaging the Goodells' effort? But below that coal-colored bass was a surprising candied beet. And below the beet was an adorable beef patty, with a crispy flavor mimicking the best falafels.

After that beef patty, Greenspan became bold. He pared gamy, juicy, quite substantial chunks of squab with a quince pure that was the sweetest mush since Gerber's. He painted a beef brisket with an intoxicating mustard and left intact a slight strip of fat, enough to contribute a wonderful dollop of grease inside my mouth. And while the concluding cheese tray was expected, the assertive mixture of fromages wasn't—a sharp cow cheese, a salty goat one and a creamy sheep cheese that stung with a wisp of something peppery.

Greenspan himself left the kitchen for a bit to introduce: three chocolate pastries. One, a slightly melted chocolate ball draped in an edible chocolate bag he called a beggar's purse, was luscious. The bitter-chocolate Rice Krispies treat, while good, belonged in a 7-11. But I spent the rest of night trying to track down Greenspan to congratulate him on the Abuelita ice cream. Abuelita is a hot-chocolate mix beloved by Mexicans, our Quik. We drink it boiling, but Greenspan translated its gritty, bitter charm into something smooth and more concentrated. This Abuelita ice cream deserves a James Beard award—or at least Greenspan's mug on some peso bill.

Meson G was fabulous, great—wish the Goodells would've placed it somewhere in Anaheim instead of off seedy Melrose. But as I enjoyed my final of four wines (thanks for the great choices, Dave!), I noticed things weren't that different from Orange County—only the conversations. The tuxedoed coffin dodgers in Meson G's private room probably spoke of studio acquisitions, not the El Toro land grab. The beautiful people talked Oscars, not the latest OC-inspired TV show. And the silicone flapped everywhere. LA food snobs might frown at our coming invasion, but relax, friends: our food is as good as yours. Not better, not worse—just plain nummy.


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