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Paperfish: By the water in Beverly Hills

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Everybody enjoys a nice piece of fish. But the best seafood restaurants -- Water Grill downtown and Providence in Hollywood, along with the top Cantonese seafood places in the San Gabriel Valley -- are on the east side of L.A.

That’s why Paperfish, the new seafood restaurant from Joachim Splichal and his Patina Restaurant Group, is creating such excitement in Beverly Hills.

You can almost hear a collective sigh of relief as older diners walk into the former Maple Drive space. It all seems so, well, civilized, even staid compared to the trendiest new breed of restaurant. Even the bar -- sinuous and stylish with the new design -- seems subdued, but that may be because it’s well past happy hour. Cushy chairs upholstered in orange boucle are poised to hug your curves.

The cheery color scheme continues in the dining room with translucent orange panels and more of those comfy chairs done up in red. They look odd paired with tables swathed in white tablecloths (bare tabletops would better suit the design) but along with the carpet and the upholstery, they’re part of the reason Paperfish isn’t as noisy as some other restaurants. When most tables are occupied, you can still hear every word. That in itself is a luxury.

Under Yianni Koufodontis, who was chef at Petros in Manhattan Beach, Paperfish has had a wobbly start, which is surprising given the Splichal organization’s experience and the starting team. I loved Koufodontis’ gutsy Mediterranean cooking at Petros, but here he’s cooking like a different person altogether.

The execution is inconsistent. One night almost every dish is too salty. Chestnut soup has a skin on it. Fried oysters are tepid. Another time, the cooking is crisper, but only just. Sauces are over-reduced and sweet; the rice is almost inedible, it’s so unevenly cooked.

Is it simply a bad match between the chef and Splichal’s signature California-French cuisine?

It’s more than that. With the possible exception of Patina at Walt Disney Concert Hall and Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge in Costa Mesa, the cooking at outposts in the Patina empire doesn’t have much of a personal stamp. The food is so anonymous it could be mistaken for a hotel or corporate restaurant’s. In fact, Paperfish is a corporate restaurant, just one of the 20-something restaurants Splichal’s Patina Restaurant Group owns and runs.

But you’d think that for his return to Beverly Hills and the Westside after an absence of 22 years (Max au Triangle closed in 1986), Splichal could do better than this -- much better.

At first glance, the menu looks appealing enough. Appetizers are divided into categories -- “raw,” “warm” and “chilled” -- while main courses are mustered under “shell,” “flat,” “round” and “farm.” Yet somehow I’ve never walked out of Paperfish excited by the seafood I’ve just eaten.

The Splichal machine is better at service, which is attentive -- sometimes too much so. The room is lovely at lunchtime with all its natural light, and you can’t help but appreciate the china, flatware and glassware and the civilized noise level.

Sad to say, though, the best dishes I’ve had have been the raw ones, simple things such as oysters on the half shell garnished with an icy pomegranate-ginger granita. And the restrained Kona kampachi sashimi fired with jalapeno essence and garnished with crispy shallots and sesame seeds. The chile essence is like a memory of heat, perfect with the raw Hawaiian yellowtail. But Chesapeake Bay scallops on the half shell are a rare treat, so why bury them in an avocado mousse?

Details get away from the kitchen too. Grated butter piled on a plate like noodles is a beautiful effect; less so when the butter carries the taste of the refrigerator. Or when the baguette is tough. Go with one of the dinner rolls instead, either the dark savory anise bread or the hearty cranberry-walnut.

Any self-respecting seafood restaurant has a crab cake on the menu, and this one is as handsome as they come, plump and tall, served with a lemon aioli and a tomato relish. Though it’s mostly finely shredded blue crab, it tastes flat and doesn’t sing with freshness.

A better choice is the crispy fried oysters, served in the shell with a fiery Thai-inspired topping of chiles, Thai basil and toasted peanuts with a squeeze of lime.

But what’s with the chestnut soup? It could have come from a French restaurant in the ‘70s. Thick and ostentatiously rich, it’s garnished with -- ta dum -- truffle cream. Warm mushroom salad with Greek manouri cheese stands out. The flavors of the sauteed mushrooms sidle right up to the mild unsalted sheep’s milk cheese, but setting the warm mushrooms on a bed of delicate mesclun lettuce turns the greens limp. The honey-thyme vinaigrette goes beautifully with the mushrooms and cheese, though.

All around us, couples are getting down to the serious business of eating out with friends, with relatives, with business associates. A cocktail party is going on in the private back room. It’s correct. It’s polite. But fun? No, I couldn’t say that.

Main courses here are for the most part uninspired, and their often sweetish sauces and gluey vegetable purees don’t help. The special one night is loup de mer, a beautiful Mediterranean sea bass flown in from Europe. Fish of this quality could stand on its own. Lose the cardamom foam and the sticky sweet potato puree. The poor fish could do better without this kitschy preparation.

Another special, lobster grilled in the shell shines because it’s so simple and direct. My skate wing is perfect one night, overcooked the next.

The rectangular porcelain or glass plates are the height of fashion right now, but the way the food is plated looks dated, stacked tall and over-garnished. There’s nothing fresh or new about it.

The dish of the evening isn’t seafood, but the veal chop. Beautifully cooked to a pale pink, it’s sliced off the bone and served with braised winter greens and a lima bean puree that should have stayed in the kitchen. Scottish salmon is wild and has a fine flavor, served with a mess of roasted vegetables and an olive oil nage (or broth). Steamed turbot, such a delicate fish, is paired with a rich, oily oxtail ragout. The effect is stultifyingly heavy.

It could be that Splichal’s signature style just isn’t part of Koufodontis’ DNA, because he’s certainly not cooking with conviction. Splichal’s chefs at his various restaurants don’t often show strong personality in their cooking until after they leave and open their own places.

It’s curious that although the name Paperfish refers to cooking fish in parchment paper, there’s only one dish on the menu that employs the technique. Instead of the traditional paper, the kitchen here uses a clear material: Off comes the knot and there, lying in what could double as a plastic shower cap, is a beautiful piece of New Zealand red snapper in Thai fish broth. Despite the oddball presentation, the flavors are pleasing and the fish is moist -- it’s potentially one of the best dishes on the menu. Then comes a separate plate of jasmine rice, with some grains hard, some gummy. It seems to be the house style, as it happened more than once.

Wine service is excellent. The stemware is appropriate for the wines, and servers know not to pour too much into the glass. The wine list is strong on whites from around the world that would go well with a variety of seafood from the raw oysters to a butter-poached lobster.

As for a cheese course, there really isn’t one, but when we ask whether one is possible, the kitchen rallies and sends out some manouri cheese drizzled with a fragrant Greek honey. It’s delicious.

Desserts include bougatsa, rectangles of filo dough filled with vanilla-scented semolina pudding. That’s excellent; not so the ice cream that comes with it, which tastes as if it’s been melted and then frozen again. Another detail that got away. Sometimes there’s a berry gratin or a plate of freshly baked cookies with a glass of milk -- that idea is a little old too, isn’t it? But then again, when the new idea is “breakfast for dessert” -- panna cotta covered with coffee gelee and served with a pecan sticky bun on the side -- I’ll take the cookies.

For his first venture in years on the Westside, I expected a seafood restaurant from Splichal that would challenge Providence and the Water Grill. Paperfish is a surprisingly weak effort, and crisp service and a handsome room don’t make up for the uninspired food.

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virbila@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Paperfish

Rating: 1/2

Location: 345 N. Maple Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 858-6030; www.patinagroup.com/paperfish.

Ambience: Splashy seafood restaurant from Patina’s Joachim Splichal with lots of curves and sizzling oranges and reds. The menu from Yianni Koufodontis translates Splichal’s signature California-French style to a primarily seafood menu for a Beverly Hills crowd looking for a nice place for dinner, not a scene.

Service: Attentive, but can verge on the overbearing.

Price: Dinner appetizers, $10 to $16; main courses, $28 to $44; desserts, $9.

Best dishes: Oysters on the half shell with pomegranate-ginger granita, Kona kampachi sashimi with jalapeno essence, crispy fried oysters with spicy Thai peanut-cucumber sauce, seafood and avocado salad, Scottish salmon with roasted vegetables, pan-roasted veal chop.

Wine list: Strong on whites to go with fish. Corkage fee, $20.

Best table: The round table with big red armchairs.

Details: Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; for dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 10:30 Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $6.

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.


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