WHAT makes a great restaurant? An irresistible vibe, terrific food, attentive, professional service and a sense of style. There's no shortage of Los Angeles dining rooms that fit that description.
But there's a subset of great restaurants that's much smaller: places where the cooking is unmistakably of that place. Taste a dish and you know it could only have come out of the kitchen at that particular restaurant.
Perhaps one of the reasons Chinois on Main, the Santa Monica restaurant Wolfgang Puck opened way back in 1983, has enjoyed such remarkable longevity is that so much of the cooking has always been unmistakably Chinois on Main.
The idea of Chinese-French fusion that Puck introduced 23 years ago has never become dull; it works just as well today as it did when Kazuto Matsusaka (now the chef-owner of Beacon in Culver City) was the opening chef. That spectacular Shanghai lobster -- split, seared and broiled, enriched with coconut-tinged curry sauce and surrounded by crisp, translucent fried spinach leaves that melt on the tongue -- could only be Chinois. Those amazingly flavorful grilled Mongolian lamb chops, so thick, smoky and tender, could only be Chinois.
In with the new, and old
SO what makes a Chinois dish? Heightened Chinese (or other Asian) flavors, French technique and a soupcon of pizazz. It's festive and special, but you'd be happy to eat it once a week.
Things have worked so well at Chinois for so long that Puck and manager Bella Lantsman, who opened the place with Puck and his then-wife Barbara Lazaroff, lo those many years ago, haven't been moved to change much. The dining room, with its big Buddha heads, celadon-colored wooden tables, tall cloisonne peacocks, and giant photographs of food, feels as it did 20 years ago. (Though they've added a private dining room next door.)
But last month Puck, along with longtime chef Luis Diaz and his co-chef of two years, Rene Mata, introduced a new menu -- the first major menu change, says Lantsman, since Chinois opened its doors.
Unlike the old menu, which offered a page of more contemporary dishes on the left and "Chinois classics" on the right, the new menu integrates the new and the old, indicating classics with a yin-yang symbol. These include that lobster, those lamb chops (no longer tagged as "Mongolian," they now come with stir-fried eggplants instead of wok-fried string beans), Chinois chicken salad and five other dishes, plus sides such as duck fried rice and vegetable fried rice.
Several of the new dishes have the dazzle that makes them unmistakably Chinois. Sizzling Snake River Wagyu steak with black pepper is fabulous -- buttery, meltingly tender and perfectly cooked medium-rare, served with earthy, barely cooked, thin-sliced matsutake mushrooms. It's the best American Wagyu (American Kobe beef) I've tasted anywhere, by a long shot.
Tea-smoked squab from Carpenter Squab Ranch near Ojai is wonderful, with crisp, almost lacquered skin and terrific deep flavor -- I can't wait to taste that again. Kabocha squash samosas, with their squishy, lightly sweet filling, are a curious counterpoint to the squab; the pairing feels a little random. I'm surprised to find that the braised veal cheeks that come with long life noodles aren't stewy, but rather braised and then fried and sort of glazed. They're terrific: soft on the inside, crisp on the outside, their flavor heightened with plum wine. Marvelous noodles with great texture -- springy to the tooth -- accompany.
Among the new appetizers, only a couple I've sampled have the Chinois wow factor. I love the stir-fried Sonoma lamb with crispy garlic and mint, served in layered cups of raddichio and butter lettuce. The lamb, like just about everything else here, is of the very highest quality, and it's sauced with a light hand. (When the previous menu was in play, it was easy to unwittingly order too many dishes with similar sweet, sticky brown sauces, but the new dishes are sauced more sensitively, so that's no longer an issue.)
Steamed asparagus with just a touch of crunch, arranged in a clever stacked lattice, form a stand for rectangular batons of battered, deep-fried veal tongue. They're hot and crisp, with just the right touch of funk, and a judicious dose of oyster-black bean sauce.
IN some ways, though, the menu turns its back on the thrill of fusion that has defined the place. Many of the new dishes, while delicious, are idealized versions of familiar Chinese or Vietnamese dishes; they don't exactly sizzle with originality.
Spring rolls with stir-fried chicken and fall vegetables are terrific, delicate and crisp, served with a wrapper of a lettuce leaf lined with a sorrel leaf and two dipping sauces. Wonderful, but predictable. Ditto the sugar cane grilled shrimp with kaffir lime and hot peppers -- the kaffir lime gives a Thai twist to a Vietnamese dish; it's good, but not that interesting.