Now museums aren't, in general, known for harboring distinguished restaurants. And the original one at LACMA (like this one, also run by the Patina Restaurant Group) was never much more than adequate. This one, though, has more ambition and is actually pulling it off. The 3-month-old Ray's can easily hold its own against some of Los Angeles' best Mediterranean bistros.
It may be that Patina Restaurant Group founder Joachim Splichal is excited about the project and giving it more attention. (His flagship restaurant, Patina, got back its luster once it moved into the Walt Disney Concert Hall.) It may be that he hired well. Whatever the back story, chef Kris Morningstar (late of District and, before that, Blue Velvet) is grabbing the opportunity and holding on with both hands. In the span of three months, he's refined and rethought the menu. The food is often surprising, almost always delicious.
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The understated, Midcentury-inspired dining room doesn't give off a whiff of institution. It's a lovely room that feels intimate, with blond wood tabletops and silverware kept in a drawer at each diner's place. The noise level can be high, though, one more reason why the outdoor patio in front may be even more appealing.
I love sitting at Ray's looking out on the Resnick Pavilion, taking in the subtle rhythm of red columns, the zigzagged roof, the subtle planting of palms — and right now, a topiary of a leaping stag that celebrates the opening of the Tim Burton exhibition at the museum.
What a pleasure to come early for dinner, have a drink in the bar or, even better, arrive in time for a visit to the museum and then cocktails at Stark Bar. Like the restaurant, it's named for Ray Stark, the late film producer ("Funny Girl," "The Way We Were" and "Steel Magnolias" are among his films) and former LACMA trustee. And the restaurant's delightful menu design is very much in period.
Morningstar tends to change the dishes on the menu faster than Lady Gaga comes up with outfits. Each meal I've had at Ray's has been almost completely different from the one before. He's constantly fiddling with sauces, with presentation, with the lineup of dishes. After an initial disappointing meal, each time I've been to Ray's the kitchen has been stronger. A last meal was flat-out terrific. It's as if that first month was dress rehearsal. Now the lights have been switched on and all systems are humming.
The chef starts the meal out one night with an amuse: bite-sized cod cake to dip in a saffron and sweet red pepper aioli. The starters are good too. I love the surprise of chilled carrot soup lit up with vaudovan (a French curry powder), a scribble of goat's milk yogurt and fried mint leaves. The vaudovan is made in-house, the spices roasted over wood to give the mix a subtle smokiness. It's a perfect summer dish. And that's one of the things that makes eating here so enjoyable: Morningstar is cooking with the season and not just giving the idea lip service.
Another summery dish is shaved raw clam spread over the plate like carpaccio and drizzled with just enough citrus to wake up the flavor. Another unusual starter is beef tendon braised in black vinegar until it is soft and gelatinous. It's wonderful with sliced watermelon radish and puckery preserved plums. Our plates whiz around the table. Everyone wants to try everything.
Octopus comes out slightly charred and nuzzled up to crisp fried potatoes and chickpeas and a splash of incisive black pepper-chile sauce. Morningstar keeps slipping Asian references into his dishes, but squid ink tonarelli is pure Italian — inky fresh noodles tossed with slivers of calamari and serrano with fresh mint and opal basil and a showering of bottarga over the top.
He treats vegetables with respect too, and often they're interesting enough to consider ordering a couple as a main course. I could eat the entire plate of Romano beans braised with tomatoes and garlic. It's such a classic taste. And braised leeks with pancetta in a mustard vinaigrette could easily do double duty as an appetizer.
Main courses are jazzy too. I like the way he cooks squab, wrapping it in lacy caul fat, then serving it sliced with fava beans, pearl onions and salsify (now that's a neglected vegetable) in a reduction of Madeira with truffles. Wild red king salmon confit is gorgeous, cooked rare and set off by asparagus and a black sesame sauce spangled with edible flowers. Hanger steak gets accessorized with smoked marrow (a very nice touch), roasted radishes and cipolline onions — and for a bit of oomph, a piquant salsa verde.
Morningstar's cooking is wine-friendly. And Ray's sommelier, Paul Sanguinetti, is one of the most engaging and enthusiastic around. He was at District, then Fraîche, and now, under Splichal and the Patina Restaurant Group, he's working for someone who loves wine and understands what a big part it plays in the gestalt of a restaurant. He's a sweet talker too — he actually convinced a friend who normally won't touch white wine to try one.
Desserts from pastry chef Josh Graves are a pleasure. They change frequently too. A crumble made with a lush plum-apricot cross called Aprium tastes like full-blown summer. And his cherry dessert, an individual cherry crostata with the edges of the crust folded over, has to be one of the best cherry desserts out there.
Too bad Ray Stark isn't around to enjoy the restaurant that bears his name. But I imagine he was sort of a steak-and-potatoes guy. Nevertheless, Ray's (along with Stark Bar) is a fine tribute to both Stark and Renzo Piano's design for the pavilion. And while dinner is the real draw, brunch or lunch at Ray's followed by a visit to the museum could be a wonderful way to spend a day in L.A. and the start of a beautiful tradition.
Ray's and Stark Bar
Rating: two and a half stars Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
LOCATION: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, adjacent to the Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 857-6180, http://www.lacma.org
PRICE: First courses, $8 to $16; main courses, $23 to $31; desserts, $9.
DETAILS: Open noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday to Tuesday. Bar open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday to Tuesday. Corkage fee, free for the first bottle and $15 after that. Valet parking, $8 for two hours, $3 each additional hour, maximum $15. Self parking available in museum parking garage, enter on 6th Street, $10 flat rate before 7 p.m., free after 7 p.m. Museum admission tickets are not required for the restaurant or bar.