The Royce takes a bow
With Chef David Féau at the helm, The Langham Huntington, Pasadena’s newly rejuvenated restaurant is still a destination.
By Bradley Tuck 01/01/2011
The first time I came to The Langham Huntington, Pasadena was in late 2008. My dinner date and I pulled up outside a magnificent building on Oak Knoll Road. “This looks like it,” he said. We peered out of the car window looking for an entrance. It dawned on us after a few minutes that we were loitering outside one of the grand old patrician mansions in the vicinity of The Langham. Sensing that a call to armed guards was probably only moments away, he fired up the Mercedes Bio-Diesel and hit the gas, leaving the familiar smell of old cooking oil to mingle with the autumnal fireplace smoke of the well-to-do.
When we got to the real Langham, we had a table inside the kitchen, a prep table where we enjoyed an incredibly memorable meal in the capable hands of the charismatic Chef Craig Strong. Strong managed to garner a Michelin star for The Dining Room during his tenure, before moving on to Studio at the Montage Laguna Beach. After Strong, Michael Voltaggio took up the knives, and during his one-year stint won Bravo TV’s Top Chef: Las Vegas. Voltaggio had come from the kitchen at L.A.’s Bazaar, and his bold, irreverent cuisine seemed somewhat at odds with the sedate ambiance of The Dining Room at The Langham. Voltaggio left in July and is in the process of setting up his own restaurant in West Hollywood.
The Dining Room has itself gone through an intriguing metamorphosis, and under the new chef de cuisine, David Féau, has emerged as The Royce, named after The Huntington Hotel’s erstwhile owner-manager, Stephen W. Royce. Gone is the country club atmosphere, and in its place is a restaurant that wouldn’t look out of place in New York or London’s Mayfair. There’s a lot of white — walls, furniture, teeth. There are also a lot of shiny surfaces, with a polished chrome trim on shiny glass walls surrounding two wine rooms. It could look terribly dated, but Atlanta-based restaurant design firm The Johnson Studio has pulled it off very well, and the effect is quite stunning. It’s polished, refined, elegant and actually very comfortable. The lighting is brighter than one might prefer while eating dinner, but it actually makes the place feel fresh and relaxed. There’s no need to ask for a flashlight to better see the menu here, a real peeve of mine.
Chef Féau has an impressive resumé, and while the décor has lept forward in its chicness quotient, his selection in some ways harkens back to the style of Craig Strong. In a recent interview, he said of his cooking, “It’s straightforward flavor. There is no molecular. Molecular is over.” Féau came from The Patina Group, and before that he’d cooked at Lutèce in New York and its Vegas incarnation; he also worked under Guy Savoy in Paris. So it’s no surprise that an amuse bouche that came out first consisted of a small glass of artichoke soup, one of Savoy’s most famous dishes and quite possibly one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. Alongside it was a tiny skewer with a small cube of foie gras and a grape. I asked to try a suitable wine and was given a Demeter Zoltan “Szerelem” Dry Furmint, Tokaji, 2007. It was a perfect match, with the minerality of the Hungarian wine balancing the sweetness and richness of the foie gras. Artichoke makes any wine paired with it taste sweeter, so it’s a tough match. This was a consummate pairing.
My fellow diner and I opted for The Royce Menu Tasting. It’s five courses and $85, without wine pairings. Paired with wines, it’s $135.
The first course was tuna belly with argan oil ravigote, green apple and a 62° quail egg. Argan oil is something you certainly don’t see on a lot of menus. It has a distinctive flavor, nutty. Primarily it pops up in Moroccan cuisine, where it is used as a dressing or as a dip for breads. The quail egg in this case had been cooked sous vide at a low temperature, so that the yolk just held together until popped with a fork to coat the tuna belly. It was a little like a very delicate steak tartare, though the tuna was in a little cube and not chopped up. Good start.
The next item on the menu was a lobster with pomegranate, but for some reason an item on the California Garden Menu Tasting was substituted: porcini and chestnut casserole “au four” with parsley and Kosui pear. Clearly a paean to autumnal produce, the oven-baked porcini and chestnuts were not as robust in flavor as one might expect. I was a little confused and felt that it might have been more successful had the nuts been puréed. They were a little tough to swallow. But maybe I just didn’t get it. (Or maybe I need new dentures.) The broth in which they bathed was earthy and fragrant, though, as a porcini broth should be.
The Chatham cod, squid ink spaghetti, autumn greens with romano squash and citrus dashi broth more than made up for matters. The fish was as one should expect, perfectly flaky and flavorful, and it contrasted beautifully with the blob of squash purée lurking in that tangy broth. I used to work in a fish shop where we sold dried bonito, so I could smell the bonito flakes in the broth. It took me back more than 20 years. That’s not something that often happens with a bowl of broth. A small piece of seared New York steak was next, with a sweet spiny lobster tail, braised scarlet turnips and marrow bone. Quite flawless. I smeared the marrow on the steak morsels, and everything dissolved on my tongue. Maybe the teeth could just be removed? If all my food were this tender, it would certainly be an option. This course was paired with an incredibly fragrant 2004 Rioja, “JME” Bodegas Muriel. Plummy fruit, lively and young.
A trio of petit fours arrived, and I thought perhaps that was dessert, so I was feeling somewhat disgruntled. But a moment later, under my nose was a “variation of chocolate textures.” “Wow” moments are few and far between when dining, if one is realistic. But here was a chocolate sorbet of such dark intensity, it was almost overpowering. It came with some dessicated chocolate of a lower cacao content, so a touch sweeter, and a chocolate “spaghetti” that was almost citrus-tangy. This was like the cannon shots at the end of the 1812 Overture. My dining companion had a similar revelation with a ball of molten chocolate that had been dropped into liquid nitrogen and frozen to a crisp. Maybe Voltaggio left a gadget or two behind when he moved out? The dessert was paired with a lovely soft, sweet Banyuls, Domaine du Mas Blanc. The wine’s cherry notes turned the chocolate into a sensory Black Forest gâteau.
The Royce is definitely a destination restaurant. Nobody is going to stumble in off the street, that’s for sure. But it’s proof that in life, sometimes it isn’t about the journey.