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NineThirty at the W Los Angeles in Westwood

Restaurant Critic

When I pulled up in front of the W hotel in Westwood recently, there was no long line of cars in front. Just us. And a voluble valet captain. Checking in? No, we’re here for dinner.

I couldn’t help remembering what it was like the first time I reviewed NineThirty in 2005 when this reworking of the hotel’s restaurant first opened. The W was five years old at that point but still a powerful magnet for the trendy bicoastal set. The sidewalk in front was swarming with women, their rouged mouths lighted up by their cellphones as their stilettos marched up the translucent steps into the hotel. In the lobby, long legs sprawled on daybeds, love seats and poufs. The crowd was three, four, five deep at the bar, and the roar could be heard outside every time someone opened the door. That’s what the name Rande Gerber, the night life impresario, and Whiskey Blue could do.

Tucked into a corner, with frail basketry walls, the restaurant seemed the one semi-serene haven in all this craziness. And it was. But despite the best efforts of the chef Travis Lett (now at Gjelina in Venice), food lovers didn’t necessarily want to brave the scene in order to enjoy a meal at NineThirty.

Fast forward three years. The hotel isn’t quite as hot. The crowds have waned except during the weekends. And the furniture in the lobby is looking a little worse for the wear. Not the restaurant, though, which has kept its clubby good looks. It also has a new chef in Monique King, who, until this gig, ran Firefly Bistro in South Pasadena with Paul Rosenbluh, her husband and fellow chef. (He’s still manning the stoves at Firefly, while she takes on this new position.) She’s also been executive chef at Soul Kitchen in Chicago and Border Grill in Santa Monica.

King’s menu for NineThirty injects a down-to-earth yet completely contemporary spirit into a hotel setting, which already makes it unusual. But while the ideas are terrific, the execution is occasionally less so. Still, with a focus on local ingredients and big, bold flavors, this is real food -- dishes you’d actually like to eat if you arrived at the W after a long flight or a grueling day of racing to appointments in L.A. traffic. These days, the crowd seems to be more the merely hungry than the spillover from Whiskey Blue.

Rich soup

First courses set the tone for what is to follow. Soup is always a good test, and right now King is serving a richly flavored roasted kabocha squash and leek bisque swirled with iridescent pumpkin seed oil and crème fraîche and garnished with shredded duck confit. Kobe beef tartare, hand-cut and perfumed with sesame oil, is a good bet too. And coriander-rubbed grilled shrimp brings on the exotic full-throttle, served with a juicy mango-arugula salad and flatbread.

King has a deft hand with salads. Her version of the ubiquitous pear, blue cheese and walnut salad is refined by using crunchy sweet Little Gem lettuce, poached pears and delicious pickled onions with toasted walnuts in a Zinfandel vinaigrette that is subtly sweetened with a touch of maple syrup. Another appealing salad features arugula with the last of the season’s heirloom tomatoes, goat cheese and an incisive sherry vinaigrette.

Main courses (this is definitely not a small-plates restaurant) sound like supper from a wildly talented, well-traveled bohemian cook. Tasmanian sea trout arrives cornmeal-crusted and golden, in a gutsy lemon-caper-red chile sauce accompanied by wilted escarole and a parsnip purée that is very much of the season.

I’d come back for her Moroccan roasted chicken any day, plated with tender cumin-scented carrots and saffron-streaked couscous and with a fantastic crushed pistachio harissa sauce off to the side, so you can use it as you will. Veal cheeks braised in Chianti are very tender, a comforting dish served with polenta.

King dresses up rack of lamb with a Medjool date and mint crust, which sets off the taste of the lamb, and she has some fun with duck by serving the sliced breast with the confit leg cooked like a chicken fried steak. Not one main course is business as usual.

Well-known wines

Even when there’s a misstep, it almost seems to work. The wine list makes an effort to go global with some well-chosen selections, but reads as if these are add-ons to a basically California list of the usual suspects. But that adds a comfort layer to the experience: Hotel guests can simply zero in on a familiar label and be done with it since there doesn’t seem to be anyone in-house to hand-sell the more unusual wines anyway.

Pastry chef Kristin Ferguson turns out a wonderful panna cotta made with chestnut honey; it is set on a flaky pastry crust, suffused with the gentle sweetness of honey, and the perfect shivery texture. I also enjoyed the buttery and moist upside-down cake made with Bartlett pears laced with a refined pear caramel and served with a scoop of maple ice cream. Hazelnut brown-butter bundt cake, though, is cloyingly sweet.

OK, NineThirty may not be the place to go for a romantic dinner for two. It’s more suitable for a comfortable dinner with an old friend or a business acquaintance.

King deserves credit for giving this hotel restaurant back its soul. I do wish the cooking was more consistent, though. Out of three meals there, only one -- the last one and the best -- hit the mark with every dish.

The restaurant wasn’t full on any of my visits, and as anyone who has ever been a line cook knows, it’s harder to achieve consistency on a slow night than a busy one, because you can’t get a rhythm going.

Well, maybe there is one downside to the dwindling of the high-energy scene. But when everything is working, that seems like a small enough price to pay.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

NineThirty at the W Los Angeles - WestwoodRATING: * 1/2LOCATION930 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 443-8211, ninethirtyw.com.AMBIENCEHotel dining at the W hotel near UCLA. Under the new chef, Monique King, the food is down-to-earth and modern, American “with global influences."SERVICEMore laid-back than crisp, but without any attitude for such a trendy spot.PRICEDinner appetizers, $12 to $20; main courses, $29 to $50; dessert, $10.BEST DISHESKabocha and leek bisque, Little Gem lettuce and pear salad, diver scallop and crab salad, pan-roasted Tasmanian sea trout, Moroccan roasted chicken, date- and mint-crusted rack of lamb, chestnut honey panna cotta, pear upside-down cake.WINE LISTMostly Californian with forays into other regions. Corkage fee, $25.BEST TABLEA corner or alcove table.SPECIAL FEATURESYou can order from the NineThirty menu while eating outside in the Backyard, which has its own abbreviated and more casual menu.DETAILSOpen for dinner from 6 to 11 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking, $5, 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.latimes.com/DailyDishMore photos of NineThirty and its most popular dishes.


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