Friday, February 20, 2009

The Bazaar by Jose Andres, Los Angeles CA

Unlike abstract art which cannot (in my opinion) truly be 'good' or 'bad,' the realm of abstract food - the realm of Molecular Gastronomy/Neo-cuisine/Deconstructionist cooking - is a little easier to judge. Sure, you can apply rules of asthetics, intention, emotion, and value to each, but with food we all have a baseline - how does it taste? After a less-than-impressive visit to Moto on New Years Eve 2008, I have to admit that 'mg' did not wow me at one of it's temples, but after reading reviews of the new Bazaar de Ferran Adria and seeing the much more user (and price) friendly menu I wanted to give it a try.

Andrés, a discipline of El Bulli's Ferran Adrià, really needs no introduction given his past successes, but suffice it to say that the realm of tapas and avant garde cuisine owes him a great debt and his plunge into the Phillipe Stark designed Bazaar is certainly a big deal. Parking at Beverley Center and walking the two blocks to the SLS hotel I must admit I was a little skeptical about visiting such an eclectic restaurant with two decidedly "non-foodies," but on our arrival I was instantly put at ease by the beauty and glorious whimsy of the hotel and restaurant - even if they wouldn't like the food, at least my family would have a good time. Honestly, without hesitation, I can say the Bazaar was undoubtedly the most unique restaurant I'd ever seen.

With its multiple distinct areas (Bar Centro, The Patisserie, Rojo y Blanca, and Moss,) the first thing one notices when walking into the Bazaar is a feeling of controlled chaos. No chairs are alike, tables cross over one another in peculiar manners, 100s of different chandaliers hang from above, and the entire restaurant has a sort of electricity about it. Crystal animal heads, golden buddha's, crosses, books, piggy banks - the restaurant is sort of like visiting an eclectic and rich recluse who has collected treasures over many years - yet somehow it works. Even the bathrooms, mirrors and crystal from head to toe, inspire a sort of awe.

On entering our table was not yet ready, so we had the opportunity to browse - first at Bar Centro which is located directly behind the entrance with the aformentioned eclectic decoration slightly more controlled than elsewhere to allow mingling and the bar located along the wall.

Directly next to Bar Centro is the Patisserie with its selection of unique cakes (some served in the restaurant, some not,) candies (chocolate and vanilla pop rocks,) cookies, chocolates, teas, and coffees. Unique in every way, like Vosges on drugs, the service at the Patisserie was lacking while the incredible marble tables were certainly not. Thankfully I had a lot to look at while I waited (and subsequently gave up after 5 mins) to buy my sister a present.

Next up, to the right of the Patisserie, is a shopping area called Moss which contained - well - everything you could want, but nothing that you need. Celebrity items, golden pigs, black crystal skulls, watches, vases, jewelry - all at substantial prices - even the stuffed animals.

After approximately 15 minutes of wandering and taking pictures we were escorted to our table by the hostess - seated in Rojo per my request in order to see the wide open and bustling kitchen. Seated near the charicature drawer (yeah, they have a mystic/tarrot reader and a cotton candy machine too) on a long - and unquestionably uncomfortable - bench at a black oak table, our waters were filled and menus were delivered.

Like the restaurant, the menu is divided into "Rojo" and "Blanca" sections, with Rojo purportedly "more traditional." As there were three of us there, our server Dan H. encouraged 2-4 dishes per person, all to be sharred, and stated we could order more at any time. Drinks were next offered with my aunt going for the $16 Magic Mojito and my mother selecting a diet coke - a coke that cost $6 for 8oz and was unlisted on the menu.

Returning after a short while with a glass full off whispy cotton candy and a shaker, our waiter proceded to prepare the Magic Mojito tableside. Stiff with alcohol yet pleasantly sweet and not overly minty, this unique preparation was poured from the shaker into the glass and the candy sizzled and dissolved as it met the liquid. Not a drinker myself, my aunt claimed this was the best Mojito she ever tasted. After the drinks were poured (I will admit, he did perform a nice pour of the $6 diet coke) our first round of orders were taken and I got up to wander and watch the kitchen work. Following will be a description of the dishes ordered on the first round as well as three subsequent rounds – including dessert.

Jamón Ibérico - Per our server, Jamón Ibérico comes from a black Iberian Pig and is quite rare in the United States - additionally, we were told that the world's best jamon slicer was currently at the helm instructing the staff. Compared to other hams (most recently Osteria Mozza and La Botte,) the Iberico was incredibly tender, rich, and moist with a beautiful ham flavor and much better than you standard dry Serrano white hams.

Served with the Iberico was the Catalan bread with fresh tomatoes and Manchego cheese - apparently they used to charge extra for this, but now include it with the ham and cheese courses. Great tomatoes and crusty bread plus hints of cheese - not exactly bruchetta, but similar in concept and excellent in flavor and contrast with the fatty ham.

Mozzarella-tomato pipettes With micro basil - Interesting presentation and similar to the liquid greek salad at Moto. Wonderfully fresh tomatoes are skewered with the instruction to put the tomato in your mouth and squeeze the plunger which releases a liquid buffala mozzarella water. True to form, the first taste is tomato with a hint of basil with a sudden “punch” of mozzarella that lingers in the nose and palate – mg in essence, a pseudo caprese – wonderful.

Sliced apples and fennel Salad With Manchego cheese, walnuts, olive oil and cava vinegar – heavy in apple with the subtle nuances of fennel plus a bold and poignant vinegar and the crunch of toasted walnuts. Ordered too early in the meal, I rather wish this would have been served pre-dessert as a palate cleanser, but regardless the taste, price, and portion were all fantastic.

'Philly cheesesteak' Air bread filled with cheese and topped with Kobe beef. Ordered by my mom and not tasted by myself as I don’t eat beef – my mother said for $7 it was forgettable. While she liked the lightness of the air bread and how it popped in the mouth, she stated she couldn’t taste the beef at all. Literally, my thumb is larger than this dish.

‘Hilly cheesesteak’ Air bread filled with cheese and topped with sauteed mushrooms. The vegetarian flavor of the Philly, I did taste this version and must admit I was only minimally more impressed than my mother. Tasty, for sure, but tiny and a bit one dimensional – as my mother stated, the cheese simply overpowers everything with only a minimal amount the earthy mushrooms coming through.

Croquetas de pollo - Chicken and béchamel fritters. It is only a matter of time before some random company creates portable chicken pot pie, but Andres has already done it. With an amazingly toasted golden exterior containing creamy and delicious chicken and cheese innards, this dish was a great deal for the price and taste like “comfort food” in a whole new way.

Watermelon tomato skewers with Pedro Ximénez reduction and sexy tomato seeds. Pricey but delicious, another dish that would’ve been better served as a palate cleanser at meal’s end – imagine the most delicious tomatoes with salt contrasting strongly against the sweetest of watermelons and touched with a discreet vinegar. Sexy.

Traditional Ottoman carrot fritters with pistachio sauce. Seemingly a dabbling in Indian or Turkish food, these deep fried fritters were crispy yet textural with the carrots and tasted like sweetened carrot donuts all alone, while the pistachio sauce gave a creamy and almost bitter contrast that worked well. Another great deal of a dish.

Buñuelos de Bacalao - Codfish fritters with honey aioli. Soft poached in texture, I quite liked this cod-dish and actually preferred it to the preparation at Bouchon which cost twice as much. Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and the fishiness of the cod wonderfully tempered by the sweet honey aioli – tasty.

Bogavante a la Gallega - Galician lobster medallions with olive oil crushed potatoes and smoked paprika. I will first note that the portion and quality for the price were incredible – this is truly a dining deal. A well poached claw and approximately one half of a lobster total, I will admit the dish was a tad overcooked (especially compared to recent lobsters at Trotters, TFL, and Alex) but the overall flavor was spot on and the potatoes were wonderfully creamy with just a hint of paprika spice. Perhaps a minute less in the pot and this dish would’ve been sublime.

Jicama wrapped guacamole - with micro cilantro and Fritos. Essentially meant to be an assembled guacamole dip, I found the dish a tad boring while my mother loved it enough to rave about it still. While the jicama wrapper was tasty, I couldn’t get past the thought that I was simply eating Fritos dunked in guacamole.

Sweet Potato Chips with Yogurt, Tamarind and Star Anise. Chips so thin you could see through them, creamy and tangy yogurt, wonderful spices from Tamarind and Anise, almost Asian in flavor - yet distinctly different with aspects of Greek cuisine as well. One of the more “challenging” in terms of contrasting flavors, I was surprised that all three people at the table look back at this dish as a winner.

Sopa de setas al Idiazábal - Classic wild mushroom soup with Idiazábal cheese. Prepared tableside, this pour was worth the price. A mélange of wild mushrooms, some crispy and some sautéed, were presented in the center of a plate with the thick and creamy cheese soup poured over top while still piping hot. Allowing for time to cool, the mushrooms permeated the cheesy soup creating one of the best soups ever to grace my tongue – on par with the amuse soup at Danko a week prior.

Tortilla de patatas ‘new way’- Warm potato foam with a slow cooked egg 63 and caramelized onions. On a trip of wonderful eggs, this $3 dish (the cheapest item on Bazaar’s menu) was a wonderful surprise and had I not wanted to taste as many options as possible I’d have surely ordered 3-4 more. Foamy butter potatoes with caramelized onions and chives hid beneath a 63 minute poached egg that literally blew my mind solo and when combined with the foam and spices formed what can only be described as the texture of a liquid buttered baked potato with a hint of egg. The absolute must have of the menu, in my opinion.

Cotton Candy Foie Gras - with crunchy corn-nuts. Showing off a whimsical side, this small bite was prepared tableside as a 0.5oz cube of Foie terrine was skewered, rolled in crunchy corn-nuts, and swirled in the wispy candy. Instructions were given to consume the skewer in a single bite (a trick, even with my big mouth) and as such I complied. With an obvious first taste of pure spun sugar, the flavor quickly shifted to the salty crunch of the nuts and then gave way to the creamy texture of the foie. At $5 each I can definitely say it is a dish worth experiencing once, but I wouldn’t order more than one given the myriad other options on the menu.

Foie Gras Sliders with Quince compote on brioche. Having tasted a similar version the day prior at Arcadia and another months earlier at Iridescence, I must say this was not quite as tasty as Mina’s version, but excellent none the less. Small in size I can honestly say that the biggest issue with the dish was actually the overall butteriness of the brioche – it was just too much fattiness on top of the foie and the sweetened quince. Certainly not a bad Foie Gras presentation, but on a trip with so many others it just wasn’t near the top.

Apples “Carlota” Bread pudding with saffron sauce and milk ice-cream. My absolute favorite dessert, I was thrilled to see Bread Pudding on the menu and ordered without hesitation. Served uniquely, the apple/bread/custard log was laid across the front of the plate with the ice-cream and cinnamon tuille lying atop the sauce in behind it. Absolutely glorious and amongst my five favorite all-time fruit bread puddings, I was stunned by the unique texture of crispy exterior and creamy interior – like a strudel without the crust. The ice cream was additionally interesting and while not as good as Charlie Trotter’s raw milk ice-cream, certainly delicious.

White Chocolate Coconut Cake with Passion fruit gelee. Tasty but not as unique as the alternative dessert options, this creamy chocolate cake was wrapped around a liquid sphere of passion fruit that remained contained until poked and then slowly oozed from the cake into a delicious puddle on the plate. The only dessert we ordered which was also available at the Patisserie (not prepared at time of order,) I do wonder how exactly the chef got this to “set up” without seeping out of the cake prior to eating.

Nitro Floating Island with bananas and coconut meringue – more like a reverse floating island, the dish’s appearance was like a smoking meringue cloud perched atop warm bananas and pineapple gel. Instructed to eat before it melted the meringue ice shattered when poked with a spoon and each bite literally melted in the mouth. Interesting, refreshing, and the bananas were caramelized and delicious. The overall concept, flavor, and uniqueness was on par with Cantu’s “Under the Sea” Pina Colada at Moto.

When it was all said and done the three of us had consumed 20 dishes, all of which were good to excellent, and we were admittedly slowing down with later options as we got more full. It was as the meal went on, actually, that we began to notice how quickly our server kept arriving to clear plates and how slowly the water refills came. Without offering desserts, it was suggested that we go to the Patisserie for dessert – an option we declined and prompted our server to go get the dessert menus. While the restaurant was getting crowded, there were still multiple seats available – seats that were still available when, for the third time, our server suggested we get dessert at the Patisserie to “complete the experience.” Declining yet again, our server did not return again until dessert was complete and at that time it was with the check. Paying the extremely reasonable bill, I asked for a copy of the menu - a request which was declined because “We don’t have extras” (bear in mind, the menu is a piece of paper in a binder) and it was suggested I should look on the website.

All told I think The Bazaar was a great experience at a great price point with an extremely ambitious approach to match the incredibly ornate and ambitious interior. Clearly meant to attract the Hollywood elite and the rich and famous, I think the owners need to realize that the food of Jose Andres will also attract the foodies who want the chance to experience his brilliance, as well, and that these are people who may be used to Michelin starred service – not being rushed out or sitting on picnic benches. While I realize we weren’t buying oodles of wine like other diners, our reservations were early and I found the rush a tad inappropriate – not to mention that $6 diet coke – a price for which I could’ve had two more Tortilla de patatas.

Great food in a “scene” restaurant is not common, whether it be Los Angeles, Vegas, or NYC – but the Bazaar pulls it off in grand style. Service issues aside, a great experience and the vision of a great chef who focuses as much (or more) on the quality of his ingredients as the uniqueness of his approach. Call it molecular gastronomy, neo-cuisine, or deconstructivist cooking if you like – I simply see a man and a concept that are unlimited by traditional boundaries yet remain with feet firmly planted in tradition.

No comments: