I'm back in Los Angeles after three years out of town. I'm back and I'm dining at Trumps, and frankly, I'm wondering about this stuff on my plate. It's the "tamale of the day": not what you might expect, not a tamale with a different stuffing every day but an unstuffed tamale--in effect a superior sort of cornbread, speckled with fresh corn and sweet pepper chunks--under a topping that changes daily. Just what I wanted, I'd have thought. Trendy Trumps with its exposed beams, cool looks and modern art is a block from the Pacific Design Center, and you go there for designer food, Bauhaus cuisine, peasant dishes rethought from the ground up, like potato pancakes with apples and melted goat cheese.
Only my tamale/cornbread is topped with veal in ancho pepper cream sauce and the whole thing is surrounded by chopped raw tomatoes, and these three elements, each nice enough in itself, have absolutely nothing to say to each other. To make things worse, on the side is a dried-out and rather nasty dish of rice and beans deafeningly seasoned with clove. The mix on my plate is like an awkward conversation between three strangers in a stuck elevator, with a snarling dog in the corner.
People had been telling me that Trumps is inconsistent, often pointing out that chef Michael Roberts is only in the kitchen from Monday to Wednesday. This was on a Wednesday, as a matter of fact, and in the course of several meals at Trumps, the plate of nasty rice and beans was the only thing that was poorly prepared.
Bad preparation rarely seems to be the problem. I wince to say anything against inventiveness, but the real problem here is how often the avant-garde ideas don't jell. Quesadillas, which turn out to be weirdly effective made with melted brie and white grapes, come with an absurd "pea guacamole." How could anybody have thought you can make a sauce out of peas? They need so much flavoring that this "guacamole" is basically a sort of coriander chutney in a particularly lurid shade of green.
I wince also because Trumps has a noble record of very thoughtful innovations. Chicken with roast garlic and candied lemon has proved its worth by being on the Trumps menu from the beginning, and I am totally convinced by the barely cooked--indeed, half-raw--tuna, with its accompaniment of a sort of conceptual ratatouille: grilled eggplant slices topped with chopped raw tomatoes and a garlicky hash of onions. Likewise, lamb chops in a port sauce flavored with blue cheese is something I'd never have expected to work, but mysteriously it does, as does sweetbreads with olive sauce. "Creme brulee tostada" sounds rather ominous but the creme brulee browned in this pastry "tortilla" cup (no lettuce, no tomato, no beans) can be appreciated as a huge and luxurious sort of toasted marshmallow.
But it gives me a funny feeling that the most consistently successful meal I've had here is tea, for which Trumps is admittedly famous--these days you can buy a Trumps "tea kit," containing jam, scone mix, even a teapot and napkins--because tea is the least adventurous meal.
Even this rather sterile room becomes unaccountably warmer when filled with the sociable and rather ladylike crowd that gathers at teatime to enjoy each other's company. My vision of the "enchilada" of the day as a mismatched social situation would never occur to me while sitting down to the dainty sandwiches, the scones and cream (rich whipped cream, unfortunately, not clotted cream) and the cakes and cookies that make up tea. Is it significant that tea is a very different social situation than dinner?
Food for thought. Are there mismatched groups at dinnertime that subconsciously crave jangling, misbegotten inventions? Is "power dining" the driving force behind the wackiness of L.A. Cuisine?
Anyway, I'm glad to be back.
Trumps, 8764 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (213) 855-1480. Open for lunch, tea (3:30-5:30), dinner and late supper, Monday through Saturday. Dinner only Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $55 to $85.