Fie. Nuh. Lee.
After anticipating its opening for months before it ever poured its first glass of wine or sliced its first Crozier blue. After reading page after page of glowing, sparkling, gushing reviews. After enviously hearing raves about it without ever being able to find the right night, the right occasion, the right party to go with. After making reservations that frustratingly had to be changed, postponed, completely cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. After all the buzz, after all the hype, after all the build up...I finally made it to AOC.
We went there without a reservation. It was a Tuesday and a little later than what I normally think of as dinner prime-time, so it wouldn’t be a big deal. Or so we thought. Even late on a Tuesday night, AOC was full. We stepped back outside and only waited as long as half a cigarette. We crushed it out on the pavement, then followed the hostess back inside. We had a choice between sitting at the wine bar facing one wall of the small dining room, or at the cheese bar on the opposite side of the room. We took our seats smack in the middle of the cheese bar, bookended by couples - a very gay, very proper South Beach Sugar Daddy and his whipping boy on my side and a MySpace first-time hookup on the other end. Even if the food sucked, it would be a very good evening.
The cheese bar is a small bar with about ten seats in a wide U that face a small refrigerated case filled with plastic- and paper-wrapped meats, some oddly shaped packages sitting on shelves and some hanging from hooks. There were two people working the tiny, cramped space behind the bar. One tall, athletic young lady in a white jacket was continuously opening and closing the refrigerator door, unwrapping, re-wrapping and slicing meats like it was the lunch rush at the grocery store deli counter. The charcuterie is popular at AOC. With thin blonde braids peeking out from under her kerchief that were thrown back over her broad shoulders and the brute force she had to use to push sides of ham and sausages through the machine, she looked like a Swedish massage therapist named Anna working on a linebacker. If ever you’re on a first-date that could potentially have awkward moments of silence (like the MySpace couple), sit at the cheese bar. Anna slicing meat is mesmerizing.
The other person was serving the bar patrons. Is the server behind the cheese bar called a cheese bartender? I don’t know, so I’ll just call him Hunter.
Hunter put down a small dish of bread and a condiment dish with a red paste and dark, wrinkled olives that sparkled as if they had been chipped out of obsidian. The olives were oily and their marinade just barely made me pucker from the salt. I thought the red paste was a roasted red pepper or perhaps sun-dried tomato pesto, or maybe a combination. It was neither, unless recent biogenetics has cultivated a hot, spicy tomato. The pesto was made from chile peppers. Forget the bread. I wanted to eat it right out of the tiny wooden serving spoon. I didn’t. I simply placed enormous scoops of the pepper paste on the very end of a slice and ate it, taking the smallest bite of bread possible. Hunter replenished the pepper and the olives, and I never finished an entire slice of bread.
After a cursory scan of the Cheese menu, the Charcuterie/Salads/Fish/Meat menu, and the Wood-Burning Oven/Other menu, I wanted to hand the pages back to Hunter and simply say, “Yes, please. One of each.” With the exception of chicken liver crostini, everything looked and read awesome. *eh* Even with the chicken liver, I would have scraped it right off with a knife, handed it off to my right, and eaten the crostini with the pancetta. There were too many items, and too many external forces trying to influence my choices. Will the pork rilletes with pickled onions go well with this, that, or the other wine? Should I be a proper girl and order all vegetables and a prissy little roasted carrot, chickpea, olive, and yogurt salad? Will the anchovy and garlic on the escarole salad make me smell weird? Will I sound stupid if I try to make selections for a cheese plate and mispronounce it as “jack-in chee-vree from the lawyer valley?” (Jacquin chèvre from Loire Valley, France).
I did what I do when I just want to loosen up a little, lower my dining inhibitions, and let my true inherent self come out. Drink and decide.
For my first glass of wine I asked Hunter to pour me something to help me while navigating the menu. Hunter asked me a few questions about my taste preferences, then poured me a light and easy Pinot Blanc. I believe it was the 2004 Bollenberg from Château d’Orschwihr. Impressed by my memory? Please. Hunter had inquired if I was in culinary school when he caught me taking pictures. Uh, something like that, I mumbled. He smiled and pulled all the menus out for me and gave me a pen so I could write everything down and take notes. Hunter is my hero.
We started with chee
se, which AOC offers singly, or on a plate of three or five. We chose one each from goat, sheep, and cow. Wedges of both the sheep’s and cow’s milk cheeses were mild and somewhat uninteresting. However, the disc of goat cheese, center-stage, alone, caught my attention right away. The whitewashed rind was crinkled, like a lacy little dress modestly covering up a smooth, fair layer just underneath. The cheese fell apart into a pristine white core, creamy yet crumbly, soft, and slightly pungent. It was perfect with thin slices of naturally, intensely sweet dried figs on the plate. I could have sat there at the cheese bar all night drinking wine picked out by Hunter and just trying all 15 of the cheeses.
The cheese menu also includes a few items that feature cheese: goat cheese, dried figs and saba, fried tetilla, quince paste and romesco, and roasted dates, parmesan and bacon. We ordered the bacon. I mean dates. When I drink and decide, I focus on the things I truly love. The dates had been split, pitted, stuffed with a tiny wedge of Parmesan, then tightly bandaged with bacon. They were sparkling, piled up every which way on top of each other on a regal silver saucer, an end zone tackle, garnished with parsley. Hunter warned us that they were very hot, but I foolishly ignored him. I snapped one up with my fingers, impetuously took a bite through crisp, smoky, salty, sticky sweet, then burned my mouth on the cheese inside that was probably still the same temperature of the roasting oven. I didn’t care. I popped the other half, cooled it down with the Pinot Blanc, and did a thorough examination of the next one so I could make an entire bowl of them at home.
As much as I enjoyed watching Anna slice the meats out of the case, we decided to forgo charcuterie for things that would really showcase AOC’s kitchen. Perhaps the Tokay Pinot Gris Prestige 2002 from Domaine Stirn had been laced, or perhaps my distaste for fois gras when I’m sober is all in my head, for I didn’t protest when we ordered a dish that shows up in various permuations on every menu all over town: grilled quail, foie gras and porcini sauce. I don’t even love small birds because they remind me of pigeons. About as small as I can take is the small chicken in sahm-gyae tahng.
The bird shone like a Barbie doll version of a perfectly basted and browned turkey out of Martha Stewart’s assistant’s oven. The fois gras had rendered its fatty self into the meat of the bird, making the quail even more tender than a small bird’s meat already is. I had but a taste, leaving true enjoyment to the person who had jumped out of his seat when he saw it on the menu. I did, however, pick up one of the tiny quail wings with my fingers. The entire three-segmented wing together was smaller than the tines of my fork. I smiled at the man-couple sitting next to me, staring at me with their mouths agape as I gnawed on the wing like it was a Buffalo wing at the corner saloon. I was, of course, gnawing daintily. They must have thought I was a celebrity or something. Strange, I don't think I look like anyone famous. Or something, right? ;)
We moved on. I to a Grenache Blanc, the 2003 Topanga Vineyards Celadon, the dinner to steamed fingerlings with crème fraîche. Golden, thin-skinned bumpy potatoes were beautifully presented, but tasted only okay. I prefer to not waste valuable stomach space on fillers like potatoes. We didn’t order any more vegetables from the Other menu the rest of the evening.
Pancetta-wrapped trout with grapes and sorrel was a whimsy of a choice from the fish selection that included black cod, celery root, sunchokes and hazelnuts, pomfret confit, fennel, citrus and green olives, and a market fish with sweet peppers and paprika cream from the wood-burning oven. With its silvery skin soaking up salt and fat from the pancetta, the trout promised all kinds of flavor, but I got most of my kicks from the grapes. The trout was strangely familiar.
Seafood was our momentary theme with clams and sherry with garlic toast. The clams had gasped open in an opaque sherry broth, exposing their tiny treasures inside. I wasn’t so much interested in the tender clams as I was in soaking up the broth with the garlic toast that tasted as if it had been. Hm. Deep-fried. Wait a second. In pure garlic oil? This is when I knew there had been a blip in the Delicious matrix. Gastronomic deja-vu. I had tried both trout and clams before, in similar preparations, at Hungry Cat. I didn’t enjoy the trout at Hungry Cat as much, but their clams had been braised with chorizo and served with the same kind of garlic toast. Matrimonial influence, methinks.
Even the whole grain mustard and cabbage that had been in and on the tr
out at Hungry Cat must have been inspired by Suzanne Goin, though at AOC, they make an appearance on pork confit. I love pork, but I have resigned myself to eating it overcooked and slightly dry when out in restaurants. At AOC, the pork confit was thin, and far from dry, glowing with so much fat and juice that it almost didn't need the surprisingly pronounced natural sweetness of the cabbage and the whole grain mustard. Altogether, though, I couldn't imagine eating the pork by itself.
I think we had a few more glasses of wine. I had graduated to reds by now, but with a heady buzz and a full stomach, my notetaking had miserably fallen behind. Hunter tempted us with a dessert menu, but where I had wanted to order everything from the dinner menus, I didn't particularly have a lust for pain perdu, roasted pears, or panna cotta, though the man-couple had been thoroughly enjoying a dark chocolate, candied pumpkin, and marcona almond turron next to me. We skipped dessert and polished off the wine.
After so many years, I can finally say I’ve been to AOC. There was that risk, like with movies, restaurants, events and men, that AOC might disappoint my expectations of being launched into outer galactic orbit by the food. I think I was expecting to be so blown away that I’d have to fake left, fake right, make a mad dash for the kitchen, drop to my knees in Suzanne Goin’s presence and pledge my undying gastronomic loyalty to the Goddess. It didn’t quite get to that point (besides, wine makes me slow) but AOC lived up admirably.
Some may say that AOC has passed its prime. Perhaps they mistake “prime” with a crowd of trendsters who mob a new restaurant then move on to the next new place that they read about in Los Angeles Magazine to be “the first.” That’s okay. As far as I’m concerned, AOC now, with Lucques and Hungry Cat, is a hat trick.
** a year ago today, we sent the bar flies buzzing **