On the Record, Off the Menu

TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Wolfgang Puck first caught the attention of Los Angeles diners as the chef at Ma Maison in the late '70s, where he cooked fish en croute and lobster salad for a rapt audience night after night. Fifteen years ago when he decided to open Spago, which he envisioned as Trattoria Spago with red-and-white checked tablecloths, the editor of Bon Appetit took Puck's partner and wife, Barbara Lazaroff, aside and told her she had to stop him--at least that's the way Puck tells it. He went ahead, thinking he could always go back to French cooking if it didn't work out.

Now he has restaurants in Las Vegas and Chicago, plus Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, Granita in Malibu and a fleet of Wolfgang Puck Cafes, and the new ObaChine in Beverly Hills with a fancier place yet to come at the site of the former Bistro Garden. The 47-year-old super-charged Austrian chef stopped for a few minutes to discuss the state of restaurants.

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Question: The restaurant scene in Los Angeles has been slow for the past few years. Do you sense that things are beginning to move in a different direction?

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Answer: It's a cycle. We have come to the end of downsizing and creating restaurants that are less expensive only. In Beverly Hills, there's an Italian place serving pizza and pasta on every corner. All with entrees under $15, probably. For that price, you cannot do really good cuisine. You can give simple, good chicken, yes, but if you want to get into interesting ingredients, that costs money.

Q: What do you see happening in terms of the rest of the city?

A: In comparison to Chicago and San Francisco, where people actually live and work downtown, Los Angeles is difficult because the downtown area has become isolated from the rest of the city.

Q: In fact, a good part of recent restaurant openings have been in either Pasadena and Beverly Hills, both places where you can walk.

A: It's nice to get out of the restaurant and actually take a walk. You feel like you're part of a city. I think L.A. has to become more of a place where people can actually interact in the city and not just in the restaurants.

Q: Looking at the bigger picture. . . .

A: From the perspective of 1996, basically a lot of interesting things came from L.A. in the '80s--and very little in the '90s. That really has to change. It's time for a few more upscale restaurants.

Q: In fact, America is the least expensive country in the entire world for fine dining.

A: For a major city, we have very few expensive restaurants which do well. In Chicago, you have to reserve a month ahead to get a table at Charlie Trotter's. In L.A. if you call the day ahead, except in the newest places, you can get a table for whatever time.

Q: Do you think people are beginning to loosen up a little about eating? Because they say bad is back. Red meat is back.

A: A lot of it is made up by the press. I think steakhouses were always very popular. The big American thing is to eat a steak. And mainly, the bigger the better.

Q: What about portions?

A: I think they should get down to human size, where people can actually eat what's on their plates. Instead of getting something good in a smaller portion, people prefer to have something big of no quality.

Q: Nouvelle cuisine, with its minuscule portions on over-sized plates, gave restaurant-goers a scare they haven't quite gotten over.

A: I know. When I was just about to open Spago in Chicago, Richard Melman [the Chicago restaurateur who owns some 27 restaurants] stopped me and said, "Listen, you can't serve the kind of portions you serve at Spago [in West Hollywood] here." I said, "What do you mean? I've never served really small portions. How much more can you eat?" But he made me nervous enough that I did make the portions a little bit bigger, maybe 10% bigger.

Q: Do you think people are drinking differently these days?

A: When I was at Ma Maison in the late '70s, everybody used to drink at lunch. If David Janssen was drinking martinis, his lawyer couldn't drink just water; Janssen would have walked out on him. Now when you look around the restaurant, nobody drinks wine or beer or a cocktail. It has become a little bit gauche to drink. People think as soon as you order a glass of wine at lunch, you belong in the Betty Ford Center.

Q: How would you compare the Los Angeles restaurant scene with San Francisco's?

A: In San Francisco, unlike here, nothing much happened in the '80s. Everything happened in the early '90s. Now there are an amazing number of new restaurants up there.

Q: Many of them are the kind of small personal restaurants that are rare in L.A.

A: That's because we don't really have those kinds of neighborhoods. Maybe you could have a little place in Pacific Palisades or somewhere in Brentwood, but even there chain restaurants have taken over. L.A. has very few small restaurants that serve really good food.

Q: Is fusion going to be the wave of the future?

A: I definitely think the influence of Asia in our cooking will expand, because very few people in America know how to make French food really well--or even Italian food. But cooks can get away with adding ginger and chiles and things like that and everyone thinks it's Asian cuisine.

Q: You need to know each cuisine before you try to fuse them.

A: Or just keep it pure. The perfect example of that is Ruth [Rogers] and Rose [Gray] at the River Cafe in London, who cook Italian food better than most Italians. All they do is go to Italy, buy their own olive oil and wine and everything else they need. And then they just cook the way they do in Italy. They don't try to make their food French-influenced or Asian-influenced or American-influenced.

Here you go to Italian restaurants and you see crab cakes on the menu. You see everything. So, in a way, even the Italian restaurants here are almost into fusion cooking.

Q: Do you see the role of the restaurant as changing?

A: I think too many [restaurateurs] want to give people what they already like to eat instead of trying to do something even a little bit cutting edge. That's very different from the '80s, when chefs really got customers excited about their cooking. And people had to talk about it. Now it's hard to say much about any new restaurant, other than I saw so and so there. Nobody is asking what you ate.

It's amazing that in a city like L.A. we don't have one Latino restaurant that's as good as Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill in Chicago. Or any place that's doing interesting things with food from Latin America--which is much closer to us than Asia, yet we have such a big Asian influence in our cooking.

Q: So many chefs are opening lower-priced satellite restaurants. Do you think it's just not possible to make it with one very good restaurant anymore?

A: It's harder. People in Los Angeles go to Europe and spend $200 on a meal and they're very proud about it, and then when they come here, if they have to pay $80, they scream.

I don't see the days of traditional dining and restaurants like L'Hermitage or Ma Maison ever coming back, but I do think Los Angeles should have more restaurants where people actually get excited about the food--and are willing to pay for it. If you try to make the best possible cuisine and you have nobody coming, like in the movie "Big Night," and the restaurant next door that's serving something cheap and pedestrian is packed, sooner or later you get discouraged. In the end, you decide you have to make a living.

I hope this year will turn into the Big Day instead of the Big Night. My wish for the new year is that we get more interesting restaurants. Maybe we'll get a good Mexican restaurant. I'll tell Rick Bayless to come here for awhile.

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CROSSROADS

Through Jan. 4, the daily Calendar section will continue its series of interviews conducted by Times critics. The series brackets Sunday Calendar's comprehensive look at 1996 in review.

TODAY

RESTAURANTS: Wolfgang Puck.

SATURDAY

POP MUSIC: Benny Medina.

MONDAY

ART: John Baldessari.

TUESDAY

MOVIES: Joe Roth.

WEDNESDAY

THEATER: Larry Gelbart.

THURSDAY

DANCE: Sali Ann Kriegsman.

JAN. 3

TELEVISION: Dick Wolf.

JAN. 4

ARCHITECTURE: Richard Meier.

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