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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Change tastes delicious

October 09, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

The highly visible Wolfgang Puck Cafe in West Hollywood, at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards, was Puck's first. Conceived as a more affordable Spago spinoff way back in 1993, it has been a solid performer, but after 10 years, its menu was feeling cluttered and slightly out of date. So Puck recently brought in Spago executive chef Lee Hefter to give the menu an update.

Hefter spent a couple of months pruning away dishes which piled on too many ingredients, editing out the least interesting items and introducing new ones. Nothing radical, it's really more of a freshening up, but it's made a tremendous difference. Now the cooking, under chef Jamie DeRosa, is crisp and assured. If the other locations can do as well, Wolfgang Puck Cafe could easily become the best chain restaurant in the country.

Pizzas are as good as ever, with billowy crusts that carry the taste of a wood-burning oven. The Margherita is a classic. One of the most satisfying is a pizza with crumbled fennel sausage, emerald rapini and red onions scattered with garlic and oregano.

You can also get Puck's signature home-smoked salmon pizza with dill creme fraiche, a dreamy variation on smoked lox and bagel. Even better, I'd say. As always, Puck doesn't stint on the quality of the ingredients, so when the menu states "mozzarella," it will be the real thing, and "wild mushrooms" won't turn out to be ordinary button mushrooms.

I'm impressed by the pasta dishes too. The pasta itself is supple and tender, and they're not over-sauced as they are at most places. Rigatoni Bolognese features a classic veal, pork and beef ragu.

Pumpkin ravioli is terrific, napped with a little hazelnut brown butter and good Parmesan. Even the rather plain spaghettini with tomato, fresh basil and garlic is delicious.

Hefter has also beefed up the entrees. They include an excellent version of the ubiquitous braised short ribs and a terrific pan-roasted pork chop with creamy polenta and a sage and garlic sauce. Instead of the former Port wine glaze, meat loaf gets a lighter mushroom gravy. The chicken is now rotisserie chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and a lemon-rosemary sauce.

Puck also took the opportunity to update the prices, adding a dollar or two to most items. Oh, and the color-loving dining room now sports a dressier look, with white tablecloths instead of bare tables.

Spago sommelier Kevin O'Connell has upgraded the wine list considerably with a slew of interesting, moderately priced wines from around the world, and over two dozen of them are available by the glass. Look out for the Valminor Albarino, Bodega Palacios Remondo Rioja and Renato Ratti Barbera d'Alba, among others. He's also pouring a Belgian Trappist Ale, Chimay "Blue Label."

The presence of the cafe (and free parking at the complex) mean you can turn browsing at Virgin Megastore or a movie at the Laemmle Sunset into an entire evening. The people-watching from the terrace out front isn't bad either. Puck himself was there one night, having dinner with a group of friends -- and signing cookbooks for anybody who asked.

*

Wolfgang Puck Cafe

Where: Virgin Megastore Complex, 8000 N. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.

When: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Parking under the building.

Cost: Appetizers, $8 to $12; pizzas, $9 to $14; pasta, $10 to $13; main dishes, $10 to $22; desserts, $6 to $7.

Info: (323) 650-7300.

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