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Patina: Where the ghost of Tony Esnault still remains

Braised short rib with bordelaise at Patina
Braised short rib with bordelaise at Patina
Jennifer Ball

Patina

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There’s a moment in every chef’s career when he finally comes to himself, when he sets aside diners’ expectations to put out food that he feels a passionate connection to.

Charles Olalia hasn’t quite had that moment yet.

Doubtless, the Patina executive chef has a long legacy of chefs to honor. The fine dining establishment, which debuted in 1989 in the space on Melrose currently occupied by Providence, has played host to such figures as Walter Manzke, Eric Greenspan, and Josiah Citrin, who have each gone on to open their own successful restaurants. Yet Patina reached its peak only a few years ago under the helm of Tony Esnault, whose mastery of French cuisine is reflects his tutelage under Alain Ducasse at Essex House. It was Esnault who took Patina to new heights with a broadened array of land and sea proteins and an acute awareness of nuances among produce. His glazed mosaic, a rainbow of twenty or so individually-cooked seasonal vegetables showered in jus was as much a feast for the eyes as it was for the tastebuds; it epitomized his ability to make complimentary ingredients distinct and forward-facing in flavor. It was under Esnault’s wing that Olalia came to grasp contemporary French cuisine, and much of the restaurants current menu is reflective of the former chef.

A zucchini-filled pasta is still one of the most popular entrees. The butter-poached lobster, although slightly underdone this time around, still graces the menu. And the selfsame morel risotto that could be found years ago is still available, although now on the soupier side of the spectrum.

Gone may be the famed vegetable mosaic, but Esnault’s influence is undeniable in the details, from the three bread options he brought to Patina to the cucumber vinegar found in small dots around the rim of vegetable starters.

It’s a shame, really, that Olalia still hangs onto the coattails of the former chef, since the highlights of the menu are the few instances in which he contributes a unique personal flair. An amuse bouche of miso panna cotta and shiitake is a bold and umami-heavy beginning that doesn’t whet an appetite so much as it demands it. A Santa Barbara spot prawn, plated with its head in case you wanted to meet the animal you’re savoring, is basted in coconut milk and set atop a mound of steamed taro greens and Fresno chilies for a surprisingly beachy plate. Highlighting Olalia’s Filipino roots, the dish is a distinct step away from Patina’s traditional flavors. And whether it’s due to this unique taste profile or the soul behind the dish, the spot prawn stands apart and shines as the most memorable aspect of dinner. Other wisps of the new chef’s handprint on the Patina menu include caramelized divers sea scallops rubbed in yuzu kosho, yet another nod to Asian influence in California cuisine.

Desserts lean a bit savory, with butternut squash bavarois and a Sichuan peppercorn-laden earl grey vacherin among the offerings. A more traditional key lime pie is paired with a strong, cilantro-flavored sorbetto, and a pavé combines ginger, passionfruit, and peanut butter in a way that will leave most scratching their heads. There have been better pastry chefs in Patina’s history, and diners looking for a sweet end to their meal would be better off venturing over to Lemonade a couple of blocks away. Of course, that’s after they order from Patina’s cheese cart (always worth a splurge).

It’s been over a year since Charles Olalia took over the reins of Patina’s kitchen, but there’s still the sense that he’s easing into the executive chef position. And while his wariness may be a well-intentioned tribute to Tony Esnault, his attempts to recreate his mentor’s dishes fall a bit short of the previous standard. I look forward to the day when Olalia truly breaks out of his shell and reshapes his menu to reflect what he loves to cook. The glimmers of flavor that he’s beginning to show reflect a chef capable of far more than what he is currently producing. But until then, he remains in my mental file of “up-and-comers.”