Still ahead of the curve

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The crowd in the dining room at the new, revised Patina ebbs and flows like the tide. By 6 or 6:30 the dining room is full to bursting. It quiets down after 8, and improbably, toward 10, swells with bons vivants ready and eager to eat at what would be a very advanced hour almost anywhere else in Los Angeles. Not many are popping in for a quick bite either: Many are signing on for a lengthy tasting menu.

What’s wrong with this picture? Can this really be notoriously early-to-bed L.A.? We’re not even talking West Hollywood, but downtown L.A., where, until very recently, dinner anywhere except Water Grill didn’t seem that thrilling.

But Patina is part of the newly minted Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Patina Group’s Joachim Splichal scored quite a coup when he moved his longtime haute Hollywood restaurant into Frank Gehry’s extraordinary steel building. What other restaurant in town has an address with remotely this much sex appeal?

Architect Hagy Belzberg has integrated the restaurant into the concert hall without playing copycat to Gehry’s forceful aesthetic. He’s come up with a sophisticated, urban design that riffs on the building’s voluptuous curves and swoops.

The most striking elements are the walls sheathed in walnut panels, sculpted to mimic rigid curtains. It’s a wonderful conceit that warms up what could have been a chilly, formal room. A bentwood ceiling striped with bands of warm light has the sway of an awning. Splichal was always slightly ahead of the curve with his flagship restaurant’s sleek minimalist style. Now he’s way out front.

The feeling is more relaxed and definitely more comfortable than the old Patina. (Thankfully, they’ve also eliminated the creepy security cameras in the dining room.) The velvet and leather booths are prized seating, especially if you’re just two, but the svelte leather chairs are inviting too. The chic patio in front is used more at lunch than at dinner; a private dining room off the kitchen holds a chef’s table that can be reserved for a customized chef’s menu. The bar is miniscule, with just enough room for half a dozen people to have a drink, or wait for a table.

On my first visit, I was thrilled at the change. It seems so much more than a new address. A new chef, Theo Schoenegger, an Italian from the Trentino Alto Adige region who cooked at San Domenico in New York, is in charge of the kitchen, and his food seems lighter and more vivid than what I remembered from the old Patina.

A sea change

The feeling of the restaurant has undergone a sea change too. Instead of obviously well-heeled patrons dining at a gourmet landmark with hushed solemnity, people seem to be having more fun. Patina’s crowd now cuts a wide swath -- young and old, tourists and Angelenos, haute and hipster, dressed up and dressed down. And when the hour of 10 rolls around, another, even more diverse wave floods in, energized by the concert or play they’ve just attended, talking music, talking art, hungry and feeling like celebrating.

The cheese cart rolls by, stops at a table, and the cheese sommelier begins his presentation. He’s having a ball introducing people to Valdeon, a Spanish blue, or Ossau-Iraty, a hard sheep’s milk cheese from the French Basque country. With the passion of a convert, he’ll choose a selection for the table and hand you an annotated cheese menu marked for future reference.

I’m equally impressed by the new young sommelier, Eric Espuny, who, if you let him, will choose interesting and relatively affordable wines by the glass or the bottle. He relishes the challenge of finding a wine to match what everyone at the table has ordered. Sometimes that means serving a Vouvray Sec to one person and a Cotes du Castillon from the Bordeaux region to another.

“A sommelier’s nightmare!” he moaned one night when I ordered lobster and artichoke. But he did beautifully, proposing a Chateaneuf-du-Pape blanc that took the artichoke in stride. Patina’s list has long been a bastion of phenomenal but excruciatingly high-priced Burgundies and Bordeaux. It still is, but there’s hope for those without deep pockets. Espuny is beefing up the Italian and Spanish sections, precisely where some of the more exciting and more affordable wines can be found.

And the food? Though I did catch sight of Splichal a couple of times early on, presumably the man in charge is Schoenegger. Splichal is too busy running a restaurant empire that includes not only Patina, but Pinot spinoffs from California to Las Vegas, plus Nick & Stef’s steakhouses in L.A. and New York, and practically all the museum restaurants in Southern California.

In 1999 he sold his Patina group to the New York-based Restaurant Associates, and remained on to run them. Patina, though, is the name brand that sprinkles the fairy dust of its reputation over each and every one.

You can expect the products to be top-notch, the menu larded with foie gras, caviar, lobster, black truffles and all the other luxe ingredients in the haute French arsenal. The format is basically a la carte on the left, tasting menus on the right, which include a seafood menu and the chef’s tasting menu. Schoenegger was trained in Italy, so his cooking tends to be a touch lighter than that of Splichal, who was trained in France. Schoenegger lays on the butter like an old-school French chef, but his sauces aren’t reduced to such a syrupy consistency.

Some of the first courses are delightful. A pretty salad of pickled beets and frisee with navel orange segments and caramelized pistachios is drizzled with a blood orange reduction. A solid piece of roasted sweetbreads is crisped on top and so perfectly cooked inside that it has the texture of custard. It’s a beautiful pairing with green and white asparagus spears in a veal emulsion perfumed with a little yuzu.

The rich buttery taste of sauteed Hudson Valley foie gras is set off one night with puckery quince and a few dots of 75-year-old aceto balsamico so thick it practically stands up. Foie gras au torchon, though, the chilled poached liver, is perfectly rosy and quivering one night, on another bland and falling apart.

If money doesn’t enter into the equation, then by all means indulge in some caviar. A server rolls over an elegant marble-topped cart and presents four caviars from Petrossian, the Paris supplier that historically had first pick of the top Russian caviars. Small hollows hold all the accoutrements -- egg white and yellow, chives, minced onions, creme fraiche. Meanwhile, someone is busy baking silver dollar-sized blinis, which arrive under a silver cloche, wrapped in a napkin to keep warm.

I love watching the waiter use two black horn spoons tipped with silver to form the caviar into three perfect ovals on the plate. My suggestion: If you’re going to do it, go for the best, the Imperial osetra from Iran, $115 that night. However awkward the system (you have to inquire what the market price is), these are fabulous fish eggs with a long, complex finish. A couple of times the chef sent out a single blini with a dab of caviar on it as an amuse.

Heavy on the foam

Sometimes, though, the chef seems to need an editor.

Spaghetti alla chitarra, handmade pasta cut on a wooden box strung with fine strings, dizzily piles on thick velvety flaps of porcini, soft wrinkly morels, ochre chanterelles and more. For someone who loves wild mushrooms, this dish could be a dream. But that innocent pasta and those glorious mushrooms are drowned in butter and porcini “foam” tricked up with a touch of truffle oil.

Ravioli get a Frenchified filling of diver scallops and foie gras that is rich, but effective. Like too many dishes, though, you can barely see the pasta through the foam.

I can understand the impulse to use foam in one or two dishes just to show that you’ve been to El Bulli in Spain, where the trend originated. But when every other plate at the table is covered with it, it’s getting silly. The doctor at our table one night stared at the green foam covering his dish and remarked that he’d seen enough of that in the operating room. I’ve seen enough too.

Olive-oil poached squab has an absolutely gorgeous texture and deep, gamey flavor, so it’s a puzzle why the chef chooses to present it with a wild mushroom risotto accessorized in foam, this time a purple Port foam, that’s so over the top it’s more like eating a rich, rich sauce studded with rice.

But give him a great piece of seafood and he’s off and running. I enjoyed his tomato-crusted turbot one night with nutty grains of black barley and leek. His monkfish saltimbocca is truly brilliant. After all, monkfish is firm enough to stand in for the veal, playing beautifully off the prosciutto and sage.

A few nights ago I had what must be the best lobster I’ve had in Los Angeles, with the vivid flavors of lobsters eaten right where they’re caught. Served out of the shell, perched on an artichoke heart encircled by slices of blue-violet Peruvian potatoes, it marries sea and earth on one plate.

Red meat eaters can head straight to the cote de boeuf for two, served tableside. The waiter first shows off the chop wearing a topknot of fried leeks cut fine. Then the bone is ceremoniously presented on its own plate followed by the sliced beef, tiny dishes of fleur de sel and cracked pepper, and a double-cooked baked potato. Sauteed wild mushrooms are spooned over the beef, a superlative cut, always tender.

In this case, indulge in one of the great reds from Patina’s expansive list. And during game season every wine buff I know heads to Patina for well-hung grouse, partridge and other game flown in from around the world. It’s an excuse, after all, to drink big bold reds like Hermitage or Cote Rotie that need these kinds of dishes to show at their best.

Despite all the pretentious fussing, the service lacks something. With a few exceptions, waiters tend to be either overly officious or overly chilly. It doesn’t help that they’re decked out in dumpy, ill-fitting olive-green suits. They’re doing what they’re told to do, but it drives you crazy the way a waiter will interrupt to tell you what you’re eating. Great service makes people feel comfortable. Period.

Things lighten up with desserts. It could be an ethereal green apple sorbet garnished with a thin apple chip and Champagne Deutz poured over. Or a sort of deconstructed tarte Tatin with sweet, caramelized apple wedges, shards of Linzer pastry dough and a subtle milk and honey sorbet.

Pastry chef Thomas Gerard also does a terrific take-off on creme brulee: chocolate wedged between two rectangular lacy tuiles, decorated with a zigzag of pistachio cream.

Let the sommelier choose something to accompany the desserts. It might be a haunting Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise from Domaine de Durban in the southern Rhone, or a snifter of special Grand Marnier.

Patina has made a shrewd move, leaving Hollywood behind to claim the city’s best address. And just as the concert hall has reenergized L.A.'s music scene, Patina is finally appealing to more than just dedicated gourmands. Fifteen years after it opened, Splichal has succeeded in giving his flagship restaurant a reinvigorated identity.


Rating: ***


141 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 972-3331.

Ambience: Elegant and urban, a stunning contemporary dining room with sculpted walnut walls and comfortably spaced tables. Because it’s adjacent to Walt Disney Concert Hall, it fills up early and late, with some guests arriving for a tasting menu after 10 p.m.

Service: Very formal and correct, definitely not relaxed. Excellent wine and cheese service.

Price: Dinner appetizers, $15 to $20; main courses, $31 to $39; desserts, $10 to $12. Ocean menu, $85 per person; chef’s menu, $100; chef’s table menu, $120.

Best dishes: Caviar service, pickled beet and orange salad, sauteed foie gras, Maine lobster and artichoke fricasse, wild salmon with melted leeks, braised veal cheeks with parsnip puree, cote de boeuf for two, caramelized apples with Linzer dough, chocolate creme brulee with peppermint sorbet.

Wine list: Wide-ranging and deep with grand estates and old vintages at staggering prices, but also interesting and more affordable wines from odd corners of the wine world. Corkage $25.

Best table: One of the plush and leather booths.

Special features: Private chef’s table that looks onto the kitchen and accommodates nine to 10 for a six-course chef’s table menu, available only by prior arrangement at $120 per person.

Details: Open Monday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; daily for dinner from 5 to 10:45 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking $8 with validation.

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.