The restaurant at the fabled Chateau Marmont, the towering emblem of Old Hollywood that has sat perched above Sunset since 1929, has had its ups and downs through the years. It was up -- way up -- when Mohammad Islam was the chef. Now he's gone (back to Chicago), and Carolynn Spence, former chef de cuisine of the New York gastropub the Spotted Pig, is responsible for Chateau Marmont's kitchen as well as Bar Marmont's down the hill. She began the revamp at Bar Marmont, and since I enjoyed her food there so much, I wanted to see what was up with the new menu at the Chateau.
She's made the food accessible and more homey, which is appropriate since so many of the Chateau's guests use the place as a home away from home. But not all of it is as polished as it could be, so the results, at this point, are mixed. And it feels as if perhaps she's taken the title executive chef rather too literally and is spending more time in the office than the kitchen.
The hotel's demure little dining room -- more like a breakfast room, with only a handful of tables -- is rarely occupied. A few people might be sequestered with friends at a table set with linens and glassware in the grand lobby. With its fringed red velvet curtains, antique lamps and deep armchairs, it has all the faded glamour of an old hotel on the French Riviera.
Where is everybody, you might wonder. Indulging in room service? Dining on their private terraces? Mais, non. They're all outside in the romantic courtyard garden, where pretty woven faux-wicker cafe tables and chairs are set out under the shelter of a plump palm tree. More tables are lined up on the perimeter, interspersed with heat lamps and rectangular white umbrellas. And those tables are mostly populated with what used to be known as the beautiful people and yes, the talented and/or interesting-looking from the fashion, music and film worlds who may have booked for a few nights or for an extended stay at the hotel. New York novelist A.M. Homes famously wrote an entire book about L.A. while sequestered at the Marmont.
Following the hostess into the garden for dinner the other night, we pass a long table for 30 set up under the arches that run parallel with the lobby's gothic arched windows. No one is seated yet, but the candles are already lit, throwing spangles of gold against the wine glasses. And when the guests finally troop in, they form an eccentric cast of characters dressed up in cocktail attire and pearls. I'm curious. Is it a birthday? A film wrap? Who knows? But what an arresting visual image.
Meanwhile, we're ensconced at a table next to a hedge sprouting bronze tiki torches, a wall of flowering vines with lanterns peeking out between the foliage. The moon is full and riding high above, and here in the shelter of the Chateau's tall walls is a private and privileged world where junior managers in skinny suits run from table to table, soothing egos, taking special requests, enabling.
The first disappointment is the wine list, which is not only quite limited, basically a single page, but also has the usual hotel world's high markups. Not a single bottle under $50 is to be found, no matter how hard you scour the list. However, the 2005 Robert Sinskey Cabernet Franc, which sells at the winery for $40, is $75 here, which seems a reasonable deal.
And if you think you'll drink better by toting a bottle from home and paying a corkage fee, Chateau Marmont, it turns out, is one of the few restaurants in Los Angeles that does not permit outside wine. Fair enough if the wine list is stupendous, but this one isn't close.
The menu doesn't read as particularly original either. It's fairly standard rustic Mediterranean fare without much passion in the choices. But if you feel like having crispy calamari yet again, the kitchen does a good job of frying up the squid in a light batter. The tentacles are particularly crispy, though the roasted tomato concassé dipping sauce could be more inspired. The crispy shrimp and artichokes, basically deep-fried quartered baby artichokes with a few shrimp, make a delicious nibble with drinks or a cocktail.
Beet salad is a stalwart on practically every menu in town. Here, Spence showcases fat slices of gold beets garnished with a dollop of too-polite horseradish crème fraîche. Add a sprinkling of salt and the salad is perfectly respectable, though not terribly exciting. There's also a pretty salad of ribbons of cucumber with radishes, sliced celery and celery leaves showered with chives that's light and refreshing, perfect for anyone more intent on smoking and flirting than eating. A tasteless and watery beef carpaccio isn't convincing enough to rise above the cliché. But, hey, if you want to eat light, this will do.
Sometimes it feels as if Spence wrote the menu on autopilot, it has so little personality. It makes me wonder whether she has misread her audience, lumping everyone in with the inevitable few who don't really pay much attention to food and just want something familiar and unchallenging.
And yet this isn't the kind of venuewhere guests are necessarily riveted on who's just walked in or who's sitting at the next table: It's actually so dim, you wouldn't be able to pick out a famous face across the garden unless you were wearing night-vision goggles. It's a very inward scene, old-fashioned in a way, where people are relaxing over dinner with friends, engaged in conversation, and enjoying some respite from the fast-moving world outside the walls.
Occasionally, a party that just doesn't get it will slip in, like the table of loud-mouthed oafs next to us one night, who spent the evening carrying on about politics and the economy, shouting over one another as if they were trying out for a seat on MSNBC's "Hardball."
At least they distracted me from the ravioli with thick, not-quite-cooked dough filled with a gush of ricotta and flanked by near-raw broccoli rabe. If you feel like pasta, the spaghetti Bolognese is a better choice, though only average -- a rubble of ground meat in tomato sauce. Orecchiette with fennel sausage may be the best pasta dish here (when the "little ears" aren't overcooked), but you can have it only on Thursday nights, when it's the daily special.
The promise of buttermilk fried chicken as the daily special drew me back to Chateau Marmont's garden. I expected it to be quiet on a Sunday night, but the garden was completely full. I don't know for sure whether the fried chicken has that kind of following, but it's possible. You get a very generous portion of nicely fried chicken with seared kale and mashed potatoes.
Unfortunately, that's about as good as it gets. From the regular menu, I can recommend the king salmon with an assertive saffron aioli -- this is the kind of lovely warm-weather dish that works beautifully. Also, the comforting and basic thyme-roasted chicken with celery root-parsnip purée.
But stay away from the lamb osso buco, which tends to be dried out and scary -- like something pulled out of a caveman's fire. Filet mignon arrives one night almost gray at the center instead of rosy and with a mushy texture.
Desserts, with a couple of exceptions, are better. Spence offers the same endearing salted pistachio crumble she serves at Bar Marmont, basically a warm, crumbly cake topped with pistachio gelato.
Another plus is a silly, delicious banana split with squiggles of butterscotch sauce cavorting up and down the balls of ice cream and over the banana. Homemade ice creams -- espresso chocolate chip or chocolate -- are silky and satisfying.
Servers are pleasant enough, but I felt more than a little annoyed when not one of them mentioned that 15% service is automatically added to the check. I could have easily missed the charge and added an additional 15% or 20% on top. I'm sure many people do make the mistake. Who reads the tiny letters at the bottom of the menu stating the policy? The light isn't good enough. Of course, it is common for restaurants to automatically add on a tip for parties of six or more, but I've rarely encountered it applied routinely to every table without it ever being mentioned.
Never mind. Despite the missteps, eating out in the garden courtyard is so relaxing it feels more like you've just had dinner at someone's house who is a very inconsistent cook but so lovable that it doesn't really matter.
What's frustrating here is that it wouldn't take much to snap the kitchen to attention. First on my list would be a more compelling menu and more attention from Spence, who we all know can turn out delicious, lusty food. But phoning it in from Bar Marmont just isn't enough.
LOCATION: 8221 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 656-1010, www.chateaumarmont.com.
AMBIENCE: 1920s landmark hotel with romantic courtyard garden dining, a minuscule dining room, and a glam fashion and film crowd. The rustic Mediterranean menu is from Carolynn Spence, who also does the food at Bar Marmont down the hill.
SERVICE: Excruciatingly slow at breakfast, more attentive at night.
PRICE: Dinner appetizers, $12 to $16; salads, $11 to $13; main courses, $20 to $36; desserts, $12.
BEST DISHES: Crispy calamari, crispy shrimp and artichokes, radish and cucumber salad, golden beet salad with horseradish crème fraîche, king salmon with saffron aioli, buttermilk fried chicken, banana split, ice creams.
WINE LIST: Limited -- and overpriced. No outside wine allowed.
BEST TABLE: One in the garden.
DETAILS: Open for breakfast from 8 to 11 a.m., lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking, $12 (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.