First meal, first week, not brilliant, but decent. A few weeks later, second meal: awful in every way. My first impulse is to think I just happened to latch onto the best menu items on that initial visit. Caesar salad. Prime steak tartare. New York strip dry-aged 40 days. Corn with lime butter. Fries.
That's part of it, certainly. But I had a similar experience at Boa Santa Monica where the restaurant showed well early on and went quickly downhill after that.
Owned by Innovative Dining Group, the group behind Sushi Roku and Katana, Boa has built its reputation as the swinging steakhouse for a new generation. Gone are the old-school fusty leather booths, the portraits of old Hollywood or signed caricatures, the sawdust on the floor, along with the obnoxious show and tell with lobsters and football-size potatoes. Appetizers and sides sound more California than East Coast, and the look is smart and contemporary.
The West Hollywood design firm Tag Front is responsible for turning the bottom of a blocky office building into a dramatic and very urban steakhouse. Front and center is a sexy bar with plenty of sofa real estate for relaxing and eyeing the glitzy crowd. But the real glamour is in its outdoor patio sheltered by a Jetsons-style slanted roof with a giant circle cut out for viewing the night sky. Diners dressed as if they're headed for the red carpet crowd into the luxurious circular leather booths. Champagne corks fly. A server whips up a Caesar salad or a steak tartare table-side. Lights. Action. As an outdoor space, it doesn't get much better than this.
If you can nab one of these booths, the food definitely takes second seat to the scene. And that's what the owners seem to be counting on.
But you'll have to work hard to get that table on the patio, often after a long wait in the bar, if at all. The inside dining room is Siberia. Don't get me wrong. It's a perfectly lovely room and the booths along the windows are ideal for watching long-legged women outside hobble by on their red-soled high heels. And it could well be that everyone with silver hair and old Hollywood credentials actually wanted to sit inside (where, granted, it is much quieter), but I'm thinking not.
But that second meal? Boa Chop Chop, the steakhouse's version of the chopped salad -- iceberg lettuce, salame, chickpeas, artichokes and more -- is bland, and the vinaigrette tastes as if it came straight from a bottle.
It's not just the salads. Jumbo lump crab cake is mingy; the crab doesn't taste fresh and there's too much filler. One bite and I'm done. Goat cheese baklava is dead awful, undercooked filo dough filled with goat cheese doused in truffle oil. I guess it's the sugar glaze on top that qualifies it as baklava. What a bad idea.
Main courses are -- at best -- only a slight improvement. My veal chop is big as a brick and about as thick, too, which presents certain challenges for the kitchen. I ordered it medium rare, and it is -- at the edges. But at the center it's practically raw. At $37, it's just one big hunk of flavorless protein.
The Porterhouse is $64 -- and not quite big enough for two to share. Ordered medium rare with a char, it comes out medium. Bite after bite, I keep chewing, hoping for more flavor.
Spaghetti and meatballs (Kobe, of course) is a mess -- the meatballs have a strangely soft texture and again, not much flavor. What is going on in this kitchen?
None of us has the urge to finish any of this food -- not the incredibly salty "brick" of fried onions, not the pale limp fries that arrive in a paper-lined steel cone or the oddly fibrous creamed spinach. How hard is it to do any of these dishes better?
I also had what has to be the worst cheesecake of my life, New York-style, very dry and gummy with a pronounced refrigerator taste. In fact, a couple of my veteran food warriors in attendance pronounced this second visit one of the worst restaurant meals ever.
One up. One down. A third meal should be decisive. This time seated at a back table inside. On a Tuesday night, there are plenty of sequined gowns, bustiers and micro skirts showing off tasteful tattoos. What is it about this place that brings out the bling?
The $85 mid-size seafood tower is short on oysters, clams and mussels, and long on giant king crab legs (you get a lobster tail too). The whole thing seems rather sparse and sad. At these prices (the largest platter is $150), I'd expect the quality of Anisette's or Water Grill's seafood platter.
Other dishes work better. Our Caesar salad is a highlight. Prepared table-side by a skilled waiter who mixes it all up with theatrical gestures, it is bright and spunky, if a little overdressed. We dig in.
That night Japanese Wagyu beef is on offer at $19 an ounce, minimum 3 ounces. We order 4 ounces cooked to the medium recommended by the chef. It's only a couple of bites per person, but that fat-rich beef has a marvelous taste. The 40-day dry-aged New York strip has more heft, and the complex flavor that comes from long aging. Kansas City filet mignon on the bone is more notable for its thickness than anything else.
But even so, of the three steaks ordered medium-rare, two come out medium -- so far from medium-rare that my guests send them back. It takes only three tries to get them right, which is not the kind of precision cooking you get from old-school steakhouses like Ruth's Chris or Arnie Morton's.
Except for that fresh corn with lime, the sides this time are pretty dismal. Lyonnaise potatoes are like dried-out leather. Mashed potatoes are gluey, pea shoots over-salted.
But we luck out with a truly professional server. He knows how to pour wine and water. He gets everything right and offers astute advice.
As for the desserts, let's just say Boa needs to place an ad for a pastry chef. Immediately.
With the help of Tag Front, Boa has defined the look of the hip steakhouse in L.A. But until the kitchen gets its act together, Boa is all scene, all the time.