An Industrial-Strength Spago : At Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant Eureka, the beer, sausages and heavy metal gleam brightly
The first thing you have to know about Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant is not the hours it’s open or the fact that you have to make a reservation. It’s that the reservation phone line itself has hours (9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 3 to 8 p.m. weekends). Reserving at Eureka is a little like making a plane reservation.
That’s the way it has to be. Even though this is Puck’s largest restaurant yet--and though you’re likely to be given a choice of either 6 or 10 p.m. seating a week from Thursday--you can bet you’ll find the place full (well, by 6:30, at least). Everybody comes to Eureka. Celebrities come, ordinary people come and also an indefinable middle ground between the two: women who look like models and men who seem edging toward formal dress without making a final commitment (shirts buttoned to the top but no neckties).
The next thing you have to know--though if you don’t know by now you’re one of the few on the planet--is that Eureka is a brewery as well as a restaurant. Evidently the beer is the only stable element. Eureka doesn’t claim to have a daily changing menu, but chef Jody Denton, who is in charge of the kitchen, and pastry chef Melinda Bugarin in fact make tiny changes in the menu all the time, amounting, over a couple of weeks, to a landslide of changes.
So you can’t count on ordering the same dish twice. And there are a lot of out-of-date menus floating around at Eureka, so it’s common to order dinner and find that half the dishes are more or less changed or just plain gone. You have to insist on an up-to-date menu straight off.
Despite all this, you can see why people come. Eureka is an impressive and at the same time reassuring place, loaded with solid references to heavy industry. (With all those metal surfaces, sometimes it’s as loud as a factory too.) There are gears embedded in the floor, etched on the glass brick dividers, scattered over the tiles at the back of the display kitchen; hundreds of big brass bolts hold the place together as if it were a steam engine. The roof of the building looks like part of a beer barrel.
Surprisingly, the brew that is the heart of this impressive operation is not a bitterish ale, the usual specialty at brewpubs, but the familiar lager-style beer. Appropriately named Eureka, the beer is a good lager, one that follows the ancient Bavarian purity rule (no ingredients allowed but malt, hops, yeast and water) and which you can easily sample without even going to Eureka, because it’s sold at markets all around town.
At the restaurant you can usually choose your beer either filtered or unfiltered--there’s not much difference in flavor, but it feels good to have an honest, cloudy, unfiltered beer in your hand--and sometimes also a dark beer, sweeter and more bitter and altogether more what you expect at a brewpub.
Puck’s Spago was a sort of pizza place, and Chinois on Main was technically a Chinese restaurant. To go with the beer, and possibly the factory motif, Eureka makes a specialty of sausage. We’ve been rediscovering sausage around these parts; witness the success of Jodi Maroni, who has put Yucatan duck sausage on every other menu in town. No Maroni-wurst for Eureka, though. Puck has imported his own German sausage maker.
He is certainly very good. He makes a solid, meaty bratwurst that is served with horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes and red cabbage with apples. His weisswurst is really wonderful, rich and sweet and speckled with black pepper, surrounded by a strong meat reduction and sauteed sweet onions.
In California, though, you can’t get away making only traditional German sausages. The Cajun shrimp sausage is just what it sounds, a very fine-textured sausage with a good shrimp flavor, served with a bit of creme fraiche and an odd thing that turns out to be roast sweet pepper bread pudding. There have been others as well, such as an eye-opening Germanized version of a Mexican chorizo, flavored with the usual red chiles but made with high-quality, finely ground meat.
As for the rest of the menu, it’s the kind of inventive eclectic cuisine we expect of a Puck place: Italian, French, Far Eastern and what the hey, Mexican and North African and anything else. The distinctive thing here is that the sauces are brightly colored and dribbled on the plate like ceramic glazes, or like the painterly sauces John Sedlar uses at St. Estephe.
The appetizers are sure-fire. There is a quesadilla filled with chicken in a sharp red curry, ceramic patterns of goat cheese sauce drizzled all around. Spice smoked salmon with ginger brioche (hold on, they’ve just changed it to a sesame brioche) and scallion cream (now replaced by wasabi cream, so I understand) is doubtless still made with excellent salmon. The miyagi oysters are a knockout, wonderfully plump and sweet, though exactly why they are accompanied by (undeniably pleasant) raw chunks of ahi tuna and black Angus beef is a minor puzzle.
The most impressive of the appetizers, surprisingly, is the duck chili served in a toasted tortilla shell. This sounds all too cute, but it’s actually a powerful, meaty chili speckled with black beans and definitely spicy. By comparison, the barbecued ribs with green onion hot slaw has a rather tame sauce; perhaps it’s barbecue for wine drinkers rather than beer drinkers.
Puck means pizza to a lot of people, but pizzas are by no means the center of attention at Eureka. Sausage pizza, shrimp pizza, chanterelle mushroom pizza with bacon and leeks; all perfectly good, I’m sure, but I sense the chef’s eyes glazing over.
By contrast, the pasta dishes are some of the best things here. Above all, “Grandma Puck’s cheese ravioli”: not really ravioli but one big doughnut-shaped pasta filled with goat cheese, served with melted butter and chopped toasted hazelnuts. It’s rich enough to stop a horse, but undeniably wonderful. (But that’s only as I had it; others say they have gotten a loathsome ricotta-filled pasta in cream sauce under the same name. Mrs. Puck, call your grandson and straighten this out.)
The lobster and red chile potstickers work out to about $1.06 per mouthful, but they’re exquisite mouthfuls, filled with the best lobster I’ve ever found inside a pasta. At one time there was also a terrifically impressive item called fettuccine with mushroom ragout, loaded with wild mushrooms, garlic and grated Parmesan. (Oddly, the pasta was more like American egg noodles than fettuccine.)
By comparison with the sausages, appetizers and pastas, the entrees come off peculiarly awkward and strained. The best of them is the most German: smoked pork loin with slippery spinach spaetzle. There’s a good ribeye steak too, with thin onion rings and a flashy tomato catsup made from smoked tomatoes.
The smoked Chinese duck with ginger peanut sauce is moist and delicate, and the crisp seared salmon is some of the best salmon I’ve ever had: biscuit-sized chunks lightly breaded, deep-fried very quickly and served with hot and sour lobster sauce. Oddly, the vegetables that accompany these two dishes might be better if they were switched. Then the rich duck sauce would be cut by the sour, soy-marinated beans and the salmon could get the crisp Sichuan vegetable salad.
The most peculiar entree I’ve had was the cumin-roasted lamb, a good lamb chop crusted with spices sharing the plate with some decent, cuminy lamb sausage. Also on the plate, though, was perfectly awful couscous; cold, suety and mushy, like the worst health restaurant tabbouleh. That item seems to stick around on the menu, so possibly I was just there on a night when the kitchen was experimenting with the idea of cold, mushy couscous.
At dessert time, the menu comes home to America. The chocolate buttermilk cake is layers of fudge frosting between thin layers of chocolate cake, served with strong espresso-flavored ice cream and . . . chocolate syrup. The excellent lemon meringue pie is made with perfumey Meyer lemons. There’s a marvelous sour cream apple pie (an individual portion, like the meringue pie), with rich crust and a crunchy topping.
At other times there have been desserts at least as good as these. Fruit crackle: a sort of cobbler topped with a crunchy crust and some thin sheets of coconut. Fruit turnover: a triangle of fresh puff pastry stuffed with a sweet-sour raspberry concoction. Fresh butterscotch pudding. And I sort of wish the “festival doughnuts"--large doughnut balls, hollowed out and filled with mixed fruits--were still around.
Eureka is the house built on beer. As huge as the dining room is, with its sunken floor and the booths around the walls, the bar with the three huge brew kettles towering over it really has pride of place. There are probably more brass bolts per square inch in the bar than anywhere else.
And you can eat very well at the bar. It feels a little fast-foody, but since you don’t have to try to talk over a table, you can just lean over to your dinner mate and actually be heard over the roar. And all the best food is available at the bar: appetizers, sausages, pizzas, pastas, desserts--everything but the schizophrenic entrees.
The bar is the place to be. I like that. Despite everything, Eureka the brewery keeps Eureka the restaurant’s priorities straight.
1845 S. Bundy Drive, West Los Angeles. (213) 447-8000.
Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 6-11 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking in lot on Nebraska Street. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $47-$67.
Suggested dishes: Muscovy duck chile, $8.50; red curry chicken quesadilla, $7.50; Grandma Puck’s cheese ravioli, $8.50; fettuccine with mushroom ragout, $9.50; lobster and red chile pot stickers, $9.50; Cajun shrimp sausage, $9.50; smoked pork loin, $15.50; buttermilk chocolate cake, $4.50; sour cream apple pie, $4.50.