Two visions of the perfect meal, with dinner music
~ By RICHARD FOSS ~Originally published in LA CityBEat May 2008
One of the symbols of LA’s freewheeling attitude to the arts is the Hollywood Bowl picnic, a chance to listen to great music while having a meal that reflects your personality and ambitions. I have sat in box seats with a modest picnic dinner while people on one side enjoyed a gourmet feast with multiple wines, full linens, and candelabra, while the people on the other side had an assortment of junk food and beer. All of us enjoyed the show and our meals, but at the end of the evening, I knew which concert experience I wanted to have on my next visit. Since then, a trip to the Bowl has meant a trip to several gourmet stores and a wineshop, plus some time in my kitchen putting the whole thing together.
But what if you don’t have the time or inclination to do it yourself, or need to go straight from work? Of course you can order a picnic dinner from the Patina Group’s catering service at the Bowl, and it will be good, but the line can be daunting, the price…well, what you would expect from a place where you don’t have other options. Many elegant restaurants around LA offer an alternative – multi-course dinner baskets that are ready on short notice. We decided to order gourmet dinner baskets from two very different but upscale establishments: La Cachette and M Café de Chaya. In both cases there were several different options for starters, main courses, et cetera, but in the interest of science, I asked them to give me whatever they thought was most interesting.
M. Café’s basket had by far the spiffiest packaging: an actual picnic basket in a tasteful shade of lime-green, which you get to keep when you order dinner. La Cachette settled for a sturdy but disposable plastic totebag that was bright purple, which created quite an effect when I set the two next to each other and unpacked. The contents were as follows:
M Café (basket for two) shrimp and avocado-shiitake sushi rolls, 4 pieces inari sushi, an albacore tuna salad sandwich, a “BLT” sandwich, 1 package curry-cauliflower salad, 1 package kale and peanut salad, and two chocolate chip cookies.
La Cachette: (basket for one) Ahi Tuna Tartare over green bean-caper salad, lobster salad with artichoke hearts, asparagus and mixed greens, chocolate cake with fresh whipped cream and crème anglaise, breadsticks, and homemade cookies
Despite the aesthetic limitations imposed by take-out containers, both meals were beautiful in their way – Chaya’s had a slight edge because sushi is just lovely anyway, but La Cachette’s to-go food was arranged with the same care that they take in the restaurant. Both menus were also well considered and fit the aesthetic of each restaurant. The modern macrobiotic food from M Café used no dairy products, which combined with the insulating effect of the basket means it would probably be OK unrefrigerated for hours. The seafood in the La Cachette basket wouldn’t have quite as long a shelf life, but I was offered ice when I picked it up, and it would have withstood a fairly long drive without damage.
We decided to sample the starters from each basket together, which meant the sushi items and tuna tartare first. This was an accidentally brilliant way of contrasting Mediterranean versus Japanese ideas about how to prepare seafood and vegetables. Macrobiotics is all about pure, distinct, and muted flavors, and it worked remarkably well on items like the lotus root sushi, which was rice topped with a burst of nuttiness with a tangy crunch. The shiitake-mushroom rolls worked too, and the pickled cucumber salad that came with both was refreshing. Little wasabi was used inside the rolls, but it was offered on the side for those who like their flavors bolder, and I did use it on a few of the inari.
No extra seasonings were required for the tuna tartare, a robust mix of tuna, onion, spices, and capers with toast and a few leaves of salad. This was sushi from Provence, bright, sharp, sunny flavors of herbs and onion modifying the rich fish. I could have made a meal of it.
We continued with the sandwiches, an excellent tuna salad with a dash of mustard and what M Café calls a BLT. Unfortunately, M Café uses a tempeh bacon substitute that doesn’t resemble real bacon in taste or texture, and it pretty much killed that sandwich for us. I’ve had some good and ingenious vegetarian substitutes for meat, but this one didn’t cut it. The salads that accompanied the sandwiches worked very well, though – the kale-peanut was a combination I hadn’t had before that worked brilliantly, the curry-cauliflower an inventive use of Indian traditions that was zesty and satisfying.
We were wondering if the lobster salad would seem timid after the full and rustic flavors of the two salads, but we shouldn’t have worried – it was pure French subtlety, a large portion of lobster claw and tail meat with truffle oil atop a disc of chopped artichoke heart, asparagus, and baby greens. It was so rich and decadent, it was almost dessert.
M Café’s dessert was chocolate chip cookies, good but not exceptional, while La Cachette’s was a dense, rich chocolate cake that was overshadowed by the outstanding palmier cookies and biscotti – when I opened the box, the scent of butter and baking was swoon-worthy.
Both dinners showed how a picnic to go is different from just ordering a restaurant meal in a take-out box – every item was good at room temperature, would hold for some time without deteriorating, and could easily be eaten with fingers or plastic cutlery. They were nicely varied and a better, more balanced meal than most people could make at home, much less to travel. So leave the bologna, box bread, and Budweiser in the supermarket, pick up a basket and some beverages, and make your Hollywood Bowl seat a gourmet’s haven.
M Café is at 7119 Melrose – basket for two is $75.00, including the spiffy basket. Phone 310-525-0588. La Cachette is at 10506 Little Santa Monica – phone 310-470-4992. Call for baskets one day in advance.