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Good Evening Vietnam: Red Medicine Is Here

In the end, it all comes down to the three essentials of a successful restaurant: food, ambiance and service. And after several visits, we can safely say that this medicine is a pleasure to take.
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Let me say at the offset that Red Medicine is the most exciting new restaurant in concept and execution to hit the Los Angeles culinary scene in many years. And that Chef Jordan Kahn is the primary author of that scene, following on the heels of his mentors Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz to create a whole new cuisine which, in it pseudo-Vietnamese style, is brilliantly innovative in the most traditional sense... creating dishes of delicious uniqueness and startling flavors which satisfy one's inherent deeper hunger. Further, that impetuous co-owner and partner Noel Ellis has brought forth a startling new, exciting 'take' on the emerging cocktail scene... the Number 18 is a revelation (Krome vodka, chile-anise shrub, lime, grapefruit, Peychaud's bitters, Thai basil, ginger beer!) but so are the Numbers 33, 6 and others. While the third partner, Adam Fleischman, has spread much of his 'umami' magic onto the project for Oriental 'joss' or luck. "We offer you more than you expect, like at my burger places," is his mantra.

It's unfortunate that all of the recent hoopla about this new restaurant, Red Medicine (8400 Wilshire Blvd., two blocks east of LaCienega on the southwest corner at Gale, (323)651-5500, street and $8 valet parking) which we commented on at length in our recent Huffington Post/LA "Anonymity Overrated," blog has garnered all of that contentious publicity, but this restaurant shall overcome that situation and rise forth to shine in the reflected glory of the three guys who dreamed the dream, walked the walk, and brought it to fruition. "Our restaurant is inspired by the Vietnamese food we craved after hours, from midnight on, when we were working our asses off in the restaurant industry," they write on their website.

In the end, it all comes down to the three essentials of a successful restaurant: food, ambiance and service. And after several visits, we can safely say that this medicine is a pleasure to take with a lot of liquid refreshment, and well may be the cure for whatever ailment you are experiencing. It is posted as a 'pseudo-Vietnamese' eatery, and on their website they state that none of the owners or chefs have ever been to Vietnam or have any relationship with anything Vietnamese except a love for that ethnic French/Chinese cuisine.

But, and this is a big 'but,' you will have an enjoyable, unusual dining-and-drinking experience at Red Medicine if you suspend your craving for an authentic Asian meal and are willing to settle for a different, distinctly different, lunch or dinner and an outstanding bar menu. This location has been completely refurbished and has a rather garish but fun look: high industrial ceiling, red-hued bar, casual furnishings, with a cement floor and rough-hewn wooden tables. The music is loud (what else is new?) and I still have not heard the punk album by Fugazi bearing the name, but the service is splendid (try to get the charming, astute Ms. Francis-Olive to wait on you). Handsome, Cuban-born Jordon Kahn, Chef/Partner, is an intensely brilliant toque... he was the youngest chef ever to work in Thomas Keller's French Laundry kitchen (at 17), and was part of the pastry team when Keller opened Per Se in New York. Master Chef Grant Achatz was wowed by his desserts, took him to the cutting-edge Alinea in Chicago in 2005; he then returned for a short stint in New York where, at the age of 23, Frank Bruni of the New York Times compared Jordan to Jackson Pollack, and the New York Observer likened his dishes to Salvador Dali paintings. I first encountered his food/desserts at Michael Mina's splashy, doomed XIV here. I have such great respect for his talent and creative achievements that I just know the kitchen will shine even brighter in the months ahead.

The second partner, Noah Ellis, involved with the debacle with S. Irene Virbila, has worked for 17 years in Las Vegas and with Michael Mina's bar programs, and his cocktail/wine menu is a true wonder; you will be exploring it on every visit and come up with something new to drink each time. I must have my usual conversation with him about the oh, so delicious qualities of my sparkling wine passion, Laetitia Brut Rose, the perfect sparkling wine to drunk with all spicy Asian dishes. The third partner, Adam Fleischman, wrote about wine and then opened several wine bars before hitting it big with his four idiosyncratic Umami Burger locations, the predecessor of many more in the In-N-Out mode.

These are three experienced, savvy restaurateurs, so they have covered all the angles: a smart lounge/bar menu and offbeat spirits in the well, an exciting dinner menu, a very different lunch experience... and they stay open 'til 2 am to pick up whatever bar crowd exists in this early-to-bed town. I know that on New Year's Eve, after work, my buddy Rory Herrmann, Chef de Cuisine of Bouchon, showed up here with some staff and a magnum of champagne and a saber... and they performed the sabering ceremony in front of the new restaurant before downing the sparkling spirit. That's what friends are for, and ties are close between the Thomas Keller crowd and Red Medicine; in fact, the Keller bakery is providing breads for the new eatery.

In perusing the menu on my first visit, Patty Eisenberg spotted a dish of Brussel Sprouts ($9) in the Veg section, and commented that she loved that legume. I demurred, but when the dish quickly emerged from the open kitchen we sat in open-mouthed wonder at what they had wrought. Caramelized shallots, fish sauce, vermouth. Here the somewhat bitter nature of the sprouts was actually accentuated by a crisp char, the caramelized shallots brought a dark sweetness, while a pile of shrimp chips on top balanced the darkness. At that moment, our second menu choice was delivered: A dimpled plate of four Chicken Dumplings ($10); think the most ethereal chicken meatballs you have ever eaten and then double the expectation, resulting from the caramelized sugar, lemongrass, pork fat, condiments like hoisin-Sriracha for a touch of heat which emerges on the tongue after a bite or two. Lettuce leaves are furnished to wrap them mu shu style. (If any are left over, ask for a little box for lunch next day, as I did.)

I have a strong liking for duck ($16), so that was a given, here delivered in a bowl ripe with aromatic 5-spice powder, accompanied by charred frisee, chicory, tamarin syrup, and grains of paradise, a pungent spice. We each fished out a morsel of charred, crispy duck, chewed it in silence, shook our heads in agreement... it was not the fowl of our Chinese experience but a whole new adventure in quackery, and a few bites went far. Much more to my taste was another savory dish, Pintade Fermier ($12), which I knew from my French adventures was a small guinea hen, similar to the ortolans of my Gallic youth, tiny birds grilled quickly and then crunchingly eaten whole under the protection of a large napkin over your head at decadent French country parties. (It is now illegal to eat them there, although they are still consumed in Spain.) These tiny birds were slow-cooked in caramel, cinnamon, dandelion, coriander, crispy onion roots. Somewhat dry to my taste... but my readers and friends are aware that I am consumed by the idea of eating everything juicy rare to almost raw... so sue me. What actually made the dish work better for me was aromatic jasmine rice served in a little bowl, which I picked up grain by grain with my personal silver chopsticks (yes it's ostentatious, but I dislike the wooden ones.)

On my next visit, with a large group: Crispy Spring Rolls filled with Dungeness crab; Beef Tartare, and the traditional Vietnamese Banh Mi ($15), a sandwich of foie gras and pate de campagne, two of my favorite delicacies. Another Banh Mi sandwich of country pate, pork belly, veggies and spices is served at the bar ($12). This dinner began with those Crispy Spring Rolls ($15 for two), the crackling wrapper filled with Dungeness crab, calamansi (a sour herb), pea pods, fine herbs and spices. Maybe the best I've ever had. We went on to the Beef Tartare ($13), with water lettuce (mustard leaf), water chestnuts, spicy herbs, nuoc leo (Vietnamese peanut condiment, here powdered), and something called chlorophyll sauce, an intriguing version and very tasty. Could have made a meal of this alone.

A third visit saw us ordering the beef and pork offerings: the Pork ($15) was in caramelized black vinegar and honey (sweet and sour), with prunes, sorrel, and dried almonds. I preferred the Beef ($18), with its fermented soybean, bacon XO, Chinese eggplant, purple cabbage, celery stem, nuoc cham. Patty chose to explore several of Jordan's seafood offerings on our last visit: Blue Lantern Bay Scallops ($18), the small bay mollusks set against braised radishes, beurre blanc, fish sauce, sea buckthorn, and - yes, nasturtium! See what I mean by saying he has invented a whole new cuisine.

Jordon Kahn is the Michelangelo of desserts, so we ordered three of the five on the menu; a fitting conclusion to a stunning first dinner. Lemongrass Pots of Crème ($9)... sweet potato, orange blossom, red bull, bergamon. The chef sent out Lime Sabayon, cucumber ice cream, cashew macaroons, white chocolate, jasmine. And the final astonishment: Bitter Chocolate: kecap manis (?), oats, pears, parsnips, brown butter ($9).

Last night I sent a shout through the kitchen pass to Jordon, thanking him for our extraordinary experience and complimenting him on the Large Format dish offered: a two pound Snake River Farm American Wagyu Beef Brisket glazed with palm sugar and fish sauce ($60, for five or more people.) My grandmother would have loved this brisket (hers was always overcooked and stringy), with its rich beefy flavor. The palm sugar gave it a touch of sweetness, offset by the pickled vegetables and fish sauce. My several dinners have averaged about $65 a person, including tax and tip, a very reasonable expenditure for a superb, truly unique dining experience. The only question mark in the equation is you, the audience, the dining public. Are you willing to try new things, dishes which in some instances don't resemble anything you have ever eaten? If so, they will flourish and provide the underpinnings for a whole new ethnic culture. Jordon told me later: "I get inspired when I eat a Vietnamese dish that seems foreign and unusual in its composition; this food reminds me of how I construct my desserts... lots of flavors and many different components... some dishes seem like odd combinations but we go for a unique harmony with them." This was just after we had several dishes which illustrated this dictum to a T. In the spirit of open and honest reporting, we think we have been objective and fair in assessing this extremely exciting restaurant and its brilliant chef. The rest, as Bob Dylan says, is blowin' in the wind.