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Checking Out the Buzz at Barfly

March 01, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

A couple of years ago, kazuto matsusaka, Chinois on Main's longtime chef and Zenzero's founding chef, was lured to Paris to open Buddha Bar, one of the City of Light's trendiest late-night spots and sister restaurant to Barfly. Now Kazuto is back in Los Angeles, cooking at a Sunset Strip outpost of Barfly (a Buddha Bar is slated to open here as well).

Barfly has moved into the vast space that was once Nicky Blair's and then, briefly, the all-night deli Ziggy G's. Nowhere near as down at the heels as the bars featured in the namesake movie based on the life of writer Charles Bukowski, Barfly actually has a velvet rope outside for crowd control. Deja vu or wishful thinking? A giant black-and-white photo of the author cradling a typewriter, his worn mug as pitted as the surface of the moon, hangs over the maitre d's podium. More glitzy than authentically seedy and distinctly lacking in irony, Barfly is done up in riotous colors--deep ochre, purple, lipstick red. The focus is the bar in the center, where dressy singles perch uneasily on velvet stools that resemble tall pincushions. The sinuous, plush booths along the walls are reserved for parties of six or more, but you can see and be seen at plenty of choice tables up front, near a verdigris re-production of the Louvre's "Winged Victory of Samothrace."

It's quieter in the back, that is, until 9:30 or 10, when the deejay moves into the balcony overhead and cranks up the music. You can also sit at the sushi bar, facing the wall, but you risk getting a crick in your neck if you plan to do much people-watching. Every time the doors open, which they do with increasing frequency as the night wears on, the guys sans dates (and, it seems to me, there are far too many of them) swivel for a look. Sometimes they get an eyeful. The scene is pure L.A. and very entertaining.

And the food is far better than it needs to be for what is basically a bar/restaurant (even so, if you sit down at a table, the minimum is $25 per person). The hard-working young waiters are a cheerful bunch, decked out in black T-shirts with "barfly" scrawled across the front and a just-larger-than-life-size insect on the back left shoulder.

Kazuto, as the chef is known, can cook straight-ahead California cuisine with his eyes closed, thanks to the 11 years he worked with Wolfgang Puck before striking out on his own. (His wife, Fan, joins him in the kitchen here.) Pretty much everything on Barfly's small menu is well-crafted and delicious, from the pizza (learned at Spago) to the sophisticated desserts.

Barfly pizza is basically a version of Spago's original and ever-popular creme franhe and smoked salmon pizza with that signature bready crust. The mozzarella and fresh tomato pizza is excellent, too. Chinese chicken salad is crisp and appealing. The chopped vegetable salad of carrots, asparagus, tomatoes, radicchio, celery and pine nuts is one of the best in town. And there's a sparkling seafood salad that trumps many other versions, too. But seared foie gras and pineapple is just as strange a pairing and as cloyingly sweet here as it is at Chinois, and a salad of cured salmon, artichoke and poached egg doesn't quite come together either.

If you're intent on dinner, you're in luck. Seared sea scallops on slices of potato are wonderful, served on a salad of vibrant roasted pepper and basil. The lamb chops and tabbouleh make a better meal than the New York steak smeared with herb butter, which is overshadowed by the delicious fennel and potato gratin that comes with it. A special of striped bass Provenval is lovely with its garnish of purple-black olives,emerald spinach and green beans. A heavy Wiener schnitzel isn't going to win any prizes, though.

One night, two of us are the only guests at the sushi bar. As sushi chef Yukio Sakai plies us with seared tuna in garlic ponzu scattered with pink peppercorns, capers and chives, followed by marvelous yellowtail sashimi and uni in a tall sash of nori, waiters come up, pleading: "Can't you make some spicy sushi for my table? Don't you at least have some spicy sauce?" Exasperated, he tells them: "You can order spicy prawns, but no spicy sushi!" As he hands us a bowl of julienned yamaimo, or mountain yam, with tiny gray-green seeds and a squirt of soy sauce, he says: "These people don't know sushi." Sakai is clearly a traditionalist, not about to serve some newfangled sushi concoction. His words are carried away by the pounding reggae beat, which is followed by samba, Greek folk music and something that sounds like the score from the film "Superfly."

For dessert, I recommend either the profiteroles filled with three ice creams (vanilla, butter pecan and chocolate) and slathered in dark chocolate sauce. Or the fabulous trio of pots de creme--rich little custards in vanilla bean, chocolate and caramel flavors.

The food, the scene--it's all been too much fun. But the night's still not over yet. As we wait for our cars outside, next to a group of smokers puffing away for all they're worth, a big Mercedes pulls up. The woman who claims it removes her jacket on this chilly night, the better to show off her pumped-up breasts, then gets behind the wheel and lowers the convertible top, leaving the rest of us behind in a squeal of tires.

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Barfly

CUISINE: California. AMBIENCE: Sunset Strip bar/restaurant and sushi bar decorated in Charles Bukowski theme. BEST DISHES: Barfly pizza, chopped vegetable salad, sushi, striped bass Provenval, grilled lamb chops with tabbouleh, pots de creme. WINE PICKS: 1996 Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling; 1995 Truchard Syrah, Carneros. FACTS: 8730 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 360-9490. Dinner nightly. Starters, $8 to $13; main courses, $12 to $28; sushi, $5 to $8 per order. Corkage $10. Valet parking.

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