Museum restaurants have long been considered the domain of institutional dining, at least in Los Angeles, where cafeteria-style service, uninspired sandwiches and salads, and a quick finish are de rigueur. That kind of model started changing in America with restaurants like The Modern, Danny Meyer’s ambitious restaurant at MOMA in midtown Manhattan, and Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21 at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. In March, 2011, Joachim Splichal and his Patina Restaurant Group got into the act, hiring chef Kris Morningstar and opening Ray’s and Stark Bar at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA), elevating museum dining along L.A.’s Miracle Mile.
The restaurant and bar is a tribute to late producer Ray Stark, a man responsible for films like “Funny Girl” and “Steel Magnolias.” Ray’s features a glass front that offers views of people in LACMA’s plaza-like setting, and a wall of what looks like interconnected blue and orange scallop shells. The dining room hosts glass-shielded shelves, which during our visit displayed The Ellen Palevsky Cup Collection. Ray’s has an open air bar and sprawling red lounge seating that’s popular during happy hour. In back, hidden behind bamboo, Ray’s keeps six upraised herb beds.
Ray’s invited us to experience a winter dessert tasting, and we ended up receiving a complimentary upgrade to a full meal. We ordered from the menu, and Chef Morningstar added a couple dishes he thought would add to the dinner. On a regular basis, a good way to go would be to order “A Taste of Ray’s,” a menu option where “the chef will cook for the whole table a menu of our freshest ideas.” Since Chef Morningstar is always hustling to keep pace with the seasons, and has creative ideas on how to present those ingredients, this is a good way to go.
More and more restaurants are baking their own bread these days – a good trend – and pastry chef Josh Graves makes one of the better loaves in town. He topped a wood plank with crusty, tangy sourdough. The pat of soft butter sprinkled with sea salt and chives made a great match.
Our Amuse Bouche was warm butternut squash soup with tangy black truffle goat cheese and crunchy house-made granola.
We had plenty of food coming, but weren’t about to deny Chef Morningstar’s hamachi duo. The rosy hamachi sashimi with aji amarillo resembled something you’d find at a Peruvian restaurant, but he added some cool twists: toasty black sesame clusters, tiny tangerines and mushrooms.
Still, it was the fried hamachi collar with a sweet and sour yuzu bath that had a bigger impact. The fish sported crispy, savory skin, and contained a snow white core with fluffy, scrambled egg-like texture. Fattier dark meat resided near the bone slipped off in shreds.
If the next two part of our meal were a section of theme park, it could have been called “tentacle land.” Our two courses of cephalopods began with tangy thin-cut Squid ($16) ink tagliarini with breadcrumbs, garlic, mint, backyard opal basil, dried chilies, tender tentacle-ettes and rings.
Cheese and octopus? Wood-fired Octopus ($14) and burrata read like an unlikely combo, but it formed my favorite dish of the meal. The tender “meat” touted smoky, crispy exteriors. Chef Morningstar plated with charred broccolini lavished with olive oil, Israeli cous cous, “Italian Sriracha” (sweet and spicy Fresno chile puree), fennel, and preserved lemon-olive vinaigrette.
Char-grilled Calf’s Liver ($21) looked great, with rosy-centered slices resting on polenta, with torpedo onions roasted in tangy balsamic vinegar, sage leaves, and juniper brown butter. Still, the meat was too funky for me, and some bites were too tough. Yes, I know it’s liver, but still.
Wild Sawara was the most expensive thing on the menu at $25, and is apparently a relative of the mackerel. Is it the Aunt? A second cousin? Anyway, the thick-cut, wood-grilled fillet had crispy skin, and wasn’t nearly as funky, scrawny or bony as most fish in that category. The accompaniments consisted of beets, beet puree, firm chorizo, kale, and frothy, tangy lime brown butter.
To drink, we went Bobbin’ For Bourbon. Sommelier and bar manager Paul Sanguinetti combined apple infused bourbon, raspberry rooibos tea, freshly squeezed lemon juice, frothy cap with sprinkled nutmeg to form a warm drink on a cool night.
Pastry chef Josh Graves led us on a dessert tasting, which is supposedly why were there there in the first place. Coconut pudding joined snowy coconut granite, quenelle of tart guava sorbet with fruit from manager Gerald’s garden in Glendale, a meringue stick, kalamansi gelee, and a chewy coconut macaroon. This was a study in coconut that deftly balanced sweet and tart elements.
Chef Graves made a very good sticky toffee pudding when he worked with Chef Morningstar at District, and his new version is even better, more refined and balanced. He presented a date-rich square with Mission figs cooked in red wine, tangy goat cheese ice cream, and shards of toffee.
It takes a lot for me to like chocolate desserts, since they’re usually so rich and one-note, but not at Ray’s. Chef Graves presented an airy chocolate pudding in a cup with Valrhona Caramelia milk chocolate mousse, crushed hazelnut praline, dark chocolate, and a hit of Maldon sea salt.
Chef Graves’ Meyer Lemon budino combined a lot of interesting winter citrus, and there was a lot to like about his airy angel food-like cake coated with backyard Meyer lemon pudding. He also utilized tiny tangerines, pureed peels for an orange sauce, tart, floral bergamot frozen yogurt, and a mandarinquat chip. Yes, they’re cross-breeding mandarins and kumquats now.
“I’m all about natural ingredients and just keeping things natural, and just letting the ingredients shine,” said Chef Graves. “Baking powder is the craziest chemical I use.” After running his dessert gauntlet, it reconfirmed that he’s one of the top young pastry chefs in town.
After the meal, it also became clear that Ray’s isn’t just “good for a museum restaurant.” That would be a backhanded compliment. It’s a good restaurant, and one of 2011’s more enticing openings.
Note: My meal at Ray’s was complimentary.