Professor Gourmand — The New Tasting Menus at Scratch Bar/Kitchen, Encino

Ah, well. I had taken all the pictures I needed for this on November 2, and I was planning to write it the following week, but on November 4 I tripped over something in the sidewalk as I walked north on Tujunga Ave and got up with a Monteggia fracture — a fractured and dislocated radius (normally if the radius breaks, it’s a wrist fracture, not an elbow fracture) and a broken ulna. I spent the next two nights at Cedars-Sinai where I underwent two procedures, and the following week on an opioid pain pill, so of course no writing, and then concentrated on my classes for the rest of the semester, But I dutifully took pictures of the full menu on December 2, so I could write about what was kept and what changed. If you know me, you know I procrastinate, and since the next menu change has already happened, you’re going to get January as well. It also seems like my phone has stopped communicating with my computer, so there’s some material that I just won’t be able to show you. The camera, thank heaven, worked.

To begin, I should probably paste in what some of what I wrote for Yelp.com in December 2015, after my second visit to Scratch Bar/Kitchen:

Okay. I might be biased since this is after my second visit, and on my first visit they recognized me as the guy who did a seven-course tasting at Chef Phillip [Grantland-Lee]’s other restaurant, The Gadarene Swine, at the beginning of October and then went back at least once a week between then and now to eat everything on the menu that hadn’t been in the tasting at least once. On that first visit to Scratch Bar, I had the $80 omakase [tasting menu], but without any of the red meat courses, so it was designed for a pescatarian diet. The three absolute standout dishes in that menu were 1) a tempura soft-shell crab with pickled watermelon radish and apples in various forms, a spot prawn that had been marinated for three days and came out seared in the blackened manner but with chermoula spices (amazing), and a salmon dish. Phillip brought that one and explains that every day he planks and roasts a 20-pound King salmon (and it was SO good I can’t imagine not ordering the salmon at any meal there henceforth). The whole thing was SO good I promised everyone (as other reviewers mentioned, you’re served by a variety of the cooks and servers) I’d be back before the end of the year, and this is December 29, so . . . [what I left out was an account of my single a la carte order at Scratch, because when you added up the three items it was really close to what the basic $40 tasting menu cost, so never again.]

I should clarify something in that review. When I say “Phillip brought that one,” I’m referring to the fact that his restaurants have no dedicated wait people. As he told the Los Angeles Times in November 2015, just before Scratch opened in Encino, the chefs and cooks will be the servers. Who better than the people who conceived it and prepared it to talk about the intricacies of each dish?

In December 2015, there were three tasting menus, $40, $80 and $120. I usually did the $40, when I was hungry, the $80, and for occasions when I had a $50 open table coupon, the $120. I didn’t finish the $120 the last time. It was cumbersome too, so for November, Philip instituted a simplified version: $55 (7–8 courses) and $95 (11–13 courses. Since the $120 was a 16-course dinner, it’s not surprising it wasn’t retained — heck, If I couldn’t finish it, well . . .

A new $95 tasting menu every month. 12 courses — 9 savory and 3 desserts.

The first course is always the same: a mussel shooter — a mussel on a skewer with a strip of serrano chile and a strip of pickled white onion lying on a shot glass. In the glass, sake with a dash of lemon juice, and at the bottom, avocado puree with uni. This is how almost every tasting menu I’ve ever had at Scratch begins, and it’s a nice refreshing way to begin a meal.

This was followed by a board with three, I guess I’d call them hors d’oeuvres, in the center, this menu’s take on the seared but raw prawn dusted with chermoula spices on a bed of cabbage puree with green onions and pickled white onions. The prawn used to be served out of its shell on a plate by itself as a separate course, but now it’s served on the fried prawn shell, which has bacony aspects. To its left, a rice puff with a thin piece of aged prime ribeye steak — raw — over a sunchoke puree (the non-red-meat option on this substitutes a thin strip of daikon that has been marinated in beet juice); to its right, half a tartlet of foie gras mousse under a gelee of rose wine and rosewater.

In December, the half-tartlet now contained one of the big hits from The Gadarene Swine (hereafter “Swine”) — house-made peanut butter and house-made jelly topped byenoki mushrooms and greens. That’s not a slice of rib-eye on the left, it’s a thin slice of daikon dyed with beet juice.

The third course consisted of three versions of salmon (raw, raw with raspberry mustard, torched with beet mustard), with pickled sea beans served on sea rocks with evaporating CO₂.

In December, escolar instead of salmon, and raspberry mustard on both of the pieces that had mustard on them.

The fourth course was another Swine-inflected dish. In previous menus, there was a carrot course. This is a radish dish — raw and poached French Breakfast radishes with their greens — nose to tail radishes, if you will — with a radish foam and some shavings of radish butter. Swine, of course, wouldn’t have used butter. On the plate they would have used at Swine.

This was good, but it got a REAL upgrade in December. What came to the table was a small wood plate on which they had spread a base of potato hummus. A few small roasted Yukon Gold and purple potatoes and some smelt roe were placed on the hummus, with an assortment of fresh micro herbs — always including dill — scattered on top. It was good when the other herbs are parsley and chervil, and even better one night when the parsley was replaced with cilantro.

Fifth in November, a glass dish arrived. It contained a base of Greek yogurt, on top of which were placed pickled kiwi, fried shimeji mushrooms and salmon roe. It came with a little coffee pot full of mushroom dashi, which was poured at the table. You probably know that I’m looking for new taste experiences when I dine out, and that dish was absolutely unlike anything I had ever seen — or tasted — before. I could kick myself for forgetting to take a picture of that.

In December, the glass dish arrived containing an agnolotto in which was everything that had been on the plate in November (except the salmon roe), with the same mushroom dashi poured around it. EXACTLY the same flavor profile.

The next course on the regular menu in November and December would have been chicken livers and onions, but for pescatarian me they served cauliflower instead of chicken livers. On a bed of vegetable puree and alfalfa sprouts, with pomegranate seeds.

Following that, a taco as only Scratch could do it. On a leaf of Bibb lettuce, a braised and fried baby octopus with a barbecue sauce made from the braising liquid and kohlrabi-apple slaw.

In December, the kitchen substituted a fried oyster with house-made tartar sauce, frankly, even better. In both cases, the vegetarian option was a piece of fried acorn squash.

Then, an absolute tour-de force. Since about May, one of the courses in the mid-range tasting menu had been a dish of mussels in a yellow curry sauce. In November, the mussels were replaced by king crab. Same preparation as the mussels, absolutely excellent

December? Salmon instead of crab, instead of mussels. With maitake mushrooms.

The final savory course on the menu is a hanger steak served on a bed of potato puree with kale, cippolini onions and a demi-glace sauce. What they served me at this point was also on a bed of potato puree, the dish that the kitchen at Swine called “Mush-Mush”- grilled maitake mushrooms and grilled green onions. What Scratch added was more of the octopus barbecue sauce and the potato puree the steak was served on.

That was fine in November, but it became a sort of issue for me in December. As I observed above, the salmon course had acquired quite a few maitake mushrooms, so when Mush-Mush arrived with a couple of carrots, I said I thought this might be too much of a good thing, and why not carrots instead of the mushrooms, and I watched as they solved it. You have probably figured out by now that the Scratch kitchen, as the Swine kitchen did, sends me dishes that are in preparation for the next iteration of the menu, and I had a salmon dish like that the third week of December, but I didn’t take a picture of it because it flat out didn’t work. At the end of December, they had fixed it really easily by changing the mushrooms in the salmon dish. Mushrooms twice, no problem, the SAME mushrooms twice, problem. So I’m finicky, but not THAT finicky!

Then three desserts:

Dolci: Dulce de leche ice cream, shards of white chocolate, smoked hazelnuts, cocoa nibs, alfalfa sprouts, and edible flowers. The object is to get some of everything in each bite

Coconut pudding; Carried over from Swine, and probably the one dish I had more often than anything else there. At Swine, it was a mason jar with a base of coconut pudding, with a brown sugar streusel, a mint-lime (mojito, non-alcoholic) granite, strawberries and Thai basil. This had to be mixed thoroughly, and it was delicious. At Scratch, the strawberries were replaced with blackberries and the Thai basil wasn’t so evident, but that was okay. The alternatives at Scratch weren’t vegan so I didn’t have the coconut pudding that frequently.

The Cone: Charcoal ice cream in a charcoal waffle cone with house-made vegetable sprinkles (beet and spirulina, among others), and this became my go to dessert for its refreshing qualities at meals that didn’t involve three desserts.

So those were the November and December menus.

When I sat down for the January menu, I expected the mussel shooter, but this month they changed the sequence. The first course was a dish of thyme and garlic popcorn, one of the openers for the tasting menus at Swine.

That was followed by a mini-meat and cheese board — house-cured bresaola and a small bite of the house made Manchego, made with both sheep and goats milk. Excellent

Then the shooter as course #3, followed by the three hors d’oeuvres.

Always the prawn. Again, a thin piece of aged rib-eye stop a rice cracker, this time seasoned with soy sauce and wasabi (a definite upgrade), and the tartlet contained a sweet potato puree with Thanksgiving spices. Yes, Thanksgiving spices. Amazingly, let’s say, familiar for a Scratch dish. Phillip explained that he decided to update the sweet potato casserole with marshmallows at the big family Thanksgiving dinner he went to, and that January was his first opportunity to do so. It’s a nice touch! I should also explain that Phillip, not the other chefs, presented almost every dish to me as the January menu unfolded and waited while I tasted it to see what I thought. At one point, he asked me if his kitchen had ever come up with anything I didn’t like. I referenced the attempt to fix the salmon in December, and he said something to the effect of “and that’s why it’s not on this menu.”

This was followed by with a dish Philip called “California Carbonara Crudo.” Homemade fettucine, of course, and some egg, but with sugar roasted tomatoes, roasted acorn squash a sea urchin vinaigrette, an avocado and olive puree, pickled sea beans fried shiso leaves and a host of other ingredients. Served at room temperature. Rich like what we usually think of as carbonara, but with briny overtones. Coastal California on a plate. Amazing.

Then, the sea rocks again. This time, king crab, Phillip’s “dynamite” mustard, and some puffed quinoa for crunch.

The NEXT course combined elements of the Nov/Dec courses four, five and six (the mushroom dashi, the potatoes and the chicken livers/cauliflower). A plate was put before me. At the bottom of the pile was a smear of potato hummus, topped by a slice of Scratch bar’s homemade brioche. Piled on top of that was some roasted white and purple cauliflower in a truffle butter sauce, scattered with the same dill and chervil that had topped the December potatoes. For me, that was absolutely the star dish of the tasting menu.

After that, as an alternative to a dish of pork belly with the same accompaniments, came a skewer, this time with foie gras and onions, on a granny smith apple puree with alfalfa sprouts and puffed quinoa. Very tasty!

And the oyster taco, which for January acquired a slice of braised beef tongue and some finger lime. Just wow! The tongue ennobled the oyster.

The final two savory courses, as you saw, are a fish course and a hanger steak. The fish course this time was roasted and “pulled” skate on a bed of cauliflower and sunchoke puree with a brown curry foam, sunchoke chips and parsley. This proved that there is such a thing as melt-in-your-mouth fish.

And then, maitake mushrooms, but not Mush-Mush. Mush-Mush-Mush! A REAL Scratch take on a Swine dish. On the plate, a wild mushroom puree, With the maitakes there were lemon-scented button mushrooms, cooked lentils, onion strips, and fresh and dehydrated spinach leaves. I haven’t seen a dehydrated spinach leaf since Swine closed.

The desserts? Again, the Dolci. Followed by a caramel apple panna cotta with apple chips and pecan meringue.

And, finally, a house made marshmallow, torched.

Voila! This, with pictures, is what you get for $95 at Scratch. For $55, you get a “light” version, seven items selected from the “big” tasting menu (always the shooter, always the steak, always the fish before the steak). The differences between the three monthly menus explain how it is that I can dine at Scratch at least once a week without being bored (I don’t always have the “big”” menu, and toward the end of the month I sometimes do guinea-pig duty) and why you can come in every month, because, since Phillip introduced this menu structure, each meal has been better than the next. If all tasting menus were like this, maybe the critics in San Francisco wouldn’t be as tired of the 12 course tasting menu as they seem to be.