Would you like anchovies? What about capers? How spicy do you like your steak tartare? The waiter at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge who asks for my guest's preferences is as solicitous as my grandmother's doctor asking after her health. The various ingredients are mixed tableside into the raw beef, with professional panache. Good, maybe not quite as spicy as intended, the tartare, served with the warm, toasted brioche seems like a swell way to start off an evening at the legendary Polo Lounge.
Owned for almost 20 years by the sultan of Brunei, the hotel was built in 1912, when Beverly Hills was more countryside than iconic ZIP Code. But the Fountain coffee shop downstairs and the swank, clubby Polo Lounge became neighborhood hangouts for the movie stars during Hollywood's golden years.
These days you won't find the likes of Humphrey Bogart knocking back drinks in the bar or Marlene Dietrich lunching on the Polo Lounge patio beneath the famous Brazilian pepper tree. But there's certainly much more energy and verve than the last time I checked in. There's also a relatively new chef, Robert Allen, who came from the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. He's tweaked the menu and given it a more contemporary take without jettisoning some of the Polo Lounge's vaunted favorites such as tortilla soup and McCarthy salad.
At 8 on a weekend night, a platoon of valets in pink polo shirts stands at attention outside the hotel entrance, smartly opening car doors and wishing arrivals a pleasant evening. When we check in with the Polo Lounge hostess, she has no record of our reservation. Not to worry, I'm thinking. There's a sea of empty tables in the bar and in the dining room beyond. When she tells us she can't give us a table on the patio because they're all reserved, I'm tempted to raise a skeptical eyebrow.
"But we do have a table just inside, on the edge of the patio," she volunteers. Fine. The doors are open and they indeed look onto the ancient pepper tree strung with lights. Around it, tables are fit into secluded nooks; at the far end, tall mushroom-shaped concrete structures spill over with fuchsia bougainvillea. This is idyllic Southern California on a summer night.
Behind us are a handful of smaller semicircular booths upholstered in green, with vintage photos of dashing polo players hung on the wall above. Now, for the first time, I get the name.
No live polo players in evidence, though. At least not tonight. Nevertheless, my guests and I feel cosseted at our extravagantly draped table. Soon, sure enough, a pianist sits down at the grand and launches a cascade of notes, belting out "As Time Goes By" and "The Way You Look Tonight," along with, incongruously, Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line."
Servers circulate through the room in crisp white jackets. They're not the types to volunteer their names or answer every query with a patently insincere "absolutely!" These are pros.
The menu proposes Polo Lounge classics, along with an astute selection of contemporary California-French fare.
Hudson Valley foie gras and smoked duck breast terrine is luscious and thick, a beautiful example of the art of charcuterie. How could we resist the night's special soup, English pea with black truffles? It's a gorgeous green purée highlighted with truffles that have a great affinity for the peas and, for once, also have some flavor.
Pistou soup is delicious too, a dice of Provençal vegetables topped with a single ravioli in the bottom of the bowl. The waiter pours the soup around the orphaned veggies, and voilà, a delightful soupe au pistou.
Is it possible the iconic Polo Lounge is back in top form? Given the restaurant's status as a tourist magnet and L.A. landmark, the first courses are impressive. But then come the main courses — and another impression.
We're taking it slow, drawing out the evening, catching up with old friends. Sometime well past 9, I look up to see a crowd of customers at the door, impatiently bouncing on their heels, waving at people inside, waiting for the hostess to check them in.
The silver-blond L.A. public access TV host Skip E. Lowe, one of the inspirations for Martin Short's Jiminy Glick character, bounds from patio to bar and back again. Now he's encouraging the pianist to croon into his cellphone, offering a taste of the scene to whoever's on the other end.
As our main courses arrive, a motley crew parades through — cowboys, honeymooners, bon vivants, hotel guests, party animals. It's all very entertaining — and we're soon looking for some distraction, because the mains are mostly disappointing.
Lamb osso buco is the best of the lot, fork tender and served with a medley of Provençal vegetables and beans. I just wish the kitchen hadn't varnished the top with a heavy reduction, making it look more like a meatloaf than osso buco. Veal chops the size of lamb chops have an unappealing jelly-like texture and are coated in what seems to be cheese. No one wants to venture a second bite.
Halibut T-bone is not as fresh as it should be, and the morels that are its main appeal don't have much flavor.
A garden partyMidday at the Polo Lounge is quite a different scene, with more industry people doing lunch. This time when I call to make the reservation, I request a table in the garden. "I can't guarantee it," the reservationist purrs, and I fully expect we'll be bumped by a hotel guest or a semifamous face. But there it is, a table in the middle of the patio under white umbrellas that overlap enough to form a continuous canopy.
The light is beautiful: dappled on waiters' white jackets, on the shoulders of women in strapless dresses, on the hats worn by ladies of a certain age.
The pepper tree is looking its festive best. In fact, the tree is older than the hotel, which means it's over 100, and ailing. An arborist is overseeing its care. Meanwhile, its sparse leaves are supplemented by realistic-looking fronds from a film industry special-effects company. At lunch, tables on the patio wear vintage-looking flowered tablecloths. Behind us, two men with official-looking portfolios discuss $10-million investments with a model type. On the other side, a foursome of film executives talks business, while an actress at another table regales her grandmother with tales of her latest shoot.
I decide to check out two of the old favorites, the tortilla soup and the McCarthy salad. Love the soup, which is more Southwestern in character than traditionally Mexican. The broth is laced with chili powder, enough to turn it a deep russet. Tuck your napkin in well, because if you splash something on your clothes, the stain is never coming out. Each spoonful brings up chunks of chicken and avocado and strands of crisp yellow, red or blue tortillas.
I'd be happy with this and a green salad. But I'm getting the McCarthy, which is very like a chopped Cobb salad with the addition of beets, only instead of blue cheese, this version has low-fat cheddar. It's chopped so finely, though, I feel like I'm eating vegetable confetti, and I quickly tire of the uniform taste.
A better alternative is the lovely "mosaic of tiny beets" made with deep ruby, yellow and pale pink beets, and Laura Chenel goat cheese on top of micro-basil. It's a reminder, again, that the chef is buying first-rate ingredients.
The salad of baby purple artichokes and young wild arugula is first rate too. The single Dungeness crab cake, though, tastes more like a fish cake.
The Beverly Hills sirloin burger is perfectly presentable. It arrives, however, well done instead of medium rare, and even when the second, correctly cooked patty comes back, it's hardly delicious enough to justify that $23 price tag. Maybe the way to justify the burger's hefty price tag is to think of it as admission to the club for the afternoon.
The fries, however, are terrific — skinny and hand cut with the skins on. Chilled poached salmon with pickled pearl onions and a watercress purée would have been a worthy candidate if the salmon hadn't been slightly overcooked. Lobster and white corn ravioli, though, is terrible, the pasta doughy, the filling nondescript and the combination wearing rather too much of a pasty truffle-Parmesan cream.
But somehow the shortcomings don't matter much. The waiter is so congenial, the afternoon so glorious. We're having such a fine, relaxed time, we vow to go out to lunch more often. For dessert, there's an individual tart of chilled orange segments topped with an oval scoop of Cointreau ice cream. I love the feel of the juicy, cool citrus segments against the silky ice cream. I just wish the crust weren't so tough.
For something lighter, there's a selection of house-made sorbets or ice creams, three scoops of anything you like, including coconut, mango and an extremely tart passion fruit sorbet.
At night, the Polo Lounge serves up a good chocolate soufflé, which is always a festive way to polish off the evening in high retro style to the pianist's energetic old standards. There's still life in those tunes, just as there's still life — and fun — at the Polo Lounge after all these years.
The Polo Lounge
Location: The Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 276-2251; thebeverlyhillshotel.com.
Ambience: Famed retro restaurant and bar complete with a lovely patio anchored by an ancient pepper tree.
Service: Professional and engaging.
Price: Dinner: appetizers, $17 to $30; soups and salads, $11 to $23; entrées, $21 to $39; desserts, $10 to $15; chef's five-course tasting menu, $85 per person, $125 with wine pairings. Lunch: appetizers, $19 to $30; soups and salads, $10 to $22; entrées, $18 to $34. Three-course Sunday brunch, $45 for adults, $23 for children 10 and under.
Best dishes: Steak tartare, foie gras and smoked duck breast terrine, English pea soup with black truffles, pistou soup, mosaic of red beets, baby artichoke and arugula salad, tortilla soup, chocolate soufflé.
Wine list: Not terribly exciting and with high markups. Corkage fee $50 if the bottle you bring is not on their wine list; if it is, you pay the same price it would cost to buy the bottle to drink your own wine.
Best table: A secluded alcove table in the garden or one of the booths just inside the garden doors.
Details: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily from 7 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
Outstanding.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
No star: Poor to satisfactory.