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Now, more user-friendly

At Meson G, the kitchen hones its menu to court a growing audience. Dinner choices move from small plates to dishes that are easier to share.

By S. Irene Virbila
Times Staff Writer

July 6, 2005

Film editors typically spend six months to a year splicing and resplicing the same footage to tease out every nuance of the director's vision. Or, in a worst-case scenario, to salvage something from a production that's somehow wobbled off course. Restaurants don't have that luxury. Often many of the cast and crew have barely met before the owners are flinging open the doors, months behind schedule and gasping for cash. By necessity, the fine-tuning has to take place after the restaurant is open. It's the rare kitchen that can perform at its peak the first week or even in the first few months. A new restaurant is always a work in progress.

Last fall, Orange County restaurateurs Tim and Liza Goodell (Aubergine, Troquet, Red Pearl Kitchen) launched their small-plates concept Meson G in the former Citrus space on Melrose Avenue. The restaurant came on strong, with a striking contemporary design and an ambitious menu that, at times, seemed more like a do-it-yourself tasting menu than anything resembling tapas.

While much of the food was truly delicious and the place had an inviting atmosphere, with its open kitchen and active bar scene, Meson G wasn't quite working. Tim Goodell may be one of the best chefs in California, but he's from Orange County and doesn't have the name recognition in Los Angeles. Also he's not really cooking at Meson G nor at Dakota, the contemporary chophouse the couple just opened in the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel.

Meson G's capable opening chef, Patina alum Eric Greenspan, may not have been the best fit for a small-plates concept either. His menu of exquisite little plates seemed more suited to an elaborate chef's tasting menu than the hip, casual restaurant Meson G was meant to be. Granted, though, it's hard to decipher whose ideas are whose when two such talented chefs are involved.

In any case, after the first thrill of getting such terrific little plates — vibrant stuffed piquillo peppers, sumptuous sea urchin gratin — dining at Meson G quickly became more chore than pleasure. When small plates are so extremely fussy and complicated, they're not easy to share. The waiter set down the plate, and you were expected to split it three or four ways, reaching over wineglasses. You needed the skill of a seasoned maitre d'.

You could easily end up with a piece of fish without the sauce or miss one of the key ingredients. Or knock over a wine glass. And because the dishes arrived in spurts, with waiters announcing each of them, the constant interruptions didn't make for easy visiting with your friends.

Something wasn't working. The restaurant would be packed one night, almost empty the next.

Centeno steps in

Next up: Josef Centeno, who moved over to Meson G when the Goodells closed Aubergine in Newport Beach, ostensibly for renovation. Centeno had been working with the couple for years, and the trio quickly retooled the menu, which involved paring down the categories and lowering the prices.

On early visits under Centeno's tenure, the food relied less on elaborate sauces and more on direct flavors, but it was still very high concept. A tasting menu one night was dotted with startling and wonderful dishes: a trio of velvety soups, foie gras panna cotta with strawberries, mackerel tartar, John Dory with celery and bitter orange marmalade.

The regular menu was written in the same adventurous spirit, yet Meson G didn't seem to be going over with the foodie crowd. Maybe because of its looks and/or the neighborhood, Meson G attracts a youthful crowd, ready for a party. And some of them don't find small plates all that amusing. They asked for big plates, and so the restaurant added a steak, along with a note that anything on the menu could be ordered as a large plate.

Recently they started featuring "big plate Tuesdays," which really is kind of fun, with an adjunct menu of a handful of dishes that each serves four. We ordered a couple of small plates as appetizers and then, from the big-plates menu, the tempura soft-shelled crab and a braised pork shoulder with carrots and Swiss chard, which was homey and delicious. Think Campanile's old family-style meals on Monday night and you'll get the idea.

On my last couple of visits, the menu was much simpler and user-friendly. Prices seemed a bit gentler too. And the spacious room was filled with small and large tables of mostly young people, a couple of stars tucked in dark corners, the occasional birthday party. The noise level is steadily rising; the place is becoming a bit of a scene.

The restaurant has had to adjust, and mostly, it's doing it brilliantly. Lunch is still slow; L.A. may have just gotten out of the habit in the years since Citrus closed. But a new lunch menu is planned in the next couple of weeks, and it won't be small plates.

Progress tastes good

Meanwhile, at dinner, there are lots of interesting choices that are less elaborate than the earlier dishes and much easier to share, like the thin flatbread smeared with olive oil and topped with fresh burrata, tomatoes and basil leaves. Or the creamy French feta served with oil-sliced olives and almonds.

One night the chef had made foie gras au torchon, creamy chilled foie served from a French canning jar with rafts of toast. Now, there's a lovely plate of cured meats, pickled beets and olives to stave off hunger while you catch up on the rest of the menu.

It's practically full-tilt summer, so a pile of sugar snap peas with crème fraîche and whole toasted almonds make a refreshing salad. Eggplant with cucumber and spiced yogurt is cooling too. Though it's not as easy to share, I also like the fat asparagus topped with a fried egg.

One of the best new dishes is stewed octopus with kale and smoked paprika. The earthiness of the kale against the sweet richness of the octopus works like crazy. Maine diver scallops the size of pincushions make magic with pretty gold beets and that bittersweet orange marmalade.

Skate wing shows up in unusual company, languishing on tender, braised short ribs with a masterful bearnaise. The pristine skate and the richly flavored short ribs should have met years ago. But I've got to have those shrimp. Meaty, tails on, they're paired with potatoes crushed with lots of sweet butter and chives. Perfect.

Now, if you want something to sink your teeth into, go with the veal hanger steak. The steak is marvelously tender and nicely salted, and it comes with pommes frites served in a diminutive cast-iron pot. Cut thinner than they are wide, the frites are crisp and golden.

The one dish that's meant for two, or even three, listed simply as Jidori chicken, may be the best chicken in the city right now. Roasted to a crisp gold, moist and flavorful, this is real food that everybody at the table is going to want to share.

The cheeses are well-chosen too. It's not a huge selection, but everything is interesting and à point. As always, it's a great way to finish off a bottle of wine, white or red, or a reason to order a special bottle from the eclectic wine list.

Desserts aren't up to the level of the rest of the menu at the moment. They're competent but not thrilling. Go with the raspberry-dotted financier, the French almond cake, served with raspberry sorbet. Or, for fun, the funnel cake, squiggles of deep-fried dough served with crocks of crème fraîche and berry compote. Or take your sweet in a bottle, choosing a Coteaux du Layon or a Recioto della Valpolicella Classico from the dessert wine selections.

As I said, Meson G is a work in progress, but the key word here is progress. Rather than go down in flames with a too-elaborate small-plates concept, the kitchen is slowly but surely courting its audience with beguiling dishes and a relaxed, inviting atmosphere. The final picture is coming into focus


Beguiling changesSummery
(Ricardo DeAratanha / LAT)

Meson G

Rating: **½

Location: 6703 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; (323) 525-1415

Ambience: Chic Mediterranean restaurant, bar and lounge with a smart contemporary look that features orange leather banquettes, round mirrors and an open kitchen.

Service: Professional.

Price: For dinner, beginnings, $6 to $12; seafood, $9 to $15; meat, $12 to $19; sides, $7; cheese tasting plates, $15 to $20; desserts, $8. Chef's tasting menu, for the entire table, $95 per person. For lunch, beginnings, $8 to $12; salads, $9 to $17; sandwiches, $10 to $17; desserts, $8.

Best dishes: English pea soup, sugar snap salad, foie gras au torchon, flat bread with burrata, fried calamari, shrimp with crushed potato, octopus with kale and smoked paprika, skate wing with short rib, veal hanger steak, Jidori chicken, funnel cake, raspberry financier.

Wine list: Wide-ranging and eclectic. Corkage, $10 per bottle for first two bottles, $25 per additional bottle.

Best table: A corner banquette.

Special features: Lounge for private parties and late-night noshing.

Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; for dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 6 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.

*Very good.
No star: Poor to satisfactory

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