Hotel restaurants don't have much of a local audience, with good reason: Not that many are truly compelling. That's by way of explaining why I didn't rush right out to try the new restaurant in the revamped Hyatt (now called the Andaz West Hollywood) on the Sunset Strip. I did take a look at the menu, and passed.
But a couple of months ago, the chef at
rewrote his menu to reflect his roots in Périgord. And that got my attention because the cooking of southwest France is so underrepresented in L.A.
The hotel at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Kings Road no longer looks like your garden-variety Hyatt. The lobby has a kind of Goth thing going with steampunk lamps, and the check-in desk is so minimal it looks like somewhere to check your e-mail. Its oh-so-
look may be enough to satisfy guests on the prowl for the hipster haunt of the moment. But then they had to go and put in a pretty great restaurant to boot. Except nobody seems to know about it, and whenever I ate at RH, even on weekends, only a handful of tables were occupied, most by hotel guests.
"RH" is a reference to "Riot House," the nickname the Hyatt acquired in the woolly rock 'n' roll days when Led Zeppelin and other bands holed up here.
How times have changed. On a recent night, scene makers streamed out of the elevator from some event on the rooftop. And as we waited for our cars at the valet, I caught a glimpse of turquoise bermuda shorts, orange suspenders (or maybe it was the reverse) and marigold-colored hair: Web celebrity gossip
. And instead of a motorcycle out front, the valets were struggling to fit a sedate fat-tired city bike into a station wagon.
Meanwhile, RH chef Sebastien Archambault is quietly cooking some of the best contemporary French food I've had in L.A. and at prices that are a bargain by hotel standards. How smart is that? Very.
The former executive chef at Le Pirate in Corsica, which earned a
star under his tenure there, has thrown himself into his new job with enthusiasm.
The kitchen is dreamy -- open on three sides, with waist-high white and gray marble counters, a central island and a glass-fronted refrigerated room at the back, the better to show off beautiful California produce in stainless steel baskets. Though there are no seats at the counter, the look borrows something from l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, French chef Joël Robuchon's casual concept in Paris, Vegas and more.
But the menu is pure Archambault. There are rich, rustic terrines from the bar menu, one of pork and foie gras, another of pork and duck, cut in a couple of thick slabs to eat with warm baguette. Their flavor is full-bodied, but maybe not quite as fatty as they would be in France. He's got an astonishing soup, an intense chicken broth enriched with garlic sautéed in duck fat, with egg whites stirred in at the last moment to form silky threads. Sort of a southwest French egg drop soup.
And then there is the insanely delicious
poached egg: A ramekin holds the egg and its deep gold runny yolk, sautéed mushrooms, a little foie gras and, on top, a shaving of summer truffles. They're not black Périgord truffles, but they don't claim to be anything but what they are, lightly perfumed summer follies.
His duck confit is the best I've had in L.A., crisp on the surface, moist and dark-fleshed underneath. There's a simple sausage dish -- two pork sausages on a plate with onion compote and mustard
that gets raves all around the table. Even a chicken breast becomes a dish of note, when it's served in a Pineau des Charentes sauce lit up with piquillo peppers.
And then there are the fries, or frites triple fried -- in duck fat. I watched three orders going out to another table and thought, yes, let's have some too. And then another order. And we would have been into our third if we hadn't come to our senses.
If the film "Julie & Julia" has whetted your appetite for classic French cooking, you can rediscover such classics as puff pastry filled with sweetbreads and morels in a svelte Madeira sauce. Or the elegant mushroom and green onion tart on a swatch of flaky dough. As a special, he turns out a great hanger steak, perfectly cooked to the rare side of medium rare, with a deep beefy flavor.
He's also doing an haute burger. Forget caramelized onions and blue cheese. This one comes with foie gras and those earthy morel mushrooms -- and the frites are showered with summer truffles. But if that's too rich for your blood, he also has a perfectly respectable plain burger made with the same Black Angus beef.
The kitchen does make the occasional misstep. Crayfish risotto uses too much butter and cheese. Ravioli of Hudson Valley foie gras looks amazing, the round ravioli submerged in a frothy summer truffle velouté. The pasta, though, is undercooked and tastes almost raw, which means it needs to be thinner not to overcook the foie. The biggest disappointment is the 12-hour cooked boneless suckling pig, which is dry and sad.
The wine list, at this point, is not at the same level as the cuisine. But there is a nice little section of wines from southwest France, including some by the glass. You could start with an aperitif of Pineau des Charentes, drink a Madiran with dinner, and finish off with a very expensive glass of 1973 Armagnac or walnut liqueur.
Servers are nice (and not at all annoying) but hesitant and in training. One whispered that the chef had four Michelin stars in Corsica. Four? The maximum is three. All I can think is that they must be confusing another rating system with the Michelin. At any rate, that was Corsica. And this is California.
When the modest and charming chef comes around to the tables, he never mentions a Michelin star (they don't travel with the chef) but does say his wife is Corsican and a chef as well who will be working at the nearby Sunset Marquis -- and will be his competitor. He looks ready to do battle.
Archambault is enthusiastic enough about his new post that he even makes his own desserts. I love the silky gelée made with Monbazillac, a sweet white wine from the Dordogne, inset with fat ripe berries. He makes wonderful individual walnut cakes too, with a fluffy crumb and suffused with the taste of fresh walnuts. Rum-soaked baba looks like a soft spongy doughnut hunkered down in a tropical fruit salad. But one bite and you're hooked on the lovely yeasty taste of the cake combined with the rum. The bartender might suggest a rum from Martinique to accompany your baba or other dessert.
At this point, a whole gang of motorcycles could roar through and it wouldn't faze me a bit.