You know you're falling in love with a chef when you yearn to see what he would do with an ingredient that has yet to appear on his menus. You've had three preparations of pork — using ribs, shoulder, and chops — different yet equally succulent, so you wonder what he'd do with lamb. You've tried halibut and pollock, intriguingly paired with unexpected vegetables, and eagerly anticipate his take on salmon. You were delighted by two witty soufflés, each perfumed in an original way, and fervently hope that you can end every meal at Range with another airy treat.
The chef in question is Phil West, late of Bacar, and I found myself dreaming about future meals during my second dinner at Range, the small place he's opened with his wife, Cameron, who learned how to deal with crowds of happy diners at Delfina. That second meal was pretty much perfect, especially because I was dining with a couple who love to eat — and never more so, it seemed, than on this night.
Range emits a seductive glow from its fortuitous site next to a tiny park on Valencia, lending it a Magritte-like feel as you approach it in the dark. Jerry and I perched for a few minutes at the bar (while Grace parked the car), lucky to find a couple of adjacent stools. The barroom is a popular spot, owing to its enthusiastic bartenders and interesting if pricey list. (Signature cocktails go for $8.50, or $9.50 on the high end, whereas the dinner menu seems gentler, its main courses all under $20.) Every evening, in addition to the temptations of the familiar Sazerac and the unfamiliar Smoking Gun, there's a never-to-be-repeated cocktail du jour (or nuit, more accurately); that night Jerry went for it, tempted by its base of bruised basil, which lent a fresh and vegetal note to the Retreat, the tart vodka-and-Pernod drink with which David Nepore, the bar manager at Enrico's, had recently won the Pernod Grand Prix in Italy. Grace's Devil's Kiss, tinted rosily with pomegranate juice, was similarly bracing. I'm not much of a barfly, but I was taken with the small lighted stars embedded in the smooth concrete surface of this one.
We were led through a hallway — a row of tables on one side and a view through a cutout of the kitchen on the other — to the main dining room, and tucked into a cozy booth under the high windows that give onto the park. Though it was still noticeably loud, I felt that the noise issue had been addressed since my first visit, when I dined at a banquette across the way and the din impacted our dinner. This time, we seemed to be enveloped in our own cocoon, more encouraging of conversation, a lot of which involved our delicious meal. We talked more about the food than I usually do.
Jerry likes to play a game in which he awards a prize to the best dish in each course. (I told him my father's idea of a perfect meal: You like everybody else's choices but think your own is the best.) This time it was hard to choose from among our appetizers. Grace had a crock of chicken liver mousse served with crisp toasts and a bouquet of lightly dressed greens; it was a tiny bit liquid for my taste, yet I scooped up the remnants when she was about to let it be taken away with a trace remaining. We were all passionate about my whiskey- and brown sugar-glazed pork spareribs, two fat ones with the juicy meat falling off the bones, sided with a contrasting crisp and minty carrot slaw. But I was happy that Jerry ordered the goat cheese and sorrel-stuffed ravioli, suave and ever so slightly bitter in their perfect pasta under a gentle blanket of lime butter and snipped chives: It was one of my favorites at my first dinner here, about a month and a half ago. I was pleased to see it still on the menu — which continued Range's apotheosis-of-California-cuisine theme, but was quite different in individual dishes and even more assured in preparation. Jerry proclaimed the ribs the winner, with the pasta and mousse following close behind.
Grace's pan-roasted bavette couldn't have been more beautiful, rosy at the heart under a lightly charred crust, and its accompanying many-layered potato, spinach, and wild nettle gratin seemed simultaneously rich yet light. This was a terrific steak. And Jerry's slow-cooked pork rack was a terrific fat chop, bedded on creamy polentalike hominy, dressed with pecan brown butter and plump little marinated prunes. I liked it more than the other pork dish I had here, a coffee-rubbed shoulder served with similar hominy and braised chard, in which the essential porkiness of the meat seemed lost in its very dark and pungent sauce; we could almost have been eating braised beef. I was most impressed with the inventive fish dish I chose when (and because) my companions went with meat. The oven-braised pollock came in its own homey enameled cast-iron casserole, elegantly filled with runner beans, cabbage, and fingerling potatoes, all of which were on the verge of melting into their pancetta-infused broth. Again, I liked it better than the salty tapenade-slicked halibut we tried last time. I loved the way the pollock pulled apart into silky flakes: It was one of the best fish dishes I'd had in a long time. Cooked in a closed pot, the ingredients came together and enhanced the fish (and each other) in such a way that I suddenly became tired of grilled fish. Jerry awarded the steak, pork, and pollock the one, two, and three positions, respectively, but I was enthralled with them all. (I was also enthralled with the two delicious and reasonably priced wines I'd had here, from a carefully chosen list: a fragrant Falanghina from Campania, Italy, $26; and a fruity Tempranillo from Ribera del Guadiana, Spain, also $26.)
Range saves one of its best treats for last: On both visits I've been thrilled to see a soufflé on the dessert menu. I thought nothing could be better than the slightly savory soufflé made from the French triple-cream Brillat-Savarin cheese and served with strawberries touched with balsamic and shreds of faintly licorice-y tarragon I had last time, but I was equally beguiled by this night's eggnog soufflé served with a tall shot glass of whipped cream-topped hot chocolate. (I wish I could have tried the quince soufflé with ginger and nutmeg panna cotta that, our excellent server told us, was offered on the menu in between my two visits.) My father's perfect-meal preference came true, as Jerry preferred his roasted green apple galette topped with crunchy walnut streusel, sided with vanilla bean ice cream and topped with a yummy rum butter caramel sauce, and Grace adored her chocolate pot de crème, whose whipped cream was cinnamon-flavored, served with several tiny macaroons.
In a spirit of happy excess, we lingered over a shared cheese plate — Petit Agour, a semihard French sheep's milk variety served with a poached pear and toasted pine nuts. I'd had such a good time with Grace and Jerry that I envisioned many other meals with them: For an instant, I wished they could all be at Range.