It’s 7 P.M. in Culver City at the Helms Bakery enclave. The Maille Mustard Bar is in full display as we walked up to the door of Chef Sang Yoon’s private kitchen courtyard entrance. After the heatwave of 100 degree weather, the evening breeze felt balmy, and daylight faded golden into dusk.
The mustard bar lured us with its array of jars, cornichons and pretzels. My own tasting plate was created by one of the ladies tending the bar, offering a black paper plate daubed in a palette of mustards circling a cornichon in the center. “The idea is to taste counterclockwise,” she explained, “from lighter to stronger flavors.” I dipped the long pretzel into the Honey Dijon. A suggestion of sweet flushed my mouth in a warm spicy tingle. Honey Dijon is a favorite of mine, so I’m already partial. I took an extra dip into it for another long savor. My next sample, the Rich Country mustard. A swipe of the pretzel into the golden globule brought its spicy bouquet to my senses. The pretzel was crunchy, salty and crumbling into a spatulated shape, making it the perfect vehicle to gather mustard. So I doused my pretzel with Maille’s Old Style. The grainy dollop seduced with its granules of mustard seed, tangy with vinegar zing. I smeared the mustards together in a swivel of the pretzel and a swift motion up to my mouth. I can never have enough, and sometimes I’ve gone too far, using too much mustard until it’s gone beyond a good thing—like a kid eating too much chocolate— something so uncontrollably delicious.
Mustard dripped down my lower lip, and wanting to remain the lady, I simmered inwardly, enjoying the heavenly pungency of that distinct Dijon aroma, feeling that pleasant sting through the sinuses, similar to the way wasabi fills the nose with its heat and twang. The Horseradish mustard saturated my palate with a piquant bite.
My pretzel was now tater tot-sized, only one bite between my fingers. Soon the cornichon was all I had left. Dijon Originale. Yet the Maille mustard bar was but an amuse bouche before entering the private tasting event.
Twinkling lights strung above, the kitchen door swung open, servers came out and went back in, guests stood at tall cocktail tables, the bartender poured. There was wine, vin rosé, très français. Chardonnay, mais oui. Mango juice infused drinks made with a French imported juice blend were one of the highlighted cocktails of the evening. With my propensity to indulge, I reigned myself in with a glass of summery rosé after finishing a glass of light Chardonnay. Water, please. I want to absorb the mustard tastes with all of my senses aroused and alive. Alors, quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire. So, when the wine is drawn, it must be drunk. The same for food and mustard.
The open air courtyard was perfect for this intimate soiree. Servers handed out tasting spoons and skewers of mustard-inspired creations by Chef Sang Yoon, chef and proprietor of Father’s Office gastropub and Lukshon restaurant. Cured Tasmanian sea trout in a tiny tasting dish, fresh with a sprig of dill and a powdery sprinkle of Maille Dijon snow. The innovative use of “snow” — or mustard frozen by nitrogen into a flaky ice — was unique. I witnessed the creation of the mustard snow later in the chef’s private test kitchen, where he demonstrated how he transformed the mustard in the nitrogen bath. The Maille mustard snow melted delicately on the tongue, imparting the essence without the heft.
Potato salad deviled eggs with tarragon and Maille Rich Country Dijon passed by on serving plates without my chance to taste. They looked tempting. But the sandwiches that came out of the kitchen in a humble fashion made everyone’s eyes roll with pleasure. The Cubano, Jambon de Paris, smoked pork, Gruyère, Maille Dijon and Maille cornichon relish. The Lukshon style of “pops” made its signature appearance as ‘salt and pepper chicken pops’ with Maille Dijon and longan honey, and the binchotan grilled wagyu rib eye with Maille horseradish Dijon looked appetizing even to this vegetarian, or pardon my français, pescetarian. I’m willing and sometimes tempted beyond the garden of earthly delights.
Of course, the menu wouldn’t be complete in its gastropub glory without Father’s Office Frites served with Maille Dijon aioli. Pomme frites (French fries as we Americans call them) are my weakness. I admit I did glance around the tables for a fresh basket of those crispy hot fries before becoming completely distracted by a skewer of the pretzel and mustard bread pudding. Warm from the oven, a skewer of the bread pudding cubed, a dollop of Maille honey mustard, mustard sugar and whipped honey became my obsession. I ate four of them, five, then, six. Just one more. Il est difficle de vaincre ses passions, et impossible de les satisfaire. It is difficult to master one’s passions, and impossible to satisfy them.
It was the way Chef Sang used mustard. But in his kitchen, we talked about ketchup. His eyes expressed contempt as he described it, and I was amused. How we came to the subject of ketchup, among the platters of his mustard-inspired tastings, I’m not sure. He’s clearly on the side of mustard lovers and makes no exceptions. Dogmatic about his menus and choice of ingredients, he’s well known for being anti-ketchup since the beginning days of his flagship Father’s Office in Santa Monica. It made perfect sense that he was chosen to experiment with mustard as an ingredient rather than a condiment, using his culinary alchemy to bring mustard into a higher range of flavor.
The elegance of each taste held my mouth in suspense like the long kiss of a lover. Of course what I mean is that I was in love with the pretzel and mustard bread pudding. The compressed olive oil cake with strawberry mostarda won my heart as well, its magic made heavenly on the spoon with a hint of Maille honey mustard, a frill of balsamic mustard Chantilly, decorated with mustard seeds like candied nonpareil sprinkles. I may have eaten an entire service platter of the two desserts, and unapologetically so. “Le seul vrai langage au monde est un baiser,” said Alfred de Musset, and it’s true, the only true language in the world is a kiss. I had many kisses of mustard, and mostly the pretzel and mustard bread pudding, its language only my tongue could decipher, delight and dance with. It was almost embarrassing how I made love with each mouthful in public view, though I didn’t care. “Dessert without cheese is like a beauty with only one eye,” said 18th century French food critic Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, however, for me at that very moment, it would be mustard rather than cheese, married with the sweetness of sugary and savory, causing me to swoon in absolute pleasure. It made it complete, the realization that Chef Sang is an alchemist.
I was happy, laughing, talking with friends, eating. The elegant Sophie Gayot was in attendance, and I saw Aarti Sequiera, cookbook author (buy her deliciously new cookbook!) and host of her YouTube show Aarti Paarti, with her husband Brendan toting their adorable little Boodle baby around like a sack of rice, but much cuter. Chef Nathan Lyon was beaming his effervescent fresh face around and we enjoyed a little chat together. He’s lovely. His cookbook Great Food Starts Fresh can be found on his website. My darling man, LA Magazine food writer Eddie Lin, was my guest this time, and of course he was, he’s my sweetheart.
It was also wonderful to meet Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, founder of Fraîche PR in New York, along with her partner Jane Peck who manages Fraîche PR in Paris, France. Elisa Galassi, the US Area Manager for Maille, looking très chic, spoke in her lovely French accent and I was charmed. These are the elegant, intelligent and exceptional women that coordinated such a marvelous event with grace. We sat together at Father’s Office later in the evening, sharing stories and thoughts over more of Chef Sang Yoon’s offerings, this time in his signature gastropub style setting where only mustard could truly shine. I now understood the chef’s reasons for omitting lesser condiments such as ketchup. Mustard, the food language of Dijon, was showcased beautifully in his menu for Maille.
“Il n’y a que Maille qui m’aille” Only Maille can make me smile… A slogan from 80 years ago that still keeps us smiling today.