That old razzle-dazzle
WHAT makes a great restaurant? An irresistible vibe, terrific food, attentive, professional service and a sense of style. There’s no shortage of Los Angeles dining rooms that fit that description.
But there’s a subset of great restaurants that’s much smaller: places where the cooking is unmistakably of that place. Taste a dish and you know it could only have come out of the kitchen at that particular restaurant.
Perhaps one of the reasons Chinois on Main, the Santa Monica restaurant Wolfgang Puck opened way back in 1983, has enjoyed such remarkable longevity is that so much of the cooking has always been unmistakably Chinois on Main.
The idea of Chinese-French fusion that Puck introduced 23 years ago has never become dull; it works just as well today as it did when Kazuto Matsusaka (now the chef-owner of Beacon in Culver City) was the opening chef. That spectacular Shanghai lobster -- split, seared and broiled, enriched with coconut-tinged curry sauce and surrounded by crisp, translucent fried spinach leaves that melt on the tongue -- could only be Chinois. Those amazingly flavorful grilled Mongolian lamb chops, so thick, smoky and tender, could only be Chinois.
In with the new, and old
SO what makes a Chinois dish? Heightened Chinese (or other Asian) flavors, French technique and a soupcon of pizazz. It’s festive and special, but you’d be happy to eat it once a week.
Things have worked so well at Chinois for so long that Puck and manager Bella Lantsman, who opened the place with Puck and his then-wife Barbara Lazaroff, lo those many years ago, haven’t been moved to change much. The dining room, with its big Buddha heads, celadon-colored wooden tables, tall cloisonne peacocks, and giant photographs of food, feels as it did 20 years ago. (Though they’ve added a private dining room next door.)
But last month Puck, along with longtime chef Luis Diaz and his co-chef of two years, Rene Mata, introduced a new menu -- the first major menu change, says Lantsman, since Chinois opened its doors.
Unlike the old menu, which offered a page of more contemporary dishes on the left and “Chinois classics” on the right, the new menu integrates the new and the old, indicating classics with a yin-yang symbol. These include that lobster, those lamb chops (no longer tagged as “Mongolian,” they now come with stir-fried eggplants instead of wok-fried string beans), Chinois chicken salad and five other dishes, plus sides such as duck fried rice and vegetable fried rice.
Several of the new dishes have the dazzle that makes them unmistakably Chinois. Sizzling Snake River Wagyu steak with black pepper is fabulous -- buttery, meltingly tender and perfectly cooked medium-rare, served with earthy, barely cooked, thin-sliced matsutake mushrooms. It’s the best American Wagyu (American Kobe beef) I’ve tasted anywhere, by a long shot.
Tea-smoked squab from Carpenter Squab Ranch near Ojai is wonderful, with crisp, almost lacquered skin and terrific deep flavor -- I can’t wait to taste that again. Kabocha squash samosas, with their squishy, lightly sweet filling, are a curious counterpoint to the squab; the pairing feels a little random. I’m surprised to find that the braised veal cheeks that come with long life noodles aren’t stewy, but rather braised and then fried and sort of glazed. They’re terrific: soft on the inside, crisp on the outside, their flavor heightened with plum wine. Marvelous noodles with great texture -- springy to the tooth -- accompany.
Among the new appetizers, only a couple I’ve sampled have the Chinois wow factor. I love the stir-fried Sonoma lamb with crispy garlic and mint, served in layered cups of raddichio and butter lettuce. The lamb, like just about everything else here, is of the very highest quality, and it’s sauced with a light hand. (When the previous menu was in play, it was easy to unwittingly order too many dishes with similar sweet, sticky brown sauces, but the new dishes are sauced more sensitively, so that’s no longer an issue.)
Steamed asparagus with just a touch of crunch, arranged in a clever stacked lattice, form a stand for rectangular batons of battered, deep-fried veal tongue. They’re hot and crisp, with just the right touch of funk, and a judicious dose of oyster-black bean sauce.
IN some ways, though, the menu turns its back on the thrill of fusion that has defined the place. Many of the new dishes, while delicious, are idealized versions of familiar Chinese or Vietnamese dishes; they don’t exactly sizzle with originality.
Spring rolls with stir-fried chicken and fall vegetables are terrific, delicate and crisp, served with a wrapper of a lettuce leaf lined with a sorrel leaf and two dipping sauces. Wonderful, but predictable. Ditto the sugar cane grilled shrimp with kaffir lime and hot peppers -- the kaffir lime gives a Thai twist to a Vietnamese dish; it’s good, but not that interesting.
Sweet Maine crab and pork siu mai with chile oil and rice vinegar are fabulous, but you could easily imagine getting them in a top-notch dim sum palace at a fraction of the price.
Among the main courses, the whole steamed black bass with scallions and soy glaze makes a splash when it arrives -- it’s a huge fish, spectacularly fresh. The presentation is gorgeous, the flesh silky and delicate. But this is a classic Chinese recipe -- no fusion in evidence.
Rosy slices of ginger-honey-glazed duck breast accompanied by stir-fried duck legs feels more happily like France meets China -- it’s a terrific take on magret served with duck legs confit.
Alas, not everything sings.
On one visit, tuna tartare layered with avocado and topped with a generous layer of sevruga caviar and surrounded by lovely curls of fluke sashimi disappoints because the caviar is mushy, with none of the “pop” you want. On another visit, the caviar is just as mushy. The kitchen has honed the flavor on the tartare, though, adding a subtle yuzu zing.
Tempura ahi sashimi with uni sauce comes from the classic menu. It’s a big piece of great-quality tuna with an asparagus spear penetrating the center; it’s tempura-ed, then sliced. But the tempura coating is soggy and the dot of asparagus in each slice falls out when we lift a piece with our chopsticks. It would be terrific if the tempura were crisp and hot and the center were cool, but the whole thing is lukewarm. The sea urchin sauce, though, is thick, rich and wonderful.
Wok-charred wild salmon, a new dish, is perfectly cooked but a bit dull, in a thick, brownish red-onion soubise; tangled branches of asparagus tempura accompany it.
The wine list is still oddly old-fashioned, heavy on California, especially expensive Chardonnays and Cabs, with lots of pricy white and red Burgundies and red Bordeaux. Where are the German Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers, the Austrian Gruner Veltliners, the Spanish Albarinos and the lesser-pedigreed light reds that would work so much better with this food? Prices are high; among the reds, there are 83 bottles on the list over $300, and only six at $50 and under. Corkage is $25, so if you want to bring in something that will pair better with Chinois’ cooking, it had better be something special.
Happily, the desserts, by pastry chef Junuen Saldana, are much improved. Lemon floating island with huckleberry sauce is terrific, as is the mandarin “tarte Tatin” -- fresh mandarins and pastry cream sitting on a lovely little crust, served with a refreshing orange granita.
Does all this come at a steep price? Yes. Would it be fun if there were some interesting house cocktails besides the fragrant lychee martini? Sure. Could the dining room use a face-lift? Absolutely. Would it make sense to offer a selection of carefully brewed fine Chinese green, white and oolong teas after dinner instead of just plopping a green tea bag in a cup? You bet.
Still, there’s something irresistible about Chinois. The dining room is always busy and buzzy and lively; the service is always great; the food is mostly fabulous. Whether you’re a longtime regular, an out-of-towner or an occasional diner celebrating a birthday, everyone at Chinois, as far as I could see in six visits over the past six months, is treated like an important customer.
The snob factor simply doesn’t exist here. It’s not unusual to see Wolfgang Puck himself chatting up regulars and autographing menus for out-of-towners before joining the guys cooking in the open kitchen. Sitting at that counter, watching the chefs slap chops on the grill or whack a lobster in half or stir-fry vegetables in a giant wok, is always a great show.
When a restaurant has this much personality, a makeover can take some time. Meanwhile, though it’s certainly not perfect, Chinois is still pretty great.
S. Irene Virbila is on vacation.
Chinois on Main
Rating: ** 1/2
Location: 2709 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 392-9025; www.wolfgangpuck.com.
Ambience: Energetic, buzzy and fun.
Service: Extremely professional, friendly and thoughtful.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $13 to $28; main courses, $30 to $60; desserts, $11; desserts for two, $12 to $20.
Best dishes: Sweet Maine crab and pork siu mai; stir-fried Sonoma lamb with crispy garlic and mint; sizzling Snake River Wagyu steak with black pepper and matsutake mushrooms; tea-smoked Carpenter Ranch squab with kabocha squash samosas; braised veal cheeks with plum wine and long life noodles; Shanghai lobster with curry sauce and crispy spinach.
Wine list: Focused on pricey bottles from California, Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Best table: They’re all good.
Special features: Private dining room.
Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking.
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.