Puck really knows how to pick them. Locations, that is. Wolfgang Puck, who burst onto the scene in 1982 with a little place called Spago, has just opened a new restaurant downtown at L.A. Live. Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill sits center stage, right on the L.A. Live square next door to Nokia Theatre and directly across from the Los Angeles Convention Center. Not one to play it coy, he's emblazoned the name Wolfgang Puck across the front, with tall turquoise lacquer doors to mark the entrance.
Why Puck feels he needs another restaurant is beyond me. I guess he just can't resist. And while this restaurant doesn't break any new ground for his brand, it pulls together elements from his various restaurants into one coherent contemporary American vibe. Familiar food with some of that old Puck pizazz.
Designed by Toni Chi & Associates, this new place has an understated masculine style befitting a bar and grill -- dark wood tabletops, roomy armchairs, and for those of a social bent, a tall communal table to one side of the carved walnut bar. Barbara Lazaroff didn't design this one, one of my guests says with conviction. The clue? "There's none of that crazy broken tile," she notes.
Couples are cozied up on banquettes beneath a geometrically tiled wall with a metallic and mirrored finish. At the far end of the restaurant, giant sculpted player piano rolls are inscribed with the notes to the songs from Pink Floyd's seminal album "Dark Side of the Moon." Which songs, it's hard to tell.
The musical theme continues in the line of metal light fixtures that mimic intervals and notes. It's all very tasteful, except for what's going on outside in the square -- Las Vegas crossed with Universal CityWalk. Neon and more neon. Giant screens that scream "how far is fun?" (67 miles, it seems, to some Indian casino). That's followed by ads for Toyota Prius, beer, the next Nokia Theatre attraction, and on and on.
After a while, under the barrage of the pulsing lights, which burst right into the dining room if you're sitting in front of the windows, you begin to feel like you're in a pinball machine, which could be exciting, I guess. More fascinating is the crowd strolling around outside snapping photos. They're all types, all ages, some dressed up to party, some unbelievably casual. Some with kids -- or baby carriages, some without. Wheelchairs, skateboards, summer heels. Everybody in search of some life after dark -- at L.A. Live.
Puck has always had a good instinct for what people in general, not just self-styled foodies or gourmet types, hanker to eat. And his menu at this lively spot is no exception. User-friendly, it offers straight-ahead salads, pizzas and other starters along with a prime sirloin burger, steaks and chops -- and some excellent pasta dishes. The execution is competent, yet dishes can sometimes taste more corporate than passionate. Add in the crisp service and thrilling wine list, and this is the best choice going at the convention-theater complex.
Stepping it up
At least that was my take until, during a last visit, I spotted Puck's executive corporate chef and managing partner Lee Hefter heading for the kitchen. Checkup visit, I guess. But what a difference his presence made. Suddenly, everything was crisper, more in focus. The meal was hugely better than my previous ones, which means the kitchen under chef John Lechleidner can step it up given the inspiration.
Tuna tartare, admittedly, sounds like a snore, an item that's obligatory on almost every California menu. This version is terrific, though -- sashimi grade tuna, hand-cut and presented in the center of the plate with garnishes arranged on the rim. So you can add in a little pickled cucumber, ginger, wasabi, finely cut scallions, and more, to taste. It comes with marvelous crackers covered in black and white sesame seeds.
Red endive and Fuji apple salad has a fine balance, the julienned endive and apple piled tall and dotted with dates, Marcona almonds and a soft, rich Shropshire blue cheese. Butter lettuce gets the "Caesar" treatment, a spunky dressing and the embellishments of Humboldt Fog goat cheese, craggy croutons and vinegary white anchovies. Fried calamari are crunchy and deep gold, a huge heap served with fried capers and a grassy gremolata aioli laced with parsley.
Pizzas, of course
Pizzas were disappointing early on and while they are still not as compelling as those at Spago at lunch, now the crust is less bready than before and the toppings really work. Especially good is the pie covered with a luscious blanket of molten Taleggio strewn with wildly delicious mushrooms and slender asparagus.
Pastas are another big plus. I'm impressed by the hand-rolled garganelli (pasta squares rolled up on the diagonal over a wooden ribbed comb) with wild mushroom sauce and the neat little ravioli packets filled with quattro formaggi (four cheeses) and tossed in a sauce made from heirloom tomatoes. The spaghetti with clams (with a blast of hot red pepper and shower of fragrant dried oregano), even the spaghetti with meatballs would do any Italian mama proud.
Main courses are pretty straight-ahead. The kitchen does turn out a very respectable burger, which would be a fine choice at the bar. Mussels served in a gray lidded enamel pot release all their perfume the minute the lid is removed. With the accompanying excellent fries, there's practically enough to share if you're not ravenous. Kobe flat-iron steak gets a fresh update with sauteed mushrooms and some shishito peppers.
All this is well-executed, pretty standard fare. The one dish that might draw me into that awful parking structure again could be the grilled calves' liver, cut thick and rosy at the center, and served with some crispy pancetta and honey roasted spring onions in a sage-balsamic brown butter that works perfectly with the liver. Why isn't this on a menu anywhere else?
Among the missteps, a summer corn soup that's thick as porridge and cloyingly sugary. A Kurobuta pork chop arrives with no char or firmness, tasting as if it's been glazed in boiled-down apple cider. Not only is it not very good, it's a sure wine killer too, which is a shame because this restaurant has a top-notch wine list. Like the menu, there's something for everyone and at every price range too.
Come dessert, Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard weighs in with her fanciful sweets. Looking good, those doughnut pops -- which are essentially a big doughnut hole stuffed with yuzu cream, served on a stick with a halo of spun sugar around each "pop."
Summer nights, cool off with her 50/50 sundae, a Creamsicle in a glass. That would be a crystalline slush of orange granita layered with creamy mascarpone ice cream. Cool, very cool.
If you're going to a concert or a performance, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill is a great resource. You can saunter in and order a craft beer and that prime sirloin burger. Share a pizza, have an ice cream sundae, whatever, at the bar.
Or, you can sit down at a table for a meal of favorites and know that you're getting something for your money. That something would be good contemporary American cooking from the Puck team, warm and professional service, and the chance to drink well from a top-notch wine list.
In L.A., a short stroll across the square from the convention center, it's one more sign that downtown has arrived.