Like many West Coast diners, I have really enjoyed the growing locavore movement’s focus on locally grown and raised ingredients. Depending on the area where you live and the season, you can see a rather dynamic menu. I was excited, therefore, when I was invited to join Chef Ray Garcia of FIG in Santa Monica for a walking tour of the nearby farmers market to meet local growers and explore. To my delight and surprise the ingredients we picked up that morning wound up as one of the plates I enjoyed at that night’s dinner. Hard to find a better example of direct farm to table!
All of the patrons of Chef Ray’s FIG have to thank a small and somewhat bitter group of government lawyers who convinced their college intern that the life of a practicing law could be filled with monotony, drudgery and a lack creativity. Chef Ray then turned to culinary school and honed his kitchen studies in some of the top restaurants in Los Angeles. In taking over the Fairmont Miramar’s somewhat plain hotel restaurant, his mission was to transform it into a destination which would even attract sophisticated local diners. On a very busy recent Saturday night it was clear that he succeeded: approximately 250 covers, with the vast majority from outside the hotel.
The menu has a heavy focus on dishes built around maximizing the flavors from seasonal ingredients and lists what ingredients are freshest, as well as the next incoming peak ingredients. It includes crowd pleasing regular offerings, such as the 32 day dry-aged beef from a ranch near San Diego…however we opted for an adventure: a small box on the left side of the menu with a hand drawn rooster caricature invites you to order something called “feed me”. This literally takes the menu out of your hands and into the imagination of Chef Ray. Depending on the number of guests in your party you will have an increasing multitude of different plates brought out for each of the four courses you will enjoy. The items that we enjoyed showed an incredible diversity of flavor building, technique and the kitchen’s focus on utilizing components in their prime.
Complementing the food is a serious line-up of inhouse mixologist creations. I love that people are again discovering and appreciating “brown drinks” the mixology team at FIG continue to push their craft in new directions. My Old Fashioned White Manhattan with FIG’s own barrel-aged whiskey, one of FIG’s line-up of barrel-aged cocktails was the perfect start to dinner. Nice wine list, but get yourself one of the signature cocktails. These guys are pros.
Those of you who have read of some of my previous culinary tales know that I like to explore all things food related here and abroad. I can tell you without reservation that Chef Ray’s fantastic meal challenged my taste buds and reminded me of just how much diversity we can find in our own backyard here in Los Angeles. When preparing a chef’s menu, the kitchen always has a delicate task of ensuring a proper build up of flavors and “load-balancing” to ensure the guests can eat throughout all the courses. What was particularly remarkable about our dinner was that none of the four of us could agree on our favorite plate — every course brought debate and discussion. Everyone did agree, however, that the multiple items served during each course were in varying degrees delicious, playful, serious, challenging, easy-going, advanced, simple, but above all, well-executed. Chef Ray started us out with a pan-seared quinoa with marcona almonds, apples and vegetables tied together with an orange blossom honey-based drizzle. While this may sound basic, throwing all of those flavors together is difficult to balance and it really showed off the staff’s creativity, playfulness and confidence. Simple poached chicken with peas did the impossible, namely elevating chicken to stand alongside red meat as a signature element of the dinner. Monterey Jack cheese curds, fingerling potatoes, garlic scapes and a ham hock broth (the first three ingredients from our sojourn to the farmers market) brought comfort food smiles to the table. The thinly sliced and perfectly cooked beef tongue with tomatillo salsa showed the chef’s willingness to take risks and, again, strong technique. Poached egg on morels, asparagus and truffle…Kampachi collar… agnelloti stuffed with sweet potatoes…red bean risotto…all the flavors standing alone yet connected. Our “feed me” trip was a whirlwind of favors and transformed a dinner into an unforgettable experience.
So often it seems that after enjoying a fabulous meal, dessert arrives and falls flat. In this case we were stunned by the complicated simplicity: fresh-from-the-farm glazed carrots with a carrot sorbet and a heavenly passionfruit semifreddo with blackberry coulis were so good, I simply ignored the gorgeous chocolate tart. Vegetables and fruit for dessert caused me to walk away from chocolate!?! Yes, it’s true: I turned into the most inhospitable dining companion by encircling the semifreddo with my arms and fended off spoons and forks from the left and the right.
L.A.’s dining scene is diverse and competitive, but for a meal and an experience, you will want to include FIG in your “must try” dining rotation. It’s the perfect complement to a nice day exploring Santa Monica…and that knowledgeable shopper next to you conversing with the farmer? He might just be picking out what you’ll be eating that night.