Thursday, October 29, 2009

Braving the Bazaar

It is fitting that the Bazaar is among the best restaurants in Los Angeles. The Bazaar is evidence that the city has matured, yet remains garish. The Bazaar is located in Sammy Boy Entertainment’s SLS Hotel, the brainchild of one Sam Nazarian, the Horace Cook, Jr. of present-day Los Angeles for you Mad Men fans – though within the entertainment industry, Nazarian prefers promoting nightclubs and hospitality to Cook’s jai alai. Just as HoHo Cook recruited the legendary Patxi to play for his jai alai franchise, Nazarian recruited prominent stylists from supposedly more pedigreed cities to outfit his hotel. Parisian interior designer Phillipe Starck decorated the sprawling SLS restaurant. Murray Moss, a dealer of modernist home furnishings in lower Manhattan, exhibited his venal side when he agreed to sell sundry curios in the Bazaar.

Nazarian engaged José Andrés, a Washington restaurateur and native Spaniard, to be the titular head of the Bazaar and make an occasional visit. Andrés is a protégé of Ferran Adrià, the experimentalist Catalan chef who literally spends six months each year in a Barcelona laboratory concocting recipes based on principles of chemistry. (One example out of a myriad, Adrià created an olive oil spiral which “you loop around your index finger and drop in your mouth, where it dissolves into thin filaments” according to blogger Clotilde Dusoulier.)

Despite all the class Nazarian threw at the Bazaar, the establishment confirms every New York and San Francisco snob’s worst conjuring of a fatuous City of Angels. Tall Eastern Bloc prostitutes run amok, attired in revealing dresses shimmering with rhinestones that serve their purpose of diverting attention from their weathered faces. The men, who could be tippling to repress thoughts of forbidding credit card balances, resetting mortgages, and personal dejection, ooze purported wealth, wearing the expensive suits that prove they concur with Sammy Boy’s business strategy.

The shibboleth about Los Angeles restaurants or at least those in West L.A. is that the entertainment industry and its supporting cast of rubes have corrupted them. Accordingly, a perception (not necessarily my own) is that L.A. restaurants have viewed swankiness and a good scene as the means to a healthy profit, allowing food quality to languish and evidencing a flagrant disregard for California’s agricultural bounty. If there were any truth to this, the Bazaar is in the midst of shattering it, as the quality of Andrés’s high concept tapas are of paramount concern, even when they do not succeed. As it turns out, the elite Hollywood scene whose business and presence Sammy Boy craves never materialized; that business goes to the more subdued and tasteful surroundings, if lesser food, at the Sunset Tower. (Admittedly, we at the Fress do love us some Sunset Tower in the wintertime.) Maybe it is still old times in Los Angeles, tinged as ever with ethnic rivalries and subtle prejudices that have rendered the Bazaar "too Persian" for the city's social elite.

In the 90’s José Andrés brought his aspirations and knowledge of Spanish cuisine to Washington, D.C., another city plagued by an inferiority complex and dearth of flavorful food. Back then, I was a semi-regular at Andrés’ first restaurant, Jaleo, the tapas joint located on Seventh Street between Pennsylvania Avenue’s office corridor and the seedy Chinatown neighborhood just beginning gentrification. Jaleo had an enormous menu of orthodox Spanish tapas in those days, but could execute only three dishes with consistency: sautéed shrimp in garlic and olive oil, octopus with paprika, and a preparation of blood sausage. Everything else was a crapshoot. But lawyers and lobbyists crowded the joint during the happy hour, thirsty for the plentiful sangria and the spectacle of flamenco shows. My crew of fellow misanthropic law students and I would put up with this riff-raff, because Jaleo was among the best casual restaurants in town, and after dinner we could take the Green Line to U Street’s nightclubs, always concluding the evening with a half-smoke, that sausage of unknown composition, from the legendary Ben’s Chili Bowl, the only establishment on the historic Black Broadway to survive the riots of 1968.

Mired in law school at the time, I had never heard of Ferran Adrià or his cutting edge recipes. For a fledgling Jaleo, educating the public about Adrià’s cuisine would be an ultra vires act. Andrés, a shrewd businessman, knew not to unleash the results of a chemistry lab on conservative Washington eaters in a violence-prone neighborhood. The fact that he was serving Spanish food at all was challenging enough. After leaving Washington, I never thought too much about Jaleo, a good but not great restaurant. I knew that he had opened two more branches in the suburbs as well as the more formal Café Atlántico and a few restaurants with other themes, all in the same section of Washington. I had heard that he dedicated a modest six seats within Atlántico to the chemical cuisine he learned from Adrià.

A decade later, José Andrés turned up in Los Angeles with a menu as ambitious as Nomi Malone in Showgirls. There are scores of traditional tapas, as conceived by Andrés. Then there are the modern tapas, which involve unusual flavor combinations and rare ingredients as well as Señor Adrià’s recondite techniques. In Washington, Andrés serves these more intricate tapas to a mere six patrons at any given time. But in Nazarian’s domain, they are being served in a veritable banquet hall that Andrés spends little time in.

Andrés may have developed his culinary skills, as a technician and a thinker, at Adrià’s almost mythical El Bulli, which is a few hours north of Barcelona near Roses, Spain, and open to only 50 customers a night in the six months when Adrià is not cloistered into his lab. But Andrés learned the art of operations, which is perhaps more difficult and important than cooking prowess, through years of trial and error in his busy Washington restaurants. He took that expertise to Bazaar its spacious kitchen, an efficient machine, preparing and dispensing a thorny menu to a crowd that could have been as indifferent as Washington’s could have been bewildered. Instead, Andrés has a runaway hit, though he owes Los Angeles Times critic Irene Virbila a tithe of the gross for her exuberant praise.

Marisa and I visited twice in recent months with varying experiences. On our first visit, with my visiting parents, the standout dishes spanned the entire menu. The traditional sea urchin pipirrana--a preparation of fresh, creamy urchin served on top of cucumber, onion, plum tomatoes, and red and green peppers, all diced to one eighth inch, in a mixture of olive oil and sherry vinegar--was so delicious that we quickly ordered another. The salmon-like arctic char with chick pea cake and the Greek tzatziki was as flavorful as any I have had. The lamb loin with potatoes and mushrooms was uncomplicated and delicious, as were the scallops in a spicy romesco which possessed the nuanced robustness in flavor that I prize when eating the mollusk.

On the modern tapas front, I was taken by the twin juxtapository olives, which seem to be the work of a magician, but are an old Adrià specialty as I later learned from Dusoulier’s blog. Bazaar served each person two olives side-by-side in white ceramic soup spoons. The first was an olive containing a briny anchovy and a morsel of piquillo pepper and was plenty tasty. The second was a simulacrum of an olive that involved the trapping of olive oil inside a green sphere. The olive oil exploded into my mouth when I bit down, and yet it tasted like an olive, even superior to the real olive. Adrià devised these faux olives through a process of his own creation called process of “spherification” that involves hydrocolloids, which according to the Gray Lady’s Kenneth Chang is “a suspension of particles in water where the particles are molecules that bind to water and to one another. The particles slow the flow of the liquid or stop it entirely, solidifying into a gel.” The science notwithstanding, I loved this derivative olive. It was more precise and tasted better than anything we had a few years ago at Comerc 24 in Barcelona, whose entire menu consisted of juxtaposing traditional dishes with reconstituted or deconstructed variations.

There were a few misses, an inevitable occurrence on such a bold menu. The most obvious example was the ajo blanco, a white garlic gazpacho garnished with a tiny salad of tomatoes, grapes, and raisins, the last of which I quickly noticed and brushed away before eating the soup. The soup’s gelatinous texture alienated me, and I cannot understand how the inclusion of an inedible, indigestible desiccated grape of all things would overcome that.

My father, in his great haste to eat everything, did not see the raisin. But his tongue sensed it and alerted his brain, which understood that a crisis was afoot and that drastic action would be necessary to prevent any lasting damage. To my amazement, my father’s brain took over the controls from his stomach. The brain positioned his head over the plate, and then caused him to bow his head and open his maw. Alas, the offending raisin fell harmlessly onto his plate, saving all of us from untold amounts of future kvetching and perpetuating his napkin’s usefulness.

Marisa and I returned a month later, still celebrating our fifth anniversary. While we lacked a reservation, we knew that each dining room has several counter seats that are available on a first-come, first-served basis, just like at a sushi bar. Not a single seat was occupied during the entire two hour period when we there with my parents.

We checked in with the front desk, and its two hosts sized us up with a whiff of condescension, as if they had been just been culled from the ranks of Sammy Boy’s army of velvet rope minders. “Let me check if we have any availability,” the ingenue said and then scurried off to the dining room. Her counterpart, a young gentleman wearing a suit, observed our conversation, but quickly returned his attention to the computer screen, indifferent to our suspense. A few minutes later, the host returned. “We have two seats for you,” she said smiling. Of course every seat at our counter was vacant, which the host whose only responsibility is to greet and seat must have known beforehand, and we could see that only two seats were taken at the opposite bar. We faced two assistant chefs who were preparing plates of ham and cheese and assembling the cold seafood dishes. The large wait staff ignored us for some period of time, and finally one of the assistant chefs summoned a waiter for us.

We ordered a series of modern tapas, a few repeats from the prior meal and several we had not tried, most of which were not Adrià-style chemistry experiments, but an amalgam of aspects of East Asian and Mexican cuisines. Within a period of 30 minutes, we received practically everything we ordered, and we felt like we were at our very own buffet table. All the intricacies of these dishes were lost on us. I longed for Hirozen’s unagi after experiencing the cluttered Japanese “taco” of grilled eel, perilla leaf-- an herb more commonly known by its sexier, Japanese name, shiso--cucumber, wasabi and fried pork rind, i.e., chicharrones. A pretty preparation of Japanese eggplant with yogurt, flakes of tuna, and a Japanese stock infused with honey could have been lifted straight from the recipes books of local schlockmeisters Café Sushi or Tengu. The worst offender, a banal serving of tuna ceviche, wrapped into a long sushi-style roll with shaven avocado replacing the seaweed, was sodden from a surfeit of coconut dressing.

For Marisa, the Adrià-esque tortilla de patatas “new way,” redeemed what proved to be an unsatisfying meal. A Spanish tortilla prepared the “old way” is “[i]n its most basic form . . . a potato and egg open-faced omelet that derives most of its flavor from olive oil” according to Mark Bittman. It is a ubiquitous comfort food in Spain and often delicious. At Bazaar, Andrés reconfigured the tortilla as an haute French egg, served as an amuse-bouche, albeit ordered a la carte. Bazaar blends potato foam, egg yolk and caramelized onions and serves it cleverly in a trimmed egg shell. The combination was delicious, and its saline, comforting appeal captured the essence of the original. We will return, but not without a reservation.

The Bazaar at SLS
465 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles
(310) 246-5555

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you're a little rough on Jaleo.

I do love that your dad has a built in raisin extraction sensor. Nothing is worse than the insidious evil of an old, dead grape. I need to get one of those sensors.