Dining in Oh La La Land via the five senses.
Victoire Louapre is a French food critic based in Los Angeles. She writes for guides and publications around the world, and on her own website, intheloup.la. We asked Louapre to encapsulate what the dining experience of Oh La La Land might look like.
Before even having read the menu, one’s appreciation (or lack thereof) of a restaurant starts with its design. While L.A. restaurants can take extraordinary measures to create a beautiful restaurant right on the corner of a strip mall (Petit Trois, L.A.), French ones can allow themselves to rest on their architectural laurels. Either because the place has already been designed in the distant past and it would be a shame to change it (Le Clown Bar, Paris), or because the chef doesn’t want to focus on anything other than the food. And then sometimes, the eyes can be deceived and beauty can spring from the unexpected. When Tatiana Levha stripped down an old “bar-tabac,” for her restaurant Le Servan (Paris, 11ème), for example, she uncovered the most stunning hand-painted ceiling.
In 2014 from January 1st to June 26th, L.A. chefs were prohibited from touching food with their bare hands. One singular day of this regulation would have had kitchens across Paris striking en masse! France has a much more tactile approach to food: charcuterie, antipasti, cheese, the famous “jambon-beurre.” Even Michelin-starred chefs play with finger food! French patrons are also a little more inclined to share food on the same plate, and hands accidentally touching is not an issue. Quite the opposite, actually.
The tongue map we tended to learn as kids is outdated—we actually taste with our noses first! This triggered the pop-up restaurant “Stop and Smell Your Dinner” in Los Angeles, organized by food/art collective Thank You For Coming. Here patrons had to sniff a fragrance paired with each course and curated by L.A.’s Institute for Art and Olfaction. Try doing that in France, where smokers are still allowed on every terrace, holding their glass of red biodynamic wine with the same hand as their smelly cigarette!
Let’s not focus on the sound of food here: nobody in either Los Angeles or Paris is doing the Fat Duck iPod trick [whereby diners at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, are given an iPod loaded with the sounds of crashing waves to listen to as they enjoy a dish called “Sounds of the Sea”] and we can thank the restaurant gods for it. Environmental sound does influence the way we taste food and enjoy a restaurant, however. Los Angeles restaurants know how to set the mood, sometimes with the help of sound designers who create a thought-out playlist to echo the menu. Sometimes they overstep— as in the case of ‘90s rap played in a Vietnamese restaurant or a Heavy Metal soundtrack in an upscale Mexican one. Paris, on the other hand, is much more lazy. There’s barely any music, rather you’ll find the very loud noise of people talking, toasting, laughing, and emptying plates.
If you asked a chef to follow the exact same recipe in Paris and L.A., the end product may look, feel, or sound the same—but it would certainly taste drastically different. The local produce has a different taste, so chefs in each city play with what the seasons offer in order to make the best of them. L.A. is a very market-driven town—the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market is filled with chefs each Wednesday morning and on Wednesday night all the plates are filled with the same heirloom tomatoes grown by Kong, or with JJ’s avocados. In Paris, chefs either take pride in using very high quality products like lobster, caviar, and foie gras (Le Grand Restaurant, Paris, 8ème) or, on the other hand, in playing around with lesser-known ones such as mackerel and salsify (Septime, Paris, 11ème). There is one taste, however, that cannot be taken away from French cuisines: butter. Don’t even dare asking for a dairy-free tasting menu at Trois Mec!
Written by Victoire Louapre