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Glamour under the stars

At the terrace at the Tower Bar, a new chef's chophouse menu brings a grown-up liveliness to a classic setting.

August 15, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

ON a balmy summer night, where do you take out-of-town friends more intent on seeing something of the Hollywood scene than trying the latest, greatest restaurant? To the most adult place on the Strip: Tower Bar at the Sunset Tower hotel. We commandeer my friend John's rented convertible, lower the top, the four of us pile in. We cruise along Sunset Boulevard, taking in the glitzy boutiques, the packed sidewalk cafes, the stretch limos idling at the curbs, giggling at the goofy getups of teenagers swarming toward the Strip.

I can never remember exactly where the hotel is, but coming round a curve, there it is, looming over the Strip like an Art Deco wedding cake. Built in 1929 as a luxury apartment building, this is where Howard Hughes, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe and other stars lived during Hollywood's heyday. In recent decades it's had several incarnations as a hotel. Refurbished by owner Jeff Klein over the last few years, today it exudes an understated glamour. We pull neatly in front and try to unsnarl our hair. Nobody, it seems, thought to bring a comb. But it's not every day any of us drives a convertible.

Before we go in to dinner, I want to show my friends the pool with a view where a scene from Robert Altman's 1992 film "The Player" was set. The small terrace overlooking the city and the small turquoise pool is magical at night. And wow -- people are dining out there, not just having drinks. If only we'd known! It's so lovely, with the city spread about below, the stars overhead, and Klieg lights sweeping the sky.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page Metro Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant review: In the Aug. 15 Food section, a review of Tower Bar in West Hollywood gave the restaurant's corkage fee as $45. It is $35.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 29, 2007 Home Edition Food Part Page Features Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant review: An Aug. 15 review of Tower Bar in West Hollywood gave the restaurant's corkage fee as $45. It is $35.

Without much hope, we ask if we could possibly get a table outside. We can and we do after a short wait. Our table is right at the edge of the pool. A waiter in a crisp white jacket arrives bearing cocktails. My pals are in heaven.

The restaurant also has a new chef in Dakota Weiss, who was formerly at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey. Weiss, 31, came up in hotel restaurants, but at the Tower Bar, she inherited a difficult kitchen and a menu that wasn't really hers. Klein listened and showed enough faith in Weiss to give her a new kitchen to play in.

To the eternal gratefulness of my friend John, a long table to our left is set up for a birthday party populated by some of L.A.'s seemingly endless supply of beautiful women. Models? Actresses? Agents? Any and all of the above. He doesn't care.

It's a perfect spot to enjoy a chilled seafood tower, which takes two waiters to deliver. The two-tiered seafood extravaganza is easily enough for two, if not three -- oysters, steamed mussels, shrimp, lobster, and long-legged king crab laid out on a bed of ice. This would be the moment to break out a bottle of Champagne. One night, my table is busy slurping oysters when I look over and see a woman by herself at the next table with a glass of brut and an entire plate of maraschino cherries. A sip, a cherry. A sip, a cherry. It doesn't seem to be cheering her up.

With a new menu that is fully hers, Weiss revels in turning out updated classic chophouse fare. There's a shrimp cocktail, of course, and beef tartare, and Caesar salad. But it's potato blini that speaks to me, topped with a poached organic egg and garnished with black truffles and beet tartare. Grilled artichoke is fine, too, fun to dip into a lemon mayonnaise spiked with a little horseradish. Have it with a martini instead of wine, because this one is a sure wine killer. But if you're ordering just one appetizer to share, go with the generous fried calamari. They're light and puffy and come with a fresh marinara sauce for dipping.


Stick with the simple

With main courses, I've found it's best to stick with the simpler preparations, like the roasted lamb T-bone. You won't go wrong with the steak frites either, but it seems pricey at $45 for a steak that doesn't taste particularly aged. Grilled chicken paillard and swordfish are both just this shy of being dried out. They'd have more flavor if they were cooked less and had more seasoning. Even some cracked black pepper would help. Grilled king salmon with lemon, good olive oil and a bouquet of jumbo asparagus may not be the most exciting dish on the block, but it's well executed -- though a bit under-seasoned, and the morel mushrooms and fava beans don't quite work with its flavor. But the idea of pairing the paillard with arugula adorned with pine nuts and ricota salata is a nice one.

After that evening, I can't wait to come back for lunch, picturing studio types in their Dolce & Gabbana suits under the chic beige-pink cabana. At 1 p.m. there's hardly anybody here. We breeze in, without a reservation, and get a table.

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