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Puck's New Brasserie Is Strong on Enthusiasm but the Menu Is Still Green

June 02, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Does Wolfgang Puck ever sleep? What with his Food Network show, appearances on "Good Morning America," a new line of wood-fired pizzas and a posse of restaurants from Los Angeles to Chicago and back, it's a wonder that the ebullient Austrian-born chef ever gets in forty winks. A friend once saw him at Spago on a Saturday night, then flew up to San Francisco and decided to have breakfast at Postrio, Puck's San Francisco restaurant. He arrived a few minutes too early. Guess who opened the door? Wolfgang. It makes you wonder if he has cloned himself.

You might wonder even more if you dropped into his latest restaurant: Vert, billed as "a brasserie by Wolfgang Puck." There he is again, remarkably youthful and fit. Look again. It's not Wolfgang at all, but his younger brother, Klaus, who moved from Spago Chicago to manage the new Hollywood restaurant in the Hollywood & Highland complex.

Next door is the Kodak Theatre, the new home of the Academy Awards. Since Puck is the reigning chef for the event, the developers built him an Olympic-size kitchen and gave him the option for even more space, which, of course, he used for a restaurant. Instead of creating another Spago or Wolfgang Puck Cafe, he turned to Spago executive chef Lee Hefter and longtime chef de cuisine Matt Bencivenga and asked them to come up with a concept.

Vert--green in French--is it, giving them a chance to cook their version of the casual French fare featured in the bustling brasseries of Paris. They've mixed in some Italian and California-inspired dishes, all at prices between those of Spago's and Wolfgang Puck's.

The Puck machine knows how to make a space inviting. Part of it is the openness and clarity of the design. Vert has a huge bar, back lit in red and green lights, with a plasma television screen tuned to sports and a bartender who can turn out cocktails double time.

Vert looks onto the open courtyard, which is a big help in making this restaurant-in-a-mall welcoming. At the back is the requisite open kitchen and its wood-burning pizza oven. Curved quilted booths in a deep turquoise are set off by ochre walls and Hockney-esque wall paintings. Bread arrives in filigreed wire baskets. Shellfish and pizzas are served on tall racks that elevate them above the table. All in all, Vert looks the part of the Hollywood brasserie.

Vert's signature drink is a pretty green Bellini made with prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) and freshly pressed green apple juice. It trumps a sour apple martini any day. If you're at Hollywood & Highland to see a performance or a movie, Vert is a great spot for a nosh and a drink. It needn't be only a cocktail. The wine list is eclectic and interesting, and the younger Puck often pours little-known wines by the glass, such as a Huet Vouvray dry from the Loire Valley or a Gruner Veltliner from Austria's Kamptal region.

The bread basket is a nice touch: olive bread, focaccia, long lasagna-wide ribbons of crisp bread with zigzag edges sprinkled with seeds. You also get soft white goat cheese topped with tapenade and Provencal herbs. The waiter pours olive oil over it to form a pool for dipping. It's a delicious way to start.

But the menu itself is very much a work in progress. First, the good news. Fritto misto is terrific--deep-fried squid tentacles, tiny pink shrimp, scallops, zucchini "fries," other vegetables and olives served with a crock of aooli. Another good starter is steak tartare, which comes already seasoned and with, inexplicably, a dab of aooli on the side. An unconventional Caesar of radicchio and romaine benefits from a spunky dressing and handmade croutons. Served in a bowl, it eschews the preened restaurant look for a homemade aesthetic. Soupe au pistou is mostly beans with a slew of minced vegetables, and the pistou (French for pesto) seems to consist of basil oil swirled over a crouton smeared with ricotta.

The chefs take the same liberties with pissaladiere and tarte flambee. Instead of the usual Nicoise flatbread spread with tomato, caramelized onions, olives and anchovies, theirs is ruined with a thick layer of soft, slippery onions and a heavy crust. Tarte flambee is basically hold the tomato, load on the onions and bacon. Whatever model they're working from, it's not correct, and it just isn't very good.

Pizza with potato, burrata and pancetta doesn't fare much better. Large areas of the billowing dough have no topping at all, and where the dough is garnished, it's sparse on the potatoes, and salty to boot.

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