Brought to us by LACMA and the the Patina Group (Patina, Nick & Stef's, Cafe Pinot), Ray's and Stark Bar are jointly named after late producer and LACMA trustee Ray Stark. A tandem restaurant and bar concept, with the open-air Stark Bar operating right next door in the courtyard behind LACMA's Urban Light lamp-post installation. On the restaurant side, Chef Kris Morningstar (Blue Velvet, District) helms the kitchen and his Mediterranean-inspired cuisine has helped the young restaurant earn such acclaim as one of Esquire's Best New Restaurants of 2011.
When we arrive to try the tasting menu by Chef Morningstar, the decor of the glass-enclosed restaurant provokes us to imagine a real-life rendering of The Jetsons. The color and minimalism of the Renzo Piano space is both elegant and whimsical. Unfortunately, on this trip we are unable to sample the cocktail creations from the neighboring Stark Bar (below). Not too unfortunately, though, since the instead we'd be enjoying pairings by supremely friendly and knowledgable sommelier Paul Sanguinetti.
Along with a glass of sparkling wine to start comes a crusty serving of bread. Looking around the table, we are a little surprised to find no knives with which to butter our bread. That is, until a passing server brings our attention to one of the neat touches about the tables - the small drawers hiding just under the tabletop holding your silverware and napkin. No need to clutter up your table with cutlery, it's waiting for you when you need it.
For an amuse: a purple cauliflower with flat-leaf Italian parsley and a caper and raisin puree contains just enough earthy sweetness and herbaceousness to wake our taste buds.
The first course: a beautifully sliced kampachi with pineapple and guava, serrano chile and mint. For a couple of us, the delicate flavor of fish is nearly enveloped by the chile and flakes of sea salt, but generally, the dish ends up balancing nicely. To pair with the kampachi, the first of two chenin blancs we'd be enjoying this evening - a local, new world chenin blanc from Habit wine company. So local in fact, that the vintner Jeff Fischer works literally across the street at Fox Animation Studios where he does voice work on 'American Dad'.
The second course: a pheasant and foie gras terrine. A rich patchwork of smokey pheasant is supplemented with hints of foie gras and wonderfully cut by a sweet apple onion reisling compote. A light dressing gives the accompanying frisee, pecans and sunchoke salad a nice salty tang. To pair with the terrine, traces of apple from the 2009 old world chenin blanc from Vouvray.
The third course: agnolotti with a velvety sweet corn filling, topped with delicious hen of the woods mushrooms and pine nuts. One of our favorites - a perfect balance of sweet richness and earthy savoriness. A 2008 Beauragard Chardonnay pairs with our agnolotti. An oaky pour from the Santa Cruz Mountains to match up against the earthy, buttery dish.
Fourth course: perfectly cooked wild king salmon accompanied by roasted beet puree, mustard greens, elephant mushrooms and pink lady apples. A somewhat odd mixture of flavors provides to be an interesting bite. To pair against the bold flavor of the beets, the soft notes of jammy fruits in the 2009 Pecchenino Dolcetto di Dogliani San Luigi.
Fifth course: succulent slices of hanger steak, cooked and sliced to a perfect juicy tenderness at medium rare and served atop meaty forest mushrooms. The beef on its own tends a little toward the bland, but the light hand with the seasoning makes all the sense in the world after swirling the steak in the assertive black vinegar sauce. The Kenneth Volk negrette - a California wine made with French grapes - has the mouth-feel of a syrah but finishes like a pinot noir. With peppery spices, it's flavorful enough to stand up to the beef and tart sauce.
For dessert, we share two of the house offerings. First up: a decadent chocolate mousse (below left), with milk chocolate ice cream, coconut tuille, and a slightly mouth-puckering pomegranate reduction that makes some headway into cutting through all that rich sweetness. The toffee and date pudding (below right), paired with goat's milk ice cream and seared figs, is an amazing, top-notch specimen of the dessert, with the fantastic burnt notes just peeking through the sweetness. Our final pairing is the Domaine Grand Guilhem - an intensely arromatic port with lingering notes of fig and walnuts.
You may have just missed LACMA's immensely popular Tim Burton exhibit, but LACMA's rotation of exhibits means there's always something new to check out. Similarly, the menu at Ray's is constantly evolving. I can't think of a better one-two combination. Museum restaurants aren't supposed to be this good, but Chef Morningstar's menu coupled with the ambience of the restaurant are an exhibit worth attending on their own.
*Disclosure: this was a hosted meal.