XIV

It seems more than appropriate that mega chef Michael Mina would partner with renowned French designer Philippe Starck for his fourteenth restaurant opening, which is cheekily called XIV, with more than a nod to France’s most famous king in its nomenclature.

It seems more than appropriate that mega chef Michael Mina would partner with renowned French designer Philippe Starck for his fourteenth restaurant opening, which is cheekily called XIV, with more than a nod to France’s most famous king in its nomenclature.

Perhaps Mina, a talented “real” chef whose epicenter is still San Francisco, needed a dose of the modern Frenchman’s deal-making glamour in the same way that Louis XIV needed Cardinal Jules Mazarin to assist him in his ascendancy from dauphin to Sun King. Taking on the Sunset Strip and the expectations of an increasingly savvy LA foodie community means that no chef can afford to rest on either laurels earned elsewhere or on the bankrolling largesse of his money guys. In Mina’s case, the money guy is nightclub and real estate titan Sam Nazarian, whose SBE Group is also responsible for the wildly successful Bazaar at the revamped SLS Hotel in the old Meridien space on San Vicente. Pairing Starck design with authentic chef know-how is clearly a promising restaurant strategy for SBE and Nazarian, one that other nameless high-end LA restaurants with tired 80’s décor might do well to emulate before they go out-of-business.

Mr. Sexton and I had intentionally saved dinner at XIV for a night when we wouldn’t be dining with our little one – this haven of elaborate tasting menus isn’t meant for speedy dining while doodling on the kids’ menu with washable markers. This is a restaurant meant for savoring. That said, even our enthusiasm began to flag as we prayed for the final dessert course to arrive, the twelfth one by my count, as a recent Thursday night meal stretched into the late hours of the evening. Such a leisurely meal gave us plenty of time to observe the fantastic surroundings, though, and dinner at XIV made me wish I were 20-something and living in Hollywood because it’s fabulously fun and young. The dining room is cleverly divided into distinct zones that make one feel like you’ve made the guest list at an eccentric French auntie’s chalet for the party of the century – there’s lively pick-up action at the bar, whimsical books and figurines adorning mantels on fireplaces throughout the main space and an airy, enclosed outdoor patio with lighter menu options. It was packed packed packed on a Thursday night which made me happy for Chef Mina, who was there diligently working the room, and for my friend Christopher Lavin, the sommelier who is working real wine magic at XIV.

We wisely opted to let Chef Mina and his kitchen cook for us, and cook for us they did. Currently, diners can pick “A Light Meal” (eight courses), “Something More” (eleven courses) or, aptly enough for the very hungry, “Fourteen from XIV.” Some recent reviews have critiqued the restaurant for focusing on tasting menus, which I find annoying. Not that hungry? Then simply order à la carte, or better yet, snack at the bar or on the patio if you’re inclined for a lighter meal. Assessing a master chef’s abilities on bar snacks or one or two dishes alone is akin to seeing a single cocktail napkin sketch from Picasso and calling yourself an art critic. For me, taking the time to do a full tasting menu, ideally on multiple occasions, gives you the opportunity to see the full range of flavors, techniques and presentations that the wizard in the kitchen is capable of producing. And Mina is a wizard. I know his cooking from many of the other thirteen restaurants in his empire, but something in the atmosphere of XIV and its Starck-esque whimsicality seems to have liberated Mina a bit. Here, his food seems artistic but, well, fun, which is saying something in the rarified realm of fancy-pants dining that is too often anything but.

Highlights of our tasting menu at XIV included a gorgeous little hamachi sashimi nibble done with picked strawberries, grains of paradise and fresh green onion from the market. It was delicate, inventive and perfect in every way. Similarly, a lovely fish dish of Thai-style snapper came encrusted with tapioca pearls, bitter rabe and a jolt of white soy vinaigrette and was a beautifully balanced mouthful of spice-meets-sour. And if sampling what any chef does with chicken is any indication of ability, i.e., that most pedestrian of “white meats,” then Mina’s jidori chicken with springtime favas and ramps, la ratte potatoes and a bit of onion jus is also proof of his ascendant skill. Mr. Sexton, that carnivore of carnivores, pronounced it the most delicious chicken he’d ever tasted and immediately wondered about getting the full entrée size portion of it. Wisely, his wife and our server discouraged him as we had at least six more courses to go after the jidori débuted, but that’s the point of a tasting menu – to alert you to the tastes that chefs are capable of conjuring.

Mina’s menu was impressive but I want to give special recognition here to the wines and wine service we experienced at XIV. I know wine. I know it well as it’s been my bread and butter commodity for over a decade in the business now. That said, I am fully and humbly ready to acknowledge that Wine Director Christopher Lavin may know just a bit more than me, and nothing could have made me happier as a diner! His wine pairings with Chef Mina’s foods require an awareness of palate weight, sweetness, alcohol, ageing and texture that is well beyond most sommelier’s knowledge base. Each wine paired was chosen with a keen awareness and respect for the chef’s intention in a given dish, and each subtly accentuated the best of those intentions. Christopher’s wine pairings made me yearn to work the floor as a sommelier again, in tandem with a truly great chef, because it is in and of itself an art to pair wines in this way with this caliber of food. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, Christopher is a total sweetheart with nary a grain of pretentiousness about him. He cheerfully handled the table of expense-account cabernet boozers to my left as gracefully as he handled a server’s mortified moment of spilling a tray of drinks. Now that’s professionalism.

Treat yourself to a full tasting menu at XIV with someone who cares about food and wine and you won’t be disappointed. It’s rare to find this kind of quality packaged in a fun setting; you’ll pay a lot more for a lot less elsewhere and won’t have nearly as good a time. If I lived in Hollywood, I’d be a regular by now and that’s for sure.


XIV by Michael Mina
8117 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood
323-656-1414, sbeent.com/xiv
 

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