|By S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 10, 2012--With the new Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air, the Austrian chef who, along with Alice Waters, begat California cuisine, has finally achieved a quintessentially Californian restaurant, one with a legendary outdoor terrace in a verdant setting with swans gliding through ponds and enormous old trees overhanging walkways and tumbling streams.
And what a difference: For the first time in recent memory, the historic hotel has a serious restaurant with some seriously good food. Puck may no longer be the youngest kid on the block, but he's tough and smart and, more important, he knows how to make food that is genuinely delicious. All his expertise and charisma are brought to bear in the new restaurant.
Part of Puck's genius is his instinctual feel for what people in Southern California want to eat. And his food here via executive chef Sonny Sweetman and chef de cuisine Ray Weber relies on top-flight ingredients and deft execution. The menu reads a bit cautious (it's a hotel, after all), but not stodgy. And, against trend, he hasn't gone in for a pounding rock soundtrack. The Bel-Air is one of the few restaurants in town where it's quiet enough for conversation. The terrace especially gives a sense of privacy and romance.
Puck doesn't take any shortcuts. Everything is done in-house, including the excellent breads -- ficelles, focaccia, miniature pretzel braids and more. To begin, the chef might send out a pair of sparkling amuses -- a spoonful of osetra caviar with lacy crÃ¨me fraÃ®che "snow" around the edges, just enough to enhance the caviar. Or a bite of breathtakingly pristine Maine diver scallop ceviche with shiso microgreens and chives.
The dish that stands most out in memory is tortelloni stuffed with hand-cut sweet peas, as green as spring, fragrant with marjoram and simply tossed in a little butter, and topped with a few shavings of dank, delicious black truffle. Piedmontese agnolotti surprise with velvety celery root filling.
Seafood dishes are strong too. I loved the lithe, refreshing Japanese red snapper crudo with blood orange, avocado and shaved fennel. And the diver scallop carpaccio with shiso buds and smoked sea salt delights with its texture and purity.
I've never had a better Dover sole. It's firm and sweet, sauteed in butter and adorned with the tiniest spring vegetables from Chino Ranch. Pan-roasted French turbot with clams, melted leeks and a dreamy La Ratte potato puree is terrific too.
I'm thrilled one night to find roast guinea fowl on the menu. It's so much more nuanced than chicken and comes with its deep-flavored jus. Dry-aged 35-day prime sirloin arrives as three tall medallions crowned with marrow. Not for nothing is this restaurant the first cousin of Cut, Puck's Beverly Hills steakhouse. I just wish the kitchen had left the rich, overly reduced sauce on the side.
Not everything is spot-on. Hand-chopped steak tartare suffers from a dated, overly fussy presentation. Goat-cheese encrusted lamb accessorized with black trumpet mushrooms and black garlic seems like a dish left over from the beginnings of California cuisine, though the lamb itself is superb.
Also, the dining room may be a touch chilly and formal, the terrace a bit cluttered with heat lamps, the once-cozy bar less inviting than before. But all that fades away once you're seated at your table, hopefully a semi-circular booth cocooned at the edge of the terrace.
Just as at Spago and Cut, Puck relaxes the fine dining experience to just this side of informal. Service, as always, is crisp and warm. All the appointments -- flatware, porcelain, glassware, linens -- signal luxury. The wine list is loaded with California and French gems, and the wine service is impeccable.
Sweets from Sherry Yard and her team are flirty and festive. The domed Chocolate Imperial, which marries a Colombian chocolate flan with a Guanaja chocolate mousse wears a swatch of edible gold leaf that shivers in the breeze. As a finale, mignardises appear -- tiny exquisite caramels wrapped in iridescent cellophane and sugar-dusted fruit jellies with Chino berries strewn in between.
Hotel Bel-Air's restaurant is a destination once again. What other restaurant can match the lovely drive up Stone Canyon Road, headlights picking out ornate iron gates, private tennis courts, grand houses? The scent of jasmine and roses. A bite of sweet pea tortelloni or Dover sole. A sip of Pinot Noir. It's pure California. Welcome back.
Location: 701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles, (310) 909-1644, http://www.hotelbelair.com/wolfgang-puck-bel-air
Price: Dinner appetizers, $15 to $26; main courses, $28 to $55; four-course tasting menu, $110; six courses, $145. Wine pairings are an additional $75 to $90 per person.
Details: Open 7 to 10:30 a.m. daily for breakfast, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Sunday brunch, 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday for dinner, and 6 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday for dinner. Afternoon tea 3 to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Corkage fee, $45. Valet parking, $8, with validation.
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