RESTAURANTS : The Trendiest Suppers of Them All : At Flaming Colossus and Stock Exchange, the Trick Is Gettin’ In
I don’t know about you, but my discovery of foodstuffs more refined than the onion rings at the Whiskey a Go-Go pretty much coincided with the desire never to eat in a club again.
Still, I’ve been reading lots about nightclub dining in New York, and friends of mine who make it their business to know these things tell me that hot New Wave supper clubs--M. K., Au Bar, Canal Bar, even Nell’s--have largely supplanted dance clubs at the top of the high-ticket night-life heap there: social-climbing flambe, on a wilted bed of radicchio.
With up-times frequently brief as a couple of weeks, Los Angeles supper clubs are notoriously hard to pin down.
Hollywood’s legendary underground Au Petit Cafe, despite its name, doesn’t serve food at all. Vertigo, just months ago a snooty disco for Princess Stephanie and her properly shod friends, is gone, possibly a victim of its obnoxious door policy, though it threatens to return mid-fall. Club Sandwich downtown managed to hire MaBe’s Claude Segal as head chef, then disappeared before anybody figured out just where it was. And Helena’s, once the best place in town for Madonna-watching, though not for pasta, has basically outlived its fashion.
So when I remembered that two high-toned supper clubs had survived more than a year intact, I decided to investigate.
Flaming Colossus, more or less a noisy clubhouse for black-clad fashion models and the sort of expatriate continentals who design sportswear or do a little cinematography on the side, is near MacArthur Park in the throbbing heart of Westlake’s Central American community, a shabby Knight’s of Columbus lodge made over with cardboard signs, skeins of Christmas lights and ingenuous, neo-primitive art on the walls. If your high-school gym had been decorated by a fifth-grader with a fetish for Congolese body painting, your senior prom might have looked like this.
The concept has something to do with packaging Third World culture for European consumption, all the latest zouk and soca beats lending an air of savage, vicarious abandon.
A half-dozen or so young black men, naked but for billowing pantaloons and banging on homemade African instruments, snake through the dining room toward the cleared floor area that serves as the stage. I feel a little embarrassed for them--in this moneyed, all-white context the act seems uncomfortably equivalent to a minstrel show--but Timothy Leary doesn’t mind at all. He stands up, flashes a scarecrow smile and thrusts out a fist in a black power salute. Right on!
The club’s logo includes a phonetic pronunciation of the capital of Burkina Fasso rendered as a nonsense war chant: “ wa ga do goo .”
Outside, the doorwoman glances down at someone’s shoes and winces. “I’m sorry, members only,” she says, and turns to the next party. The rejected one mutters to her friend, “How did she know I bought those Maud Frizons on sale?”
The parking valet knows too: Her Audi 5000 still idles by the curb where she had left it.
If she’d made a dinner reservation several days in advance and had it confirmed (good luck), she would have been led past the bare-chested bouncer, up a dim staircase and into the small-town steakhouse of a dining room or--probably--one of the rickety tables set up adjacent to the dance floor in the “ballroom.”
For diversion, there’s an oyster bar, a blackjack table and the dolorous sight of Emilio Estevez shooting pool. After a $6 Absolut Cape Cod, she would have had the privilege of paying $30 prix-fixe for sort of a Gallic equivalent of the prime rib dinner included in the cover charge when you go to see Jerry Lewis in Vegas. The French people here probably get homesick for the stuff.
And for the house wine policy, possibly borrowed whole from a Montparnasse tourist trap. Sancerre and a cheap white from the Pays d’Oc near Toulouse are labeled Burgundies; and Champagne--the beverage of choice here--is ridiculously overpriced. Twice I’ve ordered one wine and been brought an already opened bottle of something different without being asked. (The waiter cheerfully took ‘em off the tab.)
There is tough “Southern Pacific Railroad beef” that tastes like it’s been marinated in Hawaiian Punch, cold pasta that tastes like day-old lasagna someone picked all the cheese off of, drippy Caesar salad, overcooked swordfish, acrid yellow-tomato soup, gritty couscous served with tasteless chicken and perfectly ordinary desserts--as if the club owners are afraid that good food would attract the wrong sort of people.
There have been three different kitchen regimes in the last few months, and consistency seems to be a virtue here. There are a few exceptions, though: Scallops are sweet and fluffy in their smokey chile sauce, and the Indian lentil dish, daal , while not exactly authentic, is buttery and nearly as rich as the clientele. Still, I’d eat on the way to the club.
Where Flaming Colossus’ funky-fresh facade conceals a strictly defined social order, Stock Exchange, a CRA-financed nightclub in the former Spring Street headquarters of the Pacific Stock Exchange, is almost egalitarian beneath its patrician veneer, a haunt of neatly dressed college students and middle-management types, straight decorators and the kind of “tough” chicks who buy their black leather at the Beverly Center. The clingy dresses worn here are mostly party frocks, as opposed to the Spandex bondage-look popularized at other clubs.
On weekend nights, club-goers swarm six-deep around the roped-off entrance, but with the efficient team of doorpeople, few seem to wait more than about 10 minutes or so. (Waiting to be chosen, I gather, is part of the thrill here.)
If you have come to eat, somebody barks into a headset and a hostess appears to sweep you up the spectacular marble staircase, through a high-ceilinged Art Deco lobby and up to a dining mezzanine overlooking the former trading floor, now the dance floor.
The restaurant’s designer, probably anticipating a rush of couples with nothing to say to each other, installed tables the size of a Toyota--normal conversation is impossible over the roar of extremely conventional disco music, making this a good place to bring a blind date. Brush up on your semaphore.
Screens at one end of the vast room play continuous Eastern European-looking cartoons; giant orbs above the dance floor flicker with silent-movie images. A go-go dancer twirls from a harness high above the crowd and you’re not sure why you’re eating late supper in a club whose playlist tends toward Rick Astley and the Human League. But the oysters are fresh, the soft-shell crabs crisp and delicious, the garlicky Caesar salad among the best in town.
Chef Mark Tydell, once sous-chef at Trumps, stuffs elegant corn ravioli with a mixture that tastes like mashed hot-link sausages, sautees shrimp with an exuberance of garlic, grills salmon rare and sauces it with a perfect, tarragon-tinged buerre blanc .
His grilled New York steak is paired with tangerine and toasted garlic, and the unusual combination sparkles.
There’s an excellent reasonably priced wine list, with every boutique Chardonnay a fellow could want, and the prospect of such occasional Greek-inflected dishes as long-braised lamb shanks and a crumbly moussaka fragrant with herbs is worth braving even four Rick James songs in a row.
The weekend-night menu is expensive at $35 prix-fixe , including two courses and dessert, but prices are substantially lower before peak club times.
Flaming Colossus, 850 S. Bonnie Brae St., Los Angeles, (213) 285-3220. Dinner only, Fri.-Sat., $30 prix-fixe. Valet parking. Full bar. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Reservations essential. Recommended dish: scallop nest appetizer.
Stock Exchange, 618 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 627-4400. Dinner only, Wed.-Sat., $35 prix-fixe. Valet parking. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Reservations essential. Recommended dishes: Caesar salad; cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers; soft-shell crab; New York steak; moussaka.