THE idea that an outpost of Bond Street, Jonathan Morr's fashionable lower Manhattan sushi bar, was slated to go into the new Thompson Beverly Hills hotel, seemed redundant, to say the least. Maybe a decade ago when the original Bond Street opened, sushi may have seemed less an everyday thing in New York. But why import a sushi restaurant that few Angelenos know? And one that's not tops in its class?
We already have a thriving sushi restaurant culture, thank you very much, and, in fact, two of the country's best known sushi chefs, Masa Takayama of Masa's and Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu, cemented their careers right here in Beverly Hills. Bond Street chef Hiroshi Nakahara, who moved to L.A. for this venture, developed his style at the original Bond Street in New York. (There is also one in Miami Beach.)
Angelenos know and revere good sushi. And it's not as if there is a shortage of chic sushi restaurants such as Koi or Katsuya where the scene trumps the food. So any upstart from the other coast has got to be gorgeous and very, very good to make an impact in this city. And it better have its act together right off the bat, because the trendoids that Bond Street presumably seeks to attract are notoriously fickle.
In transforming a former ugly duckling of a Best Western hotel into the sleek Thompson Beverly Hills, designer Dodd Mitchell has achieved the right sultry look. You'll feel like James Bond, or at the least Austin Powers, threading your car (make it a sexy one) through the narrow gap between the hotel and the Ferrari dealership next door to the valet stand beneath glittery ring-shaped chandeliers. Out front, a long black leather sofa holds a trio of sophisticated-looking women in black sucking on cigarettes and punching numbers into cellphones: Hello? Bonjour? Moshi moshi?
The lobby is on the very cozy side (as in smallish) but outfitted with contemporary sofas and low tables for drinks. At the far end of the room is a modest bar built into a corner. In front of a blazing gas fireplace, a stunning communal table made from a slice of what looks to have been a giant old-growth tree, is set for dinner.
After checking in with hostesses who diligently scour their reservation book for your name, you'll be led to a long, skinny dining room with a sushi counter at the end.
Only nobody is sitting there. At this new Bond Street, the seats at the sushi bar are not the coveted ones. Why sit in the glare of the kitchen with your back to the room where nobody can see you? Especially not if you can snag one of the booths that line the long outside wall. But bring a posse: They're generous enough to seat five or six with a couple of chairs pulled up in front. And if you're just four, you're not getting one.
On my last visit, the doors behind the fireplace were opened up, and I discovered there's an indoor patio back there. This is appealing primarily because it's somewhat quieter than the main dining room. Here, I could talk.
If you could look in the window from the street, the scene inside would mimic the one in the recent film "Into the Wild, " in which Emile Hirsch's character passes by a trendy restaurant and looks in to see all the young guys suited up and coiffed, swirling Cabernet and flirting with women. He imagines himself there for just a minute. Nah.
Where's the wine?
GETTING that glass of wine can be challenging, though. One night a friend orders up a Manhattan and the rest of us order wine. His cocktail comes right away, but our wine is missing in action. The waiter comes back many minutes later, explaining that the manager had to open up the wine cellar.
We could have eaten dinner by the time the wine arrives. And we had ordered the special bluefin toro tataki roll ($28) at the same time, but that's still nowhere in sight. We add a few more dishes to our order, and these come out first. The kitchen is backed up on the rolls, our waiter tells us, meaning more people are ordering sushi than anything else.
Tables are close enough together that you can get pointers from another table on what to order without having to ask. Just observe. That might get you tempted by the seaweed salad or one of the sushi rolls (pretty but dull).
After several evenings at Bond Street, I have a radical suggestion to make: Stay away from the raw fish and stick with salads, vegetables and main-course seafood and meat dishes. Your meal won't be inexpensive, but you won't come away as outraged.
This is a restaurant where sashimi comes two slices per order and where truffle butter, foie gras, pork belly, tarragon oil and other tricks of the new sushi chefs' trade embroider many dishes. Scallop carpaccio, for example, arrives looking very like an albino apple tart on an icy granita. "It's calamansi citrus granita," the server whispers as he sets the plate in front of us. This sounds as if it could be very delicious. Until I take a bite and find the raw scallop slice is funky and the granita is achingly sweet. I want to scrub off my tongue.
I'd previously ordered the marinated tuna -- two cubes of raw tuna coated with Maytag blue cheese. I thought it was possibly one of the worst sushi experiments I'd ever tasted but wanted to see what my dining companions thought, so I order it without cluing anybody in. One friend pops a piece in his mouth and then spits it out in his napkin -- What? Blue cheese with raw fish? -- making a face.
But that's not the only such innovation. There's goat cheese crab cakes, a gooey mix of cheese with shredded crabmeat rolled in crushed rice crackers. This is equally awful, and without the lift of pristinely fresh crab.
But if you stay away from seafood, you can find other appetizers that are better. That would be the seaweed salad made of a mix of five or six different seaweeds that vary the texture and taste of each bite. Or the artichoke and Fuji apple salad with a collection of baby greens, julienned apple and sliced raw artichokes and a piece of fried prosciutto leaning against the side.
Delicate, but bland, steamed chicken dumplings are wrapped in a thin sheet of yuba, or soy-milk skin. Wagyu tataki (virtually raw Kobe-style beef, slightly seared at the edges) wears truffle butter well.
When our special toro tataki roll finally comes, it's all right but smaller than a usual roll, maybe six or seven pieces, and expensive at $28. The one I like actually is chef Nakahara's signature arugula crispy potato roll with lots of fresh arugula inside, a spunky carrot ginger dressing, and shoestring potatoes scattered over the top.
TEMPURA is heavy and slightly greasy. And a wee portion of smoked grilled quail is marred by a weirdly sweet sauce and is garnished with a tall tuille made from bad Parmigiano. I kind of like the spring roll filled with pulled Kurobuta pork, but the amuse-size portion -- barely two bites -- is $9.
Bond Street's sushi rolls are ordinary at best. And nigiri-zushi is expensive and not that impressive. The fish could be fresher, for one thing. When you're paying $12 for two very small pieces of big eye tuna, or sweet shrimp sushi, it should be stunning, not just barely adequate.
The best strategy might be to head straight for the entrees. New York strip steak is cooked just as ordered -- charred medium rare -- sliced and served in a caramelized teriyaki sauce heightened with some aged balsamico. Sake-steamed cod carries the sweet, grainy taste of sake paired with a black bean broth, which does go nicely with the firm white fish.
I wouldn't ordinarily order Chilean sea bass, but this time I do and, marinated in miso before it's grilled, it's flaky and moist, one of the better dishes on Bond Street's menu. Grilled chicken is organic and boring, but well-executed. The surprise is how delicious the yaki yasai -- grilled scallions, burdock and other vegetables in a sake soy broth -- tastes.
Then head straight to dessert, of which you can order a Valrhona chocolate fondue to share, dipping strawberries into the dark chocolate as you peer into the gloom to see if anybody paparazzi-worthy is in the house. (They're probably in the upstairs lounge, if anything.) Or take a few bites of the fragrant litchi panna cotta or the silky sake crème brûlée and call it a night.
Bond Street Rating: No star Location: 9360 Wilshire Blvd. (at Crescent Drive), Beverly Hills, (310) 601-2255. Ambience: Sleek sushi restaurant, sister to New York's Bond Street, tucked in the new Thompson hotel (sister to New York's 60 Thompson) in Beverly Hills. The vibe is trendy, the crowd heavy on AMWs (actress-model-whatever) and 90212 residents checking out the place. Service: Frosty and disorganized. Price: Dinner appetizers, $6 to $28; tempura, $9 to $16; main courses, $24 to $34; sushi rolls, $8 to $14; sushi and sashimi, $8 to $28; sushi-sashimi omakase (chef's choice) begins at $40 per person; omakase begins at $80 per person. Best dishes: Seaweed salad, artichoke and apple salad, arugula crispy potato roll, sake steamed cod, yaki yasai, New York strip steak, litchi panna cotta, sake crème brûlée. Wine list: Better selection of sake than wine. No corkage fee for the first few months. Best table: One of the booths. Details: Open for breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m. daily, for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. daily, and for dinner from 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $7, with validation. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.