Red Medicine – Los Angeles, CA
Jordan Kahn’s Red Medicine might just be the most misunderstood restaurant in Los Angeles.
The local media (for the most part) have written lukewarm reports of the restaurant; likewise, food-loving friends expressed pallid thoughts, ranging from “disappointingly mediocre” to “overpriced Vietnamese cuisine”. Of course, one can’t help but wonder if palates were biased due to Red Medicine’s public outing of the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, S. Irene Virbila, in December 2010. It certainly didn’t leave a pleasant taste in anyone’s mouth.
My first experience with Red Medicine was in early February. I ordered a good bit of the menu but like many, left feeling uninspired. The meal was too heavy, too sweet, and devoid of nuance (more on that later). It was certainly not worth writing a blog post on.
But with some family and friends visiting me in Los Angeles, I decided to pay Red Medicine a return visit. We tackled most of the menu, and it was then I realized Jordan’s strength: vegetables and herbs!* The dishes I had were so good I returned in a few weeks with a good friend to relive my favorites.
Have you ever watched Jordan Kahn cook? It’s pretty interesting. Red Medicine’s dining room sports a large opening with views straight into his kitchen. He doesn’t sauté or grill, and he certainly doesn’t microwave. He tweezes.
It’s like watching a doctor perform brain surgery on an infant. Jordan tweezed together my first dish of artichoke “en barigoule” with laser-like focus and precision. A miniature landscape of summer vegetables slowly formed on a plate. There was, of course, artichoke heart on the plate, with bits of green mango and apple in between. A mysterious creamy substance grounded the dish while shards of dried tofu skin punctuated the landscape. A slew of herbs -I’m guessing cilantro flowers, perilla, dill, and sorrel- was carefully arranged on top, no doubt with surgical precision. The result is a cool, crunchy, sweet, fragrant composition that certainly stands toe-to-toe with the most modern dishes in Los Angeles.
To see a restaurant celebrate vegetables is refreshing. Every mouthful is a new experience. The sharpness of perilla leaves in one bite is tempered by the apple and mango in the next. Bits of dill brighten and tofu skin add crunch. I kept pecking away at the plate until all that was left was a smear of sauce.
I suppose Red Medicine’s General Manager Noah Ellis recognized me from previous visits as a dish of crab spring rolls mysteriously appeared on our table, on the house. The first minute was spent staring at the dish, wondering how something as mundane as spring rolls could look so beautiful. The second minute was spent devouring it. The crab was fresh and retained great texture (not ground up into crab pulp), and there was a lingering spice from the chili, but at the end of the day, they’re still spring rolls and I’d take Golden Deli’s deep fried wonders over these.
My favorite dish at Red Medicine (yes, even more than Kahn’s famed desserts) is Summer Legumes and Roots. The dish resembles an herb garden straight out of Vietnam: perilla, rau ram, Vietnamese basil, and sawtooth shield a tiny carrot, an even smaller radish, and a single pea pod. A small vial of emulsified walnut oil is poured into the bowl, and the dish is complete.
The fun begins when methodically picking away at the leaves. A bite of perilla then a bite of basil, all covered in that glorious walnut oil. Some elements are raw, others roasted. At first the flavors seem disparate; one bitter herb pulling with the other. But then the cacophony fades away and something cohesive emerges: a beautifully sweet herbal flavor that explodes on my palate but is practically weightless in my stomach. Of course, one must credit this dish’s origins to Michel Bras’ famous Gargouillou and in turn, David Kinch’s Into the Vegetable Garden, but I’d argue that Kahn’s interpretation may be stronger than Kinch’s.**
It’d also be remiss to visit Red Medicine without ordering their beef tartare. It’s one of the most unique preparations I’ve had– one where raw beef plays the supporting cast, and the lone streak of bright green chlorophyll the star. It was the grounding element, tying the dish together with a spicy herbal kick. The chunks of water chestnut and a rooftop of water lettuce were not superfluous either– they refreshed the palate and prevented the dish from getting too spicy. But I’m still not sure what the powdered substance was? It was tasteless.
We ended with rice porridge. Sprinkled with bits of hazelnut, crumbled up chicken skin (genius!), echire butter, and finished with tongues of uni and a golden egg yolk, the dish so incredibly rich and so luxurious that we only managed to eat half of it before raising our hands in surrender. Yes, it’s delicious enough to warrant a special trip to the restaurant, but I’d recommend splitting it with a party of four.
Desserts are always a treat at Red Medicine. Unfortunately, I was strangely full after this meal and didn’t have room for any sweets; but if past experience is anything to go by, the rhubarb with shortbread and hibiscus is not to be missed. It’s floral, tart, light, and I found it to be even better than Kahn’s often-praised coconut bavarois.
But don’t get me wrong. Red Medicine is not without its faults. Many dishes still veer towards being too sweet and heavy and fail to excite. Case in point: the crispy pork neck with charred frisee, dehydrated banana, and poached egg. The frisee and banana are great, but the sweet pork and gooey egg yolk make the whole dish heavy-handed and syrupy. Same deal with the pintade and lamb belly. I love it when chefs blur the line between sweet and savory, but Kahn still steers the boat too far too often– perhaps due to his background as a pastry chef?
But when you order properly, Red Medicine shines like very few restaurants do. Kahn approaches vegetables in a new light and celebrates herbs like few chefs do. In many ways, he’s serving the most modern food in Los Angeles -at a great price point to boot. Could vegetarians be the leading force of modern cuisine? Kahn and others (Kinch, Skenes, Nishihara) are making me a believer.
One last note: many see Red Medicine as modern Vietnamese food and immediately think about the price discrepancies between Beverly Hills and Little Saigon. Push that framework aside and you’ll find that Kahn is cooking very original food –yes, inspired by Vietnamese cuisine- but still unique to him and his restaurant. He’s starting to hit his stride, his potential is enormous, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll be cooking a year or two down the road.
*I’ve never quite understood why so many restaurants don’t give herbs and vegetables their due respect. Of course, there are exceptions (Blue Hill Stone Barns, Manresa, Ubuntu, Saison, etc), but for the most part, many places just don’t get that the perfect carrot can be every bit as tasty as well-aged sirloin. Thoughts for a future post, I suppose?
**It might sound incredulous, but yes, I liked Kahn’s Summer Legumes and Roots more than Kinch’s Into The Vegetable Garden. Bitter is a flavor rarely used in food, but when used properly, it is wonderful. Nevertheless, David Kinch’s Into the Vegetable Garden (at least when I had it a few weeks ago) was too bitter for me. Kahn’s version struck that perfect balance between bitter and sweet.