AOC stands for Appelation d'Origine Controlee, which means something along the lines "label of origin controlled." It's a classification system used by the French to denote that a specific wine or cheese comes from a specific region of France (you'll find it somewhere on the label). It is also a standard of quality, denoting a first class product that meets certain criteria.
That Suzanne Goins, the famed chef of Lucques, chose AOC as the name of her newer small plates restaurant is no coincidence. The place is loaded with wine and cheese. Additionally, it's no coincidence that Edan, cheese lover and budding wine enthusiast, chose AOC as the restaurant of choice for her birthday dinner (Happy Birthday, Edan! Groundhog's Day babies are the best!). We got reservations a few weeks in advance (probably a good idea, since the place started to fill up as we ate). It's one of the hotter restaurants in Los Angeles (Jennifer Aniston was there the night before we were), and we were more than a little excited to go.
[Quick note here: We didn't take any pictures. I know it's nice to have a visual to go with the descriptions of the food, but we didn't want to be rude or gauche. Also, it was Edan's birthday, and I wanted to keep the attention on her. Maybe next time we'll take some photos, but for now, you'll just have to imagine.]
The first thing I noticed upon arrival was that the wine is indeed front and center at AOC. There are stacks of bottles in the foyer and racks and racks on the walls. Not one, but two wine bars border the main dining room on either side. Both bars were already crowded when we arrived. I guess it's a hot place to grab a glass of wine, too (Food service is available at the bar). The room is very attractive. I would guess the main room sat between forty and fifty people, but there was another room off in the wings, as well as a loft-like second floor, which I didn't see until we left. The dining room we were in was beautiful, bathed in buttery light with tall windows on one end looking out into the street. It was immediately identifiable as a Los Angeles restaurant. As Edan put it, it seems like every restaurant in LA hires the same interior designer. The tables were fairly close together, which gave the place a comfortable feeling, encouraging one to get to know the neighbors a little. We were seated next to a talkative guy (an actor) who was a regular there. He recommended a few dishes, and we chatted a bit about finicky eaters, and how we hate them.
As I said before, the menu is small plates. Each plate ranges in price from $9 to $15, and there are dozens and dozens of dishes from which to choose. We started with a cheese plate...but you probably could've guessed that, right? We got three cheeses for $15: Marcilly sur maulne, a goat cheese from France, Sable du boulonnais, a French cow's cheese, and Rogue River blue cheese, from the Rogue Creamery in Oregon. All three were amazing. Edan was familiar with the Marcilly, having had it once before. She was a little disappointed that it was riper than the one she'd had, meaning it had firmed up considerably. The Sable was our server's choice, and she was right, it was good -- smoky, with a soft, slightly chewy texture. I preferred the Rogue River, as I like cheeses that double as chemical weapons. It's a pretty strong blue, but it still has a very creamy flavor and firm, crumbly texture (I could cut it with a knife without it breaking apart).
Next, we had roasted dates with parmesan and bacon. These were eerily familiar for some reason. People had talked these up as if they were tiny nuggets of heroin wrapped in sex. They weren't quite that good. They were intensely sweet, and the parmesan was very subtle, maybe too subtle. I didn't feel like I tasted it at all for the first two dates. Edan said mine were just as good. I wouldn't go that far. After all, I don't think they were using Farmer John bacon on these bad boys. At least, I hope not.
For our next round of plates we tried chicken liver crostini with pancetta, a salad of beets, blood oranges and mint, and beef cheeks with paprika and buttered noodles. The chicken liver corstini was some of the best food I've had in a long time. The tangy, livery taste mixed with the salty, chewy pancetta was incredible. I even liked the frisee salad underneath. Next came the beet salad. This was another revelation. Slices of red and yellow beets intermingled with incredibly tangy slices of sweet-sour blood orange, topped with some sort of dressing. So simple, so beautiful, so tasty. You taste the beets, and they're good. They're sweet, and they have that pleasantly just-firm texture that beets have when they've been cooked to perfection. But then you get a bite of the blood orange, and it bursts in your mouth and adds a whole new dimension to the dish. The mint wasn't overpowering at all. It served as a sort of counterpoint to all the sweetness going on in the dish. It was a next-level salad, for sure.
There was a brief pause at that point, and we sipped our wine and relaxed for a second. When confronted with a wine list as daunting as the one at AOC, I can never make up my mind. There were about fifteen varietals on it that I'd never encountered before, so both Edan and I enlisted the help of our server. We told her what qualities we like in a wine (Edan likes big fruit, I like a wine that laughs at my jokes), and she chose for us. She got Edan a Syrah from Strange Wines in Napa, and she gave me a Toro, a very nice, very earthy Spanish wine (I apologize that I don't have the vintages of either of these). Both of us were happy with her choices. We both got a second glass.
The beef cheeks arrived at exactly the right moment. We'd had the "appetizer" plates and were ready for something a bit more substantial. The problem with the cheeks was that they were a bit too substantial. I'd never had beef cheeks before, so I don't have a point of reference to compare it to. They were a bit like brisket -- so tender I could cut them with a spoon, and with a very beefy flavor and some woody undertones. Neither of us were thrilled with the cheeks. They were too rich. It's not that they were bad per se, but with so many tantalizing options on the menu (the coq au vin, the pork confit!), there must be something better.
We could've stopped there. I was getting full, and despite the somewhat underwhelming beef cheeks, I was very satisfied with the food. But it was Edan's birthday, and we had newly-filled glasses of wine, and we figure, lets try one more. So we got arroz negro, squid with saffron aioli. It was an intimidating dish, so blue-black we could hardly tell where the pieces of squid were. The flavor was nice, although the saffron aioli was much more garlicy than saffrony. I think if we'd had this dish at the time we had the beef cheeks it would've been better. It was too rich, too savory, too intensely flavorful to have at the end of the meal. I would get it again, but I don't think Edan will be joining me with it. In short, I think we pushed it one dish too far.
So of course we got dessert. Again, we asked our server's opinion. She recommended the gateau breton with calvados, caramelized smokehouse apples and creme legere. Again, she was right on the mark. She'd described the dish as "a French version of a pound cake," but it was much better than that. It was a thin cake that had a crunchy brulee top that cracked when we put a fork to it. Edan called it a "deep-fried madeleine," a description I thought particularly apt. We devoured it. Edan said it was the best thing we had all night. It was definitely close. The perfect end to the meal. Now I'm glad Edan didn't let me skip it and get Pinkberry.
In total, with tax and tip, we spent $150, which included dessert, coffee (for me), and two glasses of wine each (Edan's wine was $9, mine was $10...or vice versa, I don't remember which). I was full, but not like I am when I leave a steakhouse. It was a pleasant feeling. I was satisfied on every level, but I didn't feel gluttonous or sick. Basically, it was how I'd like to feel after every dinner. If only every dinner could be at AOC. It's an ideal place to try if you don't have tons of money and can only eat a dinner like this once and awhile (which is how it is for us). I say that not only because it's top quality food (it is) with terrific ambiance and service, but because you can try so many things. If they're all great, good for you. If one or two of them aren't what you'd hoped for, there's always the next plate. On a flavor level, you leave feeling like you ate several meals. I can't recommend it enough.