Benjamin Bailly calls to mind Philippe Petit, that famous Frenchman high on the wire, as he again proves himself a master of balance on the brink of Cliff's Edge, bridging gastronomic gaps and dining dichotomies with the same surefooted ease he employed to inject an unprecedented sense of accessibility and fun to a trademark as imposing as Petrossian, where the former Robuchon aide de camp and James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year" nominee was executive chef at the end of the last decade.
When Bailly unexpectedly manifested at Cliff's Edge at the start of 2012, following a short stint at Fraiche, a collective gasp rippled through the local crowd still glued to his movements, awed at the potential heights that the restaurant could now scale and relieved that Bailly was landing safely at a restaurant he could steer form the inside with his own considerable skill and daring.
Cliff's Edge had long been crying out for some magnetic force to appear and weather out its rough edges and loose ends. Resembling a romantic hideaway stashed off the track of the Disneyland Jungle Cruise, the restaurant maintained a degree of approval for its ambiance, Sunset Boulevard centrality, and cocktails, drawing mixed members that found room for a grown-up crowd (in starter jackets and ink sleeves), seniors (in blazers), and various other specimens from the neighborhood's young adult sandbox.
What it wasn't ever particularly known for was great cooking, until now. Here Bailly's gracious display of balance seamlessly stitches classic European rearing into a city gobbled whole by gastro-pub grub, as ramps up a passion for the market's gems through a rich touch that makes many of his less adroit counterparts seem like limp round pegs by comparison. You taste this equilibrium of both gravity and buoyancy in Bailly's rendition of the city's ubiquitous beets, nuts, and cheese combo, where orange and lavender oils mingle with candy beets stretched across a massive clod of goat cheese like stones on a seawall; the best version we're yet to taste among an endless parade.
Bailey's standout dish, and one that best accentuates his confident, fearless stride along this particular Edge, is the chef's skate wing in brown butter, his take on the classic dish raie au beurre noir. French chefs have held skate aloft well before in-the-know U.S. chefs salvaged it from the dumpster unfortunately labeled "trash fish," where it mostly stewed prior to the early aughts. Skate are seldom considered glamorous fish, if bottom-skulking rays with perturbing faces are indeed anyone's idea of fish. Far too often a cheap second thought reincarnated through endless, over-cooked amalgamations buried in the back of takeout menus, skate is a cartilaginous fish with firm flesh, requiring ideal timing to honor its high collagen content into a slightly jiggly softness while maintaining its ideally segmented structure that can come undone under too much heat.
Honoring the gastronomic Gauls who came before him, Bailly converts this sand-sniffer into a lush luxury, unfurling a minefield of bright explosive flavors and comforting contrasts harmonized by the skate's inherent talent for conducting flavor through its mildly sweet, luscious white flesh. "I really like this classic bistro dish, but I wanted to have fun with it and serve it in a more contemporary way," the chef tells Grub Street of its novel presentation in a sea of brown butter bubbles.
Mimicking the ray's natural habitat, Bailly's fish breaches a sand-shaded surface of brown butter froth, gravity grounding its end to a bed of glorious mashed sunchokes, a milky puree of near liquid softness, buttery with an earthy sugar straddling the best flavors of artichokes and smashed spuds. Even barely imposed upon by one's fork, the skate's flesh slides off in symmetrical shingles of dainty, but assertive meat, every millimeter entrapped in the honeyed foam of brown butter. The sweet cream of the buttery lather contrasts with bright sporadic stings of preserved lemon and capers, a counter effect mirrored when the soft yield of a bite into the fish is countered by a crunch of toasted pine nuts releasing their woody mint.
The fish, bearing crisply crafted ridges and edges, seared with an onset of light char, protects an ideal interior cooked at just the right point to remain tender and retain juice, staying supple yet forceful through its kaleidoscope of flavors. The flesh plays perfect conduit to the ethereal butter whip and natural song of the sunchokes, creating a warm and comforting cloud of contrasts that juggle creamy, sweet, sharp, and earthy flavors.
Bailly's skate wing, served for $24 and able to hit the bar in about eight minutes on a recent quiet afternoon, is our favorite dish from an impressive menu crafted by a chef who continues to dazzle us. His skate wing certainly isn't the only one in town (Water Grill apparently has a great version with red grapes), but Bailly could easily stand as some sort of brand ambassador for the ray, his recipe maintaing a hold on us through repeat visits. Until then, the chef tells us he most likely plans to keep the dish on his menu year-round as long as he can find sunchokes, one of the crucial centers of this sublime dish. That leaves you with the wide open option to wrap your lips around Bailly's brown butter skate wing anytime, as no matter where you're coming from, this dish is totally worth the drive!
Cliff's Edge, 3626 West Sunset Blvd. Silver Lake. 323-666-6116.