Keep the fat lady waiting in the wings. It's not over yet. Fine dining, I mean, and the new Royce at the Langham Huntington is proof.
The Pasadena hotel could have chosen to turn the Dining Room where Craig Strong (and briefly, Michael Voltaggio) once reigned into a casual bistro, for example. Nothing doing. Instead, we have the Royce with Patina alum David Féau at the helm turning out seriously delicious food in a new dining room that has traded in its old-school fustiness for a bright new look.
My first course arrives: lentils. They're not just any lentils, though. They're lentilles de Puy from the Auvergne region of France. Mixed in with them are English peas so fresh I can still see the little nib that attached them to the pod. Just as I'm about to wield my fork, the server hurries over with a major black truffle, which he proceeds to shave over the plate until it's entirely covered.
The truffle is a very good one. I don't have to put nose to plate to get a whiff of its intoxicating dank scent: It comes to me. I take a bite. The flavors riff from sweet and grassy peas to the lentils' stony minerality overlaid with the profound earthiness of truffle. It's winter and spring in one dish. I could stop right here and feel satisfied. But this is just the start of a meal at the Royce.
Three beets — pink, gold, red, root pointing upward — sit on a rectangular plate, funny trolls watching over a field of emerald mâche. The dressing is applied in drops, and a few matchsticks of julienned truffles are scattered over. Here, the chef seems to be saying, are beets — pure and simple and delicious.
Salsify shows up, the root vegetable pared thin as noodles, in several different guises. Some are plain. Some have an edge dipped into charred leek ashes, as if to mimic a model's smoky eye. One is entirely coated in the stuff, which is dry and velvety and tastes ever so slightly bitter. And underneath them all, a purée of salsify and goat cheese. Such a playful and inspired dish.
Guinea hen resembles an elegant puzzle, the bird skinned and cut in odd shapes with a narrow rectangle of crisped skin as garnish. Nantes carrots and petits pois are scattered on the plate, and at the last moment, the server pours a jus dotted with caviar. The firm, flavorful guinea hen against the slight saltiness of the caviar jus rings a chord.
After my first meal here, I wondered, where has this guy been hiding?
Hiding in plain sight as corporate executive chef for the Patina Restaurant Group on the West Coast. Before that, though, the French chef worked with Guy Savoy in Paris and was executive chef at several other restaurants there. When he got this job, he made the shrewd move to bring in Eric Espuny, Patina's former sommelier, whom he first met when the two were working at Lutèce in New York, as wine director and general manager.
Féau's pared-down menu is sophisticated and smart. In the world of fine dining, it's also an incredible bargain at just $85 for a five-course tasting menu. It consists mostly of dishes on the a la carte menu, so if you prefer fewer courses, order a la carte. Another big change is the service, which has a new energy and professionalism. And under Espuny, the wine service is as good as it gets.
It's hard to recognize the place, in fact. The Johnson Studio has swept away the framed ships' models and dreary décor, which felt particularly surreal as the staging for "Top Chef" winner Voltaggio's edgy cuisine. Now the dining room is so different it's almost dizzy-making.
Flanking the entrance are two glassed-in wine rooms, one for whites, one for reds, at the appropriate temperatures. The new décor features lots of white and glass, enclosing the outdoor terrace and opening up the room so that the entire back wall is glass. The layout is more open, but there are still private nooks for a romantic dinner — or a proposal. Still, some of the details are too fussy to call the room truly chic.
As soon as the first dish arrives, that distracting curlicue in the rug or black-and-white oval dome hovering over the center of the room is forgotten. The food trumps everything else. To start, the chef might send out a miniature cup of lobster bisque, the real thing, silky and sinuous, as an amuse, along with a tiny bite of puff pastry with herring cream and a swatch of seared duck liver topped with a cherry.
It's worth noting that the dishes mentioned in this review may or may not be on the menu this week or even next week. Féau's cooking is seasonal, and we're at the tail end of truffle season. But whatever he's cooking, his sensibility comes through. He has a feeling for food, a quality that's not all that common, actually. I get the idea his menus don't just spring forth out of his head but are created by tasting, tasting and tasting again.
From the winter menu, for example, consider his butter-poached lobster with carrots. Each morsel of lobster is bathed in butter. He pairs the lobster with carrots, some raw, some cooked, and their inherent sweetness plays off the briny sweetness of the lobster. And yet the whole dish is very light.
His cooking has a clarity and finesse. And he's an excellent saucier. OK, he does use foam once or twice, but with a light touch — a gossamer chervil foam on seared foie gras with huckleberry, or vanilla espuma that looks like a veil of sea foam on black sea bass.
That lightness of touch extends to the main courses as well. A fabulous piece of veal slicked with a glistening jus blanquette comes with kale and pointy romanesco and a touch of black truffle. I loved the John Dory, as dense as chicken, in a white bean-bacalao sauce. And beef au poivre may be the best steak I've had this year, a New York strip served with charred spring garlic in a gorgeous reduction.
Occasionally a dish doesn't work, like the braised veal cheek with seared calamari and a smoked potato purée with veal jus poured over. There's something off-putting about the textures.
But the wines always come through. Espuny is one of the best sommeliers in the business — relaxed, engaging, knowledgeable. And just because he's French doesn't mean he focuses only on French wines. He's got wines from Slovenia, Italy, Australia and Napa Valley. Try the wonderfully complex dessert wine from Batic estate in Slovenia.
Desserts aren't too sugary and are sometimes on the edge of savory. There's a fluffy baba au rhum with pistachio ice cream and a stunning orange sorbet. There's also a bar of rice pudding, just a few bites, really, with hot and cold kishu mandarin segments and another terrific sorbet, this one persimmon. Lovely mignardises include a bite of gentle cheesecake, warm pistachio madeleines, handmade chocolates.
The restaurant is open only five days a week. And each of those days, Espuny and Féau meet at 11 a.m. After that, Féau starts the bread, a different selection each night. Watch out for his pain noir, or black bread, and the hearty rye.
Quietly, fine dining is making a comeback. We've still got Patina, Providence, Valentino and the newer Hatfield's and WP24. The Royce at the Langham adds one more to the team. And though it's headquartered in a luxury hotel, if you go for the tasting menu, it may be the bargain of them all. Go, see what Féau is cooking this week.
The Royce at the Langham Huntington, Pasadena
Rating: three stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena; (626) 585-6410; http://www.roycela.com.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $17 to $24; main courses, $29 to $39; desserts, $9 to $18. Five-course tasting menu, $85 per person. Chef's table available as well.
Details: Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday with seatings beginning at 6 p.m. Full bar. Corkage fee, $35. Valet parking, complimentary.