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Food & Drink

Inventive menu at Laurent's Modern Cuisine holds few disappointments



Chef Laurent Rea.

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Asian beef cheeks salad with house-made pickles.

Swiss-born Laurent Rea has been waiting in the wings for a long time in anticipation of his Ruby Keeler moment. (To be fair, I'm pretty sure he doesn't think of himself in Ruby Keeler terms.) First coming to our limited attention at L'Etoile, Rea later labored in the kitchens of the late Olmos Park Bistro. Not straying far from the scene of that situation, he has now found himself a home at another seemingly star-crossed space, the former Shiraz, etc., etc. on Olmos Circle — itself recently revamped after the removal of the frequently battered fountain. Laurent's Modern Cuisine is his own baby this time. To make sure it thrives, go now.

As is almost expected these days, Rea's menus, based on French technique but admitting of multiple other influences, focus as much as possible on local ingredients and change frequently — at least every two weeks for the dinner menu. A lunchtime dish of portobello ravioli garnished with pomegranate seeds and shredded porcinis managed to hang around on the evening menu. However, wherever it appears, snap it right up. The Roquefort cream sauce is subtle, the pasta delicate, the wisps of anisey chervil (a Laurent favorite) decorating the plate more than mere green. Some sautéed shrimp served over very creamy grits with candied lime may have been slightly overcooked, but the flashes of lime were brilliant. An unexpected and altogether appealing tomato soup with crab preceded the lunch entrées; soups, apparently, are a signature.

The signature offering at a subsequent dinner was miso-based with enoki mushrooms and breaded udon noodles, and it was the perfect, light, palate perker-upper. But the four-course prix fixe menu ($45) technically begins with appetizers, in our case a yellowfin tuna tartare with anise pearls and a salad of fennel and tarragon and panko-coated shrimp with an ancho "mole" and avocado mousse. The anise pearls come to us through the miracle of modern chemistry, and the opalescent orbs are a beautiful complement to the tartar — itself fantastic in taste but a little mushy in texture. The panko shrimp themselves elicited raves, but the mousse was more like a wan guacamole, and though the simple mole was reasonably bold, there wasn't enough of it to influence much.

There is a single salad, saving us from the agony of more decision making. On this night it was cubed local watermelon and cucumber dressed in a vinaigrette with honey and paprika, and it was summer on a snazzy, rectangular plate. Perfect and perfectly simple.

Now is as good a time as any to mention the serving pieces. Some are designed almost to a fault, and sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Not everything wants to be buried deep within a wide-lipped bowl, for example — especially considering that there's no place to put cutlery or side dishes (also not mentioned on the menu and about which more later). The determined diner will find ways to cope, however, and any efforts will be well-rewarded. A bowl of roast suckling wild boar bedded on a sharp-sweet parsnip purée was spectacularly good in spite of a jus in which the advertised cardamom was all but undetectable. Can't say that I missed it, however, which might have been the intent. I had also expected a little more punch from a black trumpet mushroom demi bathing a stack of slow-braised veal short ribs — and that, too, might have been a question of striving for subtlety over strength, a concept that often escapes me. In any case, the ribless ribs were beautiful and stood nicely on their own. The sides, served in lidded containers, were seared Brussels sprouts (crunchy and a touch caramelized), a disappointing creamy, curried leek dish, and mac 'n' cheese — first sneered at but later appreciated as likely the best version of this way-too-common dish in town, hint of nutmeg, truffle oil, and all. There is a limited wine list, but wines by the glass to match most dishes were found, regardless.

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