It's kind of fun to walk into a new restaurant in a space you know well and figure out what the new owners have changed and how and why. I was curious about the long-delayed Bridge restaurant, which has just opened in the old Alto Palato space — and a little sad too. I have so many good memories of stopping into Alto Palato for a Margherita pizza, of sitting out on the patio on a sweltering summer night, of the guest dinners the late actor Vincent Schiavelli used to cook, of the chefs who have cooked there over the years.
The entrance used to be fairly discreet; too much so, probably. Now you can't miss the place. A wall decorated with a bold graphic pattern runs along the sidewalk, creating an outdoor bar area behind. An army of black-attired valets waits to fling open car doors where before there were only a couple.
What a difference a few million dollars makes.
The new Italian restaurant from Nick and Dipu Haque, who also own the trendy sushi restaurant Koi, is as splashy as they come along this stretch of La Cienega Boulevard. Golden glass chandeliers in the shape of inverted cones dangle from the high ceilings. One wall is covered with a wallpaper patterned in gold. Pale yellow booths line two of the dining room's walls. And the patio off the dining room now has a glass roof floating above it, the better to keep off the occasional raindrop.
Sit down, and a comely waiter will explain the concept as basically Koi's small-plates concept translated to Italian food. The portions aren't large, he says, spreading his hands to indicate that he really means humongous. Uh huh. I get it. This is not Buca di Beppo.
The chefs are Santos MacDonal and Mirko Paderno, whose last gig was as the chef at Dolce in West Hollywood. But even that über-hip Italian place had a more adventurous menu than Bridge's. Why open just another Italian restaurant? Because the Haque brothers already have a seemingly inexhaustible audience at Koi. If half of their guests decide to stroll across the street and try Bridge, they'll have a success.
They've kept the wood-burning oven busy turning out thin-crusted pizza Margherita and other Roman-style pies. For the table of lovelies to my left, there's insalata mista, Caesar salad, the usual artichoke salad with lemon dressing. And how could any restaurant in L.A. survive without a roasted beet salad?
However, vitello tonnato, thin slices of roasted veal served chilled and cloaked in tuna and anchovy sauce, is classic and delicious. Sweet roasted peppers stuffed with burrata cheese and arugula pesto are another best bet. But tuna tartare with avocado on yellow polenta chips with lemon dressing is terrible.
Vegetarians, take note of the supple asparagus ravioli with ricotta cheese filling in a sage butter sauce. Gnocchi in tomato sauce with cubed mozzarella are excellent too.
Main courses are the standard ones at L.A. Italian restaurants: half chicken with spinach, grilled lamb chops, filet mignon and Milanese veal chop. Oh, and the requisite branzino. Somewhere along the way, the small-plates concept got lost: How about a 30-ounce bistecca alla Fiorentina (for two)? Not very Koi-like.
Actually, the lounge menu may be the way to go. You can line up for one of the booths outside and order a terrific bottle from ex-Valentino and Dolce sommelier Alessandro Sbrendola's list, along with a pizza or a panino.
The biggest question is whether this new place can deliver the scene the way Koi does. Bridge may be just across the street, but we're talking apples and oranges. Or rather, yuzu and lemons.
Where: 755 N. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.
When: Dinner, 6 to 11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The bar-lounge opens at 6 p.m. and serves a late-night menu till 2 a.m.
Cost: Appetizers, $8 to $16; pizzas, $12 to $16; pasta and risotto, $14 to $19; meat and seafood dishes, $24 to $68; desserts, $8 to $10
Info: (310) 659-3535, www.bridgela.com