It wasn't that long ago that I dreaded checking out the latest Hollywood restaurant-slash-lounge. Why? Because, if you managed to get past the inevitable velvet rope and be seated at a table, the food was usually so bad you left hungry — at 2 in the morning. Maybe club owners have finally figured out that you can't get away with that for very long, I don't know. But recent entries in the genre (Beso excepted) have really been playing up the food. And in some cases, it's not just PR hyperbole, but the real thing.
The new La Vida in the old Pinot Hollywood space is a case in point. Somehow the owners were smart enough to hire chef Joseph Panarello away from John Sedlar's Rivera and give him his own kitchen. The theme? Spanish with a California sensibility. Not to get too excited: Spanish here doesn't mean the exuberant cutting-edge cuisine of Catalonia or the Basque country, but more familiar Moorish-influenced dishes from the south of Spain.
The chef, though, gets big points all the same for trying something different. He's forging his own path rather than falling back on the same tired dishes proposed at trendier Hollywood spots where kids come to pick at their food, not actually eat. Here, the menu proposes dishes you'd actually want to taste.
A beautiful deconstructed salad of chilled cubed avocado, watermelon and cucumbers in a cilantro mint mojito dressing. Skinny, delicately spiced Sonoma lamb sausages come grilled and served with a tangy yogurt sauce on a mini-charcoal brazier. Moist black cod is topped with a loose, brilliant green salsa that leaves a lingering sear.
Sunset Entertainment Group, the folks behind Green Door and Pig 'n Whistle, have given the space a well-considered makeover. The immense courtyard patio in front has never looked so inviting. Now it is covered with an enormous clear-plastic tent roof with crenellated edges in a Moroccan motif.
The décor makes a reference to Tinseltown's Rudolf Valentino glory days with that Spanish-Moroccan theme. Giant potted palms. Beaded chandeliers and Moroccan glass lanterns that shimmer in the slight breeze. A ceramic fire pit spouts blue flames. With heat lamps, it's warm enough to dine outside, which is where everyone wants to be.
Panarello's menu is a breezy California riff on Spain with an occasional foray into other Latin cuisines. Ceviche is practically part of the California canon now, and his is a straightforward and juicy one made with sushi-grade tuna, dosed with plenty of citrus and garnished with purple Peruvian potato chips.
He livens up steamed mussels with a little curry and fire-breathing red chiles. You might want to keep it all to yourself. Definitely for sharing, though, is the crispy squid, pale and crystalline, not a bit greasy, to dip in a pink-coral aji amarillo chile aioli. I can't get enough of that stuff.
Seated at a long table, a tribe of urban nomads — older men, beautiful women and their extended broods — dine on appetizers in casual splendor. I can just picture the spread in Vogue magazine. Take away one of the men and replace him with Julian Schnabel and you get the idea.
That's one reason why everybody wants to eat outside. But half the time the best spots are reserved. And requesting that you'd like to eat outside when you make the reservation doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a table there.
Not to worry. Touster Wright Design has made it cozier than it ever was when it was part of Pinot Hollywood. The light is warm. The armchairs are comfortable, and with the French doors open, you're looking onto all the goings-on in the garden.
The clue that La Vida is more than just another lounge and restaurant is that most people are eating a lot more than just appetizers, whether or not they intended to when they sat down. Here, unlike most nightclubby restaurants, main courses are definitely not a snore.
Panarello starts off strong with his Champagne-braised branzino. OK, I admit most branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) tastes like limp tissue. But wherever the chef is getting his fish, it's very fresh and beautifully cooked, every bite a delight.
Kurobuta pork steak comes out about a half-inch thick, rubbed with achiote to a rust color, bursting with flavor and juiciness. And tandoori-spiced lamb chops are double-thick chops served with sweet, caramelized onions and a "Moroccan" glaze that piles on the spices. They're good.
I liked the paella too, even though the texture seems closer to risotto than the paella you'd get in Spain, which comes with that gorgeous crunch at the bottom. I recommend the one laced with clams, chorizo and cilantro.
Not everything works so well. Grilled octopus with potato is a bit dull. And a special of plump sweet diver scallops with vinegared rhubarb and white asparagus cream just misses the mark. The vanilla in the asparagus cream gives it a perceived sweetness that cloys.
Also, the wine list doesn't have many bottles for less than $50 that you'll care about drinking. Big spenders can find a half-dozen bubblies over $200. Among the white wines "in cork" as opposed to "in glass," I'd probably go with Chalone's ever-reliable Pinot Blanc for $43. Finding an interesting and affordable red is even harder. Look to the offerings from Spain, Argentina and Chile — and, of course, California Zins.
The hidden weapon at La Vida is pastry chef Jose Detres. He was most recently assistant pastry chef at Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood. These desserts are way above what you'd ever expect to find at the latest Hollywood hotspot. Subtle, well thought out and executed with skill, they include a silky coffee crème brûlée with a fragile burnt sugar crust and a fantastic chocolate mousse with caramel sauce and lavender ice cream decorated with a shard of sugar "glass" spiked with chile. Could mousse be making a comeback?
Anything is possible if this neglected spot at the corner of Sunset and Gower can be brought back to life as La Vida.
La Vida Restaurant & Lounge
Rating: Two stars
Location: 1448 N. Gower St. (at Sunset Boulevard), Hollywood; (323) 962-0800; http://www.lavidahollywood.com.
Price: Appetizers, $9 to $16; salads, $7 to $12; mini grills, $12 to $14; entrees, $19 to $30; sides, $5; desserts, $9 to $10. Corkage fee, $25.
Details: Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday,11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 to 10 p.m. and Thursday to Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Happy hour Tuesday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $3.50 for lunch, $5 for dinner.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.