FOR months I've been watching the Sofitel at Beverly and La Cienega boulevards get an extreme makeover. Ta-dum!
Now, when you drive up in front, valets in black -- athletic shoes, black pants, jerseys and turned-back caps -- spring forward to open the car doors. A cluster of greeters stands in the foyer ready to lead you down a long hallway past a bar the size of a football field to Simon L.A., the new restaurant.
The old Sofitel did have a restaurant, but one that only desperate guests would consider frequenting. To rev up the image and compete with the trendy boutique hotels sprouting everywhere, the hotel brought in Kerry Simon of Simon Kitchen & Bar in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, where he cooks up international comfort food for the hard-partying set.
L.A.'s Simon has an entirely different look, though. The whole restaurant feels like the inside of a Moroccan lantern, with cut-out wooden panels in an abstract lace or foliage pattern casting shadows on the walls. Service is snappy and enthusiastic. The crowd looks very similar to the one at the Las Vegas restaurant. Or maybe it's the Stone Rose effect. That refers to the bar, which, if you don't already know, is owned by Rande Gerber, the man married to Cindy Crawford.
The menu is easygoing and casual, familiar dishes with a twist and executed with flair. You can start with one of Simon's wood-roasted pizzas. The classic Margherita arrives as an oval with a crisp crust and a topping of mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil. The waiter raved about the arugula, blue cheese and truffle oil pie. But next time I might go for the raw tuna, jumbo lump crab, avocado and cucumber pizza with tamari soy. It's just the kind of collection of ingredients to appeal to a late-noshing crowd.
Appetizers touch all the popular bases, whether crab cake ("colossal" and served with a delicious young papaya slaw), tuna dynamite (with red chili aioli), bluefin tuna tartare (perfumed with lemongrass oil) or chilled shellfish platter.
Simon's signature meatloaf is a hefty slab of ground pork and veal served with garlic mashed potatoes, the perfect thing if you've just run a marathon or finished your training for the Ironman. He's got braised short ribs, of course, the very definition of comfort food; a roast organic chicken with "Tuscan" fries; and a couple of Asian-inspired dishes. But the real standout among the entrees is the prime lamb Porterhouse -- thick, tender and tasting like real lamb.
The boyish chef is into fun too. Like the bracelet of buttermilk-battered onion rings -- gold, crisp and irresistible. And long about dessert time, a big bowl arrives filled, preposterously, with pink cotton candy, the stuff you used to eat off a stick. Is it sweet! Everybody takes a couple of bites, pulling off bits of pink fluff. And then it gets wicked. At the next table, a woman is wearing a cotton candy mustache and goatee, which inspires someone else to craft a toupee or stick cotton candy in their ears. It's a sculpt fest.
Save room for the real desserts. There's a whole cherry pie with vanilla ice cream to share. Or a really superior vanilla bean creme brulee. Served in a square porcelain dish, it's under-sweetened, if anything, the better to show off the taste and texture of the silken custard. And for the young at heart, cookies and milk.
Just imagine room service.
Where: Sofitel Los Angeles, 8555 Beverly Blvd., L.A.
When: Breakfast, 6:30-11:30 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, 6-11 p.m. daily
Cost: Dinner appetizers and salads, $10-$38; wood-roasted pizzas, $14-$19; entrees and pastas, $18-$32; prime meats, $38-$48; desserts, $8
Info: (310) 358-3979