With the solemnity of a courtier entrusted with the royal crown, Elizabeth Blau, chef Kerry Simon's partner in Simon L.A., glides across the dining room carrying his signature "junk food sampler." She looks so serious — until she breaks into a wicked grin that conveys high glee. She's definitely into it. Eyes at the destination table open wide as the platter crowned with a big spool of bright cotton candy is set down.
For nostalgic '50s kitsch-food hounds, it's almost too good to be true. Here are rice crispy squares, pink coconut snowballs with chocolate inside, miniature Twinkies, a bag of warm chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies, and more, all made with the best ingredients.
Whee! The table digs in and devours the thing in a few minutes flat — not without a couple of comments designed to show they're not complete chumps for this stuff. (They are.)
Simon L.A., which debuted in the newly glamorized Sofitel hotel at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly boulevards in June, injects a bit of fun into the local dining scene with Simon's irreverent and mostly irresistible take on American comfort food. It's a concept that's a big hit at his first restaurant Simon Kitchen and Bar in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Yes, hard to believe, I know: a Vegas chef making a move on L.A.
It used to be the other way around, didn't it? A decade ago it was big news when Wolfgang Puck (and later Nobu Matsuhisa and Piero Selvaggio) opened restaurants in the desert gambling city. But now, however improbably, Vegas is sending its own dining missionaries out into the world, and, at least in this case, Los Angeles has become the outpost. Simon L.A., though, fits the polished glitz of the Sofitel like a glove.
The original Vegas restaurant was — and still is — a real party animal. Loud, brash, exuberant, with a menu that goes over big with the young, free-spending crowd. You don't have to know French or Italian to decipher the menu. Everybody recognizes shrimp cocktail, crab cake or meat loaf. Simon's schtick is to tweak these classic dishes until they're popping with flavor.
You can't go wrong by starting with his crispy wild "little" Gulf shrimp. They're small as popcorn, fried and packed into a square cedar sake cup escorted by a yuzu-drenched ponzu sauce for dipping. The little puffs of shrimp are great with beer or a Riesling or a Sauvignon Blanc from the smart little wine list.
Shrimp cocktail eliminates the traditional footed bowl in a jacket of ice for a deconstructed version: four or five meaty coral and white shrimp laid out on a plate with a dish of punchy, horseradish-laced cocktail sauce. What's not to like? His crab cake, dubbed "colossal," is hardly that. I swear it's shrunk since the opening days, but it is nicely seasoned and presented with a bright-tasting green papaya Asian slaw.
The young fashionistas in pointy-toed boots and three-figure haircuts go for raw salad, or the chef's "grilled" gazpacho. Basically, it's roasted vegetables to drink. The grainy texture is very intense and concentrated with a kick of heat at the end. While I much prefer a traditional gazpacho, this is an interesting variation for the crowd that has tried everything. Those who crave a smidgen of protein should zero in the beef tartare and seared carpaccio duo. The tartare is hand cut in cubes, and the dressing is understated enough that you can taste the beef. The carpaccio is lightly scribbled with horseradish cream.
These tall, skinny model types arrive laden with shopping bags (and I'm not talking groceries). Fortunately, there's plenty of room for girls and bags in the gently curved booths tucked into a thicket of dark wood screens with cut-outs that cast leafy shadows on the walls for a Norwegian-forest coffee-shop look. It's a welcome break from the usual dispiriting or pretentious hotel restaurant. For the long slog from the foyer past the Stone Rose Lounge to the maitre d' station, you'll need to break out your flirtiest Marni dress or Dolce & Gabbana duds.
If you want to still fit into that size 0 dress after dinner, may I suggest ordering the burger that won Simon the Iron Chef contest on the Food Network show. It's a 4-ounce wonder that could be an appetizer or a main course, depending on how hungry you are, and is offered as a frequent special. The miniature patty is laced with bacon, topped with a thin slice of cheddar (the perfect amount), pickles and the usual fixings and slid between two golden slices of brioche toast. It's all in the proportions.
It comes with thick-cut fries heaped into a square wooden sake cup (if you're not a fan of truffle oil, ask the kitchen to leave it off) and is served with a small and sophisticated vanilla-bean milkshake.
Getting settled in Simon L.A. got off to a rough start. My first couple of meals were spotty on execution and wavering in focus. Some things were dull, others aggressively flavored. More to the point, few dishes seemed as delicious as I remember from the Vegas original, despite the chef's occasional boyish presence. But that turned out to just be opening jitters.
Slowly, surely, the food has gotten better. I don't know that I'd go out of my way to eat here, except to get that petite burger or those seductive little shrimp, but the food now is very decent, and the place is hopping. Maybe too hopping on weekend nights when the bar cranks up the music and you can hardly hear yourself think.
It couldn't be American without some steaks, and here the best is the cowboy rib-eye — 20 ounces of prime bone-in Midwest beef served with a heap of cipollini onions. But at Simon L.A., I've found it's best to order your meat less done than you'd really like it, i.e., rare instead of medium-rare.
The rib-eye will set you back $48 and for that price, you still have to order sides separately. I'd go for the wasabi mashed potatoes dosed with a dollop of the potent Japanese root. Or, go for the surf and turf, which is a very respectable filet mignon paired with a small butter-poached Maine lobster that is moist and flavorful.
For something more exciting, look to Simon's global-inspired main courses, such as the tandoori wild Pacific salmon. The fish is thick, cooked rare at the center and served with a black bean salad. But my favorite would be the Thai red chicken curry, which comes in a square white porcelain bowl with jasmine rice. The curry features chunks of chicken in a sauce that tastes of freshly ground spices, lemon grass and coconut milk. A skewer of chicken and some crisp, fiery papaduam garnish the plate. I'd be happy to come in and have this for supper anytime.
I can't say the same for house-made gnudi, which are ricotta balls, big as walnuts, with sautéed squash blossoms in far too much brown butter. And Simon's much-vaunted beef and veal meatloaf left me cold — too finely textured and, well, bland.
Desserts get back on a solid footing with a classic crème brûlée big enough to share and boasting a lusciously silky texture. It's worth succumbing. When one of my guests saw a peanut butter sundae listed, she nudged me. Peanut butter is in vogue with pastry chefs right now, but few of the desserts made with it that I've tried have panned out. This one is worth the calories, a big glass filled with peanut butter ice cream and softly whipped cream, with a dark chocolate sauce and some roasted candied peanuts on top. Good food is no longer enough to make a restaurant — especially a hotel restaurant — successful. L.A. wants it all — the food, the scene, a casual, but lively setting. Simon L.A. is getting close with a menu that appeals to the inner kid and a smart-looking haute coffee-shop setting. The execution of dishes could be more even, and for anybody other than a twentysomething who's not particularly interested in talking to his or her dining companions, the noise level is going to be an issue. The best strategy may be to go early, before Stone Rose is in full swing. Fuel up on some of Simon's semi-serious comfort food and then head for the movies.
Location: Sofitel Los Angeles, 8555 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; (310) 358-3979.
Ambience: Casual hotel dining from Las Vegas chef Kerry Simon. With its open kitchen and curved booths, the look is high-end coffee shop with a menu of mix-and-match American comfort food. The noise level amps up when the hotel bar, Stone Rose Lounge, is hopping.
Service: Crisp and professional and not at all condescending for such a trendy spot.
Price: Dinner appetizers and salads, $10 to $38; wood roasted pizzas, $14 to $17; entrées and pastas, $18 to $32; prime meats, $38 to $48; desserts, $8.
Best dishes: Shrimp cocktail, beef tartare and seared carpaccio, crispy wild "little" Gulf shrimp, Iron Chef burger, Thai red chicken curry, bamboo steamed fish, surf and turf, peanut butter sundae, crème brûlée.
Wine list: A bottle for every taste and pocket book. Corkage, first bottle free; $25 thereafter.
Best table: A corner booth in the back.
Special features: Outdoor patio.
Details: Open daily for breakfast from 6:30 to 11:30 a.m., for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner from 6 to 11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.