Unless you’re someone who obsessively tracks the stars that a tire company awards to restaurants, dining at a 14-seat tasting menu spot might make you a little nervous. Rightfully so—restaurants where there’s a ratio of two staff members to every diner tend to be both intimidating and uncommon these days. Melisse in Santa Monica subscribes to a lot of “fancy restaurant” cliches, but it’s not a place you should be scared of. That is, if you have $800 to spend on dinner for two.
To get that part out of the way: yes, eating at Melisse is very, very expensive. For $400 per person, you will get you a 10-course, multi-hour dinner including tax and tip, and nothing to drink except (very regularly refilled) water. But if you're going to spend that kind of money on a meal, Melisse is a damn great place to do it.
In most ways, Melisse is pretty much what you’d expect from a tasting menu-only spot that’s been open in Santa Monica for over 20 years. There are foams, “elevated” takes on classic dishes (like a clam chowder custard, and the fanciest potato chip you’ll ever have), intricate presentations, and servers who have spent a lot of time learning dish placement choreography. There’s a wine list longer than most surviving print magazines, and you’ll get a little box of cookies and a copy of the menu to take home at the end of the night.
Despite all those formalities, Melisse doesn’t feel stiff. There are only five tables in the restaurant, but no one will scowl when you talk above a whisper. The soundtrack runs from David Bowie to Frank Sinatra to Fleetwood Mac to Abba. And there will be no judgment if you mention you’d like to spend under $100 on a bottle of wine. The staff will make thoughtful suggestions and treat you like you’re ordering one of the four-figure options.
Then, of course, there’s the food, which also feels distinctly "fine-dining yet approachable." There are 10 or so courses, but many of those are actually a couple of different plates. On a recent visit, a scallop carpaccio came with another plate involving a chicharrón and truffle gribiche chip and dip situation, and dessert was made up of six dishes that appeared at once. There’s nothing challenging or particularly unusual about the food at Melisse—it’s just that everything you put in your mouth is essentially perfect. The menu is well-paced and balanced, and you’ll finish feeling neither hungry nor over-stuffed.
Melisse isn’t a “cool” restaurant, and it isn’t particularly trying to be. It’s certainly changed over the years and has kept up with the times without straying too far into the latest trends. Our only real quibble with this place is the very strict no-cancellations and no-rescheduling policy. While we get the need for a tiny, expensive restaurant to be tough on flakes, paying the full cost of the meal if you fall ill is difficult to stomach. But if you can commit to a date and want to hit a special occasion meal out of the park, Melisse is at the top of our list.
The menu at Melisse changes nightly, but here are some highlights from our most recent visit.
To start your meal off, you'll receive a little collection of truly delicious bites that set the tone. For us, that included a cylinder of potato, vichyssoise, and black truffle that ate like the best potato chip of our lives, and a tiny pea tart that we’d happily convert to full-size if we could.
Fruits de Mer
Another collection of dishes (they like collections of dishes at Melisse) with twists on a seafood platter. We had an oyster topped with smoked vinegar jelly and a clam chowder custard with fava beans, but the clear winner was the peekytoe crab and shrimp toast that was somehow buttery but not at all rich and perfectly seasoned.
Hokkaido Scallop Carpaccio
The scallop carpaccio itself was excellent, but we got extremely distracted by the chips and dip situation that came with it. A giant “chicharrón” chip made of scallop was served with a gribiche that demonstrated the absolutely correct way to cook with truffle—sparingly.
Sonoma Lamb Loin
For our final savory course, out came a small piece of perfectly pink lamb crusted in coffee, served with an asparagus pistou and morel. Yes, it was small, but that was really all the red meat we could handle at this point in the meal.
The meal ended just as it started: with lots of little plates. The main event was “Strawberries and Cream,” which, despite those quotation marks, was a fairly classic (and wonderful) version of those two things. It came with a warm strawberry madeline that felt like it was tucking us into bed, plus some chocolates and petit fours to round things out.