The Hotel Bel-Air remains the same exclusive, romantic, garden-like hideaway that it was when the first guests moved in 45 years ago. But one thing has definitely changed: the food, which has kept pace with California's fast-paced culinary scene.
You can savor the dishes beautifully displayed in a new book that gives equal play to the lush grounds of the hotel. Leafing through "The Bel-Air Book of Southern California Food and Entertaining" (Crown: $50) is like indulging in a luxury weekend. You might start with breakfast in a sun-splashed corner, move on to lunch beside a lake inhabited by the hotel's signature swans, then have tea in the gardens. Dinner could take place under the arcades of the terrace. And if you can manage anything more, you would finish with a cozy late-night bite in the bar.
What you will taste is the work of George Mahaffey, executive chef since 1989. Mahaffey, writer Norman Kolpas, photographer Brian Leatart and food stylist Norman Stewart collaborated to produce this book.
Although Mahaffey was born in Pittsburg and grew up in Richmond, Va., he definitely has a handle on California flavors. "We're different from New York," he says. "Most people there are looking to Europe for inspiration; here the chefs are more intrigued with third world flavors."
The most popular appetizer at the hotel--crab cakes--came from the South with Mahaffey. But the concept has undergone a Pacific sea change. Mahaffey coats the cakes with toasted masa , serves them atop barely cooked corn puree on plates streaked with red pepper puree, then scatters crisp fried strands of squid ink linguine alongside and adds just a touch of green with cilantro.
Instead of traditional Scandinavian gravad lax (marinated salmon), he cures the fish with fresh ginger and serves it with "chopsticks"--won-ton skins stuffed with a spicy shiitake mushroom mixture, rolled tightly and fried crisp.
You'll see a photograph of that dish in the book, and you'll also learn how Mahaffey stuffs spring rolls with fried rice, snow peas and cashews; fries Japanese soba with garlic to go with grilled squab; and serves a salad of jicama, pomegranate and pecans with orange vinaigrette for Christmas dinner.
"The food that we do here is innovative and thoughtful," Mahaffey says, "but it's not fussy or overly creative. You have to keep in mind what consumers are looking for. I want good food that makes people happy to eat it." Mahaffey emphasizes very fresh, premium ingredients, light accents rather than heavy sauces, brief cooking to preserve fresh flavor and smart plate presentation.
There's always someone, however, who wants a steak dinner. At the Bel-Air it's a $35 plate that includes the finest meat Mahaffey can buy, a mushroom compote, roasted potatoes tossed with herbs and a deep-fried onion cup filled with creamed spinach. The price would soar to $45 or $50 if it reflected the actual food cost, Mahaffey says.
Ingredients such as smoked salmon, mascarpone cheese, yogurt and won-ton skins are made at the hotel. Although there's a large herb garden, the kitchen requires even more, which results in an annual $25,000 bill for the extra supply.
Not all the recipes that appear in the cookbook are contemporary. Classics from the past include tortilla soup and Caesar salad. Only the tender inner leaves of romaine go into the Caesar, we are told. The rest are fed to the swans.
The book is divided into six sections: breakfast, brunch, lunch, teatime, dinner and special occasions. These are supplemented by advice on entertaining. Wines are recommended too, and the hotel sommelier, Tom Kaufman, gets a credit as well as Al Peiler, the head gardener.
Hotel food is often thought of in terms of mass-produced banquet fare. But that's not the way it is at the Bel-Air. "I don't even look at The Restaurant in terms of being a hotel dining room," Mahaffey says. "We have the luxury of focusing on the plates and making sure we do good work."
GRIDDLED CRAB CAKES WITH SWEET CORN PUREE
2 cups instant masa
1 tablespoon olive oil
5 tablespoons diced sweet red pepper
1 pound flaked cooked crab meat
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon finely chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
Juice of 1 lime
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Red Pepper Puree
1/4 pound fresh squid ink linguine, cut into 6-inch lengths
Oil for deep frying
Spread instant masa on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Heat olive oil in small skillet over moderate heat. Add red pepper and saute until tender-crisp, about 3 minutes. Cool to room temperature.