May 9, 2019
When speaking to foodies knowledgeable about dining in Los Angeles, they are likely to point you toward the city’s tremendous offerings of ethnic cuisines. A quick Google search will validate their assured opinions. You have popular neighborhoods that begin with either “Thai”, “China”, or “Korea”, appended with the word “town” at the end. And you also have Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, and Little Tokyo—each is a microcosm of their international counterpart. From north to south and east to west, some of the best taco trucks anywhere are scattered throughout the city, both famous establishments and hard-to-locate ones parked at obscure street corners. Ethnic foods certainly have a powerful foothold here as evidenced by its ubiquity and its seemingly 24/7 availability.
There is, however, another side to LA’s culinary scene: fine dining. Michelin once recognized haute cuisine here. The famed tire company assessed LA in 2008 and 2009 before abruptly ceasing publication of its controversial red guide, leaving the city’s restaurants devoid of any three-star ratings, its highest accolade possible.
Ten years have passed since then. Both casual and upscale dining have grown considerably in that timespan. This summer, Michelin is slated to return with an edition that will cover, not just the existing San Francisco Bay, but all of California. Fervent speculation began months ago as to which restaurants deserve stars and which will actually receive them. Numerous LA restaurants are thought to be strong nominees for Michelin recognition. Perhaps one of the strongest contenders, at least in this foodie’s opinion, is an avant-garde restaurant named Somni located in the luxurious SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. Compared to the existing starred restaurants in the four Michelin-rated cities—San Francisco, NYC, Chicago and Washington, DC—Somni is at least their equal in food and service. Perhaps more.
Prior to dining at Somni, I was already familiar with the numerous superlatives bestowed on this restaurant, from foodie friends and critics alike. I had purposely saved Somni for the end of my first culinary trip to LA, an aggressive agenda that spanned an entire week of multiple meals a day. Previous experience had taught me that the final meal of any long eating excursion can be somewhat of a letdown. Call it physical or culinary fatigue (or a hefty dose of both), but a tasting menu before an early-morning flight can often feel like an expensive obligation rather than a priceless meal worthy of remembrance. To minimize the chance of disappointment, I decided to save what was potentially the best restaurant for last.
As a noun, somni means dream in the Catalan language. As a restaurant, it is part of the vast culinary empire of renown chef and humanitarian José Andrés. To describe Somni simply as a tasting menu feels insufficient and somehow improper. The experience here is as much a visual journey as it is an international and gastronomical marvel. The meal may kick off with a course inspired by Mexico, then quickly veer towards Italy, push onward to Spain, make a sudden stop in Japan, and finally dive into unknown territory. From land to sea to forest and everywhere else in between, the flavors and presentations are bold but not bombastic, creative and artistic but never self-serving, and majestically imaginative without succumbing to indulgence. This is elevated cuisine that marches confidently from bite to bite, course to course while maintaining complete integrity because it dares to lead, even at the risk of failing.
The dinner clocks in at approximately two and half hours and serves a total of twenty-seven electrifying dishes, both large and small. To cover that many courses in a relatively short amount of time, the pacing must move at a fairly quick clip. However, during the entirety of my meal, I never really felt rushed. I found time to think about each course, to take copious pictures, and to savor and delight in what I was consuming with utmost pleasure. In between courses and drinks, multiple staff members, even as they hurried about, often found opportunity to engage me and other diners in conversation.
Let me discuss the wonderful service. The staff at Somni is a highly trained and synchronous team. While each member, from the young stewards to the experienced culinary director, is remarkable in his or her autonomy, they perform beautifully together as a group. Throughout the evening, the team maneuvered from one calculated task to the next with precision, awareness, and focus as though they were all connected to a larger mind orchestrating their every movement and gesture. It reminded me of ballet, and they were a joy to watch.
One by one, different team members would place a spectacular course in front of the diner before a chef or cook proceeded with some exposition. Sometimes, the explanation was merely the ingredients used to construct the course. Often, it would be a description of the inspiration behind the dish or instructions on how best to consume it. Empty plates and utensils were quickly removed and replaced with fresh ones while diminishing drinks were promptly refreshed.
As befitting of somni’s denotation, eating at this restaurant is akin to experiencing the most vivid and beautiful lucid dream. In such a state, one’s mind is conscious even as the body lies in slumber. You are aware that you are dreaming, and you retain control of your faculties. When the lucid dream is pleasant, you often do not seek to wake but rather, to prolong your dream and to maximize your experience within the confines of that world. When it does end, there is often a lingering feeling, somewhat of regret, that the dream was too short. Much too short. At Somni, when the dining experience is this great, when your auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory senses have been completely engaged for intense enjoyment, you do not want the tasting menu to conclude either.
With its incredible, progressive cuisine and a top-notch staff providing amazing service, Somni delivers one of the best culinary experiences for foodies seeking high-end dining in LA. For this accomplishment night after night, come this summer, Somni is poised to garner one of the highest culinary dreams of many restaurants, namely, three Michelin stars.
PRE-DINNER DRINK AND NIBBLES
With just two amuse-bouches, Somni demonstrated that tonight’s meal would be no ordinary event. The initial bites, meant to prime the palate and whet the appetite, foreshadowed that the courses to come would be as visually stimulating as they would be gustatorily satisfying.
Course 1: A solid “cocktail” made with sweet corn and infused with the flavors of habanero and tequila. A terrific riff on the traditional appetizer often found in Mexican restaurants.
Courses 2-5 consisted of small bites, previewing the creativity and artistry of the cuisine to come.
Course 6: The crust used to make this “pizza” came from juiced tomatoes that was clarified and then transformed into a meringue. How creative!
Course 7: A gazpacho made from beets covered a small mound of goat cheese and yogurt ice cream which provided earthy, rich flavors to this soupy vegetable course. The dish was finished with horseradish and a touch of cinnamon. A dainty beet cracker, sitting on top, completed the look.
Course 8: We were instructed to tear the prawn’s head off using a twisting motion and then to drink the juices from the head as a start. We would then remove the remainder of the exoskeleton to get at the body. Biting into the flesh, I was stunned by the delicious sweetness of the meat which contained an oceanic note reminiscent of its former environment. I devoured the prawn in seconds and wanted more. Still enthralled, I extracted the brain and every remaining bit of nourishment I could get find inside the carapace. This prawn was the exemplar of how a spectacular product, by its innate qualities and characteristics, can elevate dining with little or no alteration. This course was one of my favorites of the evening.
Course 9: A tempura puff shiso leaf was topped with dry-aged striploin tartare and covered in beautiful borage flowers. This was a really delicate, delicious bite that showcased wonderful technique and execution. The deep-fried leaf was excellent without tasting greasy.
Course 10: Somni referred to this next dish by a second name, “Seeds of Life”, due to the pairing of two components that are, literally, progenitors of life. A portion of yellow squash seeds bumped up against Russian Osetra caviar. Both components sat on a bed of bone marrow and cauliflower that was completed with chicken escabeche. This course was briny and rich and savory all at the same time.
Course 11: Ensaïmada is a sweet pastry from Mallorca. Somni borrowed that idea and reimagined the dessert as a savory brioche, adding in caramelized onions and black trumpet mushrooms. It was served with a dollop of Parmesan butter topped with basil flowers. With the rich butter lathered on top, combined with the earthy aroma from the truffles, this brioche was pure heaven to eat.
Course 12: A fragile strawberry shell enclosed cold strawberry vermouth and aperol. A single bite of slightly chilled liquid that equated to pure deliciousness on my tongue.
Course 13: Little coins of white asparagus and black truffle were layered side by side on top of a white asparagus puree. It was a delicate balance between subtle and earthy flavors on top of a creamy texture.
Course 14: A coconut gelée was draped over black garlic, Dungeness crab, and peanuts with cilantro and cilantro flowers decoratively encircling the dish. An addictive, savory sauce made from the crab head was spooned over the course before black truffles were shaved on top for an extra, luxurious touch.
Course 15: The al dente fava beans were cooked in pork stock and served with perfectly sautéed morels and seared artichokes. A vegetable dish that tasted more incredible than it may initially appear to the eyes.
Course 16: Japanese firefly squid were paired with a traditional Basque pil-pil sauce. The black portion of the sauce was made from squid ink. The flavor of the squid was so pristine that they needed no sauce at all. I alternated between eating them plain and dipping them in the pil-pil to experience the beauty of an unadulterated product as well as the way Somni intended the course to be eaten.
Course 17: This fabulous Norwegian langoustine was prepared three ways. The savory head was cured in miso and then seared; the plump and meaty tail was covered in clarified butter; and the claws were smoked. I could not pick a favorite method. I just craved more delicious langoustine!
Course 18: The Spanish turbot used for this course had been dry aged for four days. The wing was then removed, smoked, and glazed with an amazing house-made teriyaki sauce. This dish was meant to be eaten as finger food, to be treated like ribs, and to be picked up and torn apart with attention paid to the presence of small bones. The meat was simply sublime. As an accompaniment, a tea brewed from the bones of the turbot and then infused with Kaffir lime, was served with the wing.
Course 19: The Spanish Ibérico pork was first brined, then sous vide, and finished by searing. It was served with a sauce made from the bones of the pig seasoned with mole. The excellent meat came with a trio of adjacent lines consisting of different purees: butternut squash, huitlacoche, and fresh crema. Freeze-dried corn and some type of flower were placed on top to complete the look of the gorgeous and tasty course.
Course 20: Underneath the delightful cow cookie sat a cheese ball made from gorgonzola cream, vanilla compressed apple, and hazelnut. This was truly one of the most creative and tastiest cheese courses I have ever eaten.
Course 21: Translated as “strawberries and cream”, the dish contained a strawberry ice cream paired with luscious Chantilly cream. It was finished with a pour of chilled strawberry essence. What initially appeared to be a simple dessert turned out to be a stunningly delicious treat with such a pure, almost overwhelming, flavor of the strawberry fruit! An astounding ingredient made for a sensational dessert.
Course 22: The two delicate leaves were made out of raspberry and blackberry, respectively. It was served with a variety of chocolate shapes and textures. It was as yummy as it looks.
Course 23: The “bomb” was made from meringue filled with cream and covered with freeze-dried strawberry and blueberry. It was both rich and fruity.
Course 24: This was a dumpling with the flavor of rice pudding. A traditionally savory dish prevalent in many Asian cuisines was reinterpreted as a cold, sweet dessert.
Course 25: This final bite was a fried puff pastry that contained dark chocolate ganache and toffee caramel. The flaky exterior gave way to lovely sweet flavors.