The foie gras wars get meta at Melisse
Melisse, the Santa Monica restaurant of chef Josiah Citrin, is about as luxe, calme et volupté as things get in Los Angeles, a subdued Santa Monica dining room with two Michelin stars. The $115 prix fixe menus are, one would think, most appreciated by the comfortably well-off, and events here tend toward sedate benefit dinners. Monday's benefit dinner for the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farm Standards (CHEFS), or rather that organization's push for higher agricultural standards and against California's imminent foie gras ban, was rather less than sedate.
What was it like at the dinner? Odd, distinctly odd -- even considering that the meal happened to feature eight courses of the high-test duck liver at issue, cooked by eight well-known chefs. There were the people inside the restaurant protesting the ban, which goes into effect July 1. There were louder people outside protesting the protest of the ban. There were other people outside protesting the protest of the protest of the ban. In the end, it was unclear whether the real protestors were the ones dedicated to protecting culinary freedoms, or the chanting ones hoping to have those freedoms curtailed just a little bit sooner. The evening was all rather meta, especially because to most of the people eating dinner, the occasion was less an intimation of prohibition than a nice evening out with friends.
"What's the fuss about?'' a bewildered young woman on the sidewalk asked Lissa Doumani, the pastry chef and co-owner of Terra, a St. Helena restaurant represented at the event.
"Feeding ducks,'' Doumani said. "All of this is about feeding ducks.''
It was also about feeding people, as part of a larger event that featured foie gras dinner up and down the state. Chefs like foie gras, a lot of them anyway: Whether you believe that gavage, the millenia-old process of force-feeding the ducks, closely mimics what the waterfowl do themselves each fall before flying south for the winter, or whether you think it is simply torture, the product is clearly artisinal in a way that poultry from a factory farm is not.
And foie gras is easy to work with, tastes good, and is a decent canvas for many of their more creative urges –- Citrin blasted his with liquid nitrogen and shaved frozen curls onto blocks of slow-cooked wild salmon. Brendan Collins of Waterloo and City made little puffs that he topped with basil flowers. Justin Wangler of the Kendall-Jackson winery scented his terrine with a scant drop or two of vanilla oil and served it with lobster. Raphael Lunetta of Jiraffe seared it and served it with fans of caramelized mango. Doumani made hers into sweet kuchen that she served with tiny scoops of foie gras ice cream.
It was silly. It was fun. After dinner there were foie gras macarons -– of course there were foie gras macarons -– and the walk back to the car through the newly empty streets.
-- Jonathan Gold
Photo: Maine lobster with foie gras prepared by chef Justin Wangler of Kendall Jackson restaurant at a six-course foie gras dinner at Melisse. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.