Morel season is just starting, and Gamba's cassolette of morels would qualify as one of the richer items on offer. Served in a copper pan, the big meaty morels are topped with pork belly that, as the waiter explains as if it's some sleight of hand, has been slowly cooked until all the fat melts away. Good trick. There are also a few appealing crispy bits of pork belly shaved as thin as slide samples. I'm ready to love this. The pork belly is delicious, but the morels have soaked up a heavy reduction like so many sponges, so the musky flavor of the prized mushroom is obliterated.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Hampton's location: In Wednesday's Food section, a review of the restaurant Hampton's implied that Westlake Village is in the San Fernando Valley. It is in the Conejo Valley.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 16, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant location: A May 9 review of the restaurant Hampton's implied that Westlake Village is in the San Fernando Valley. It is in the Conejo Valley.
Diver scallops are sweet and big as pincushions, but though a smear of pureed English peas and a scattering of pearl onions and fava beans may be spa-friendly, it makes for a dull dish.
By this point in the evening, I'm regretting having angled for the table with a two-seater sofa at one end instead of a more formal setup with old-fashioned armchairs. Even if you're 6 feet tall, the sofas are too low for the tables. I switch places with one of my taller guests (even he looks like a kid sitting there), and now I can take in the view outside the floor-to-ceiling windows.
A waterfall tumbles down a pile of artfully arranged boulders from the River Kwai in Thailand crowned by a grove of 50 sequoias. I don't know. To me, it conveys Las Vegas more than "oasis of well-being."
More simplicity, please
MAIN courses are organized under categories such as "from the ocean," "from the fields," or "from the land." Feeling like somebody from the fields, I go with the zucchini marmalade ravioli with balsamic-tomato jam and golden tomato broth. This is a serious mistake. The ravioli dough is clumsy, and the flavor of the zucchini is stamped out by a sharp, excruciatingly sweet tomato-balsamic jam. Worse, it's a sure-fire wine killer.
Crispy gulf snapper is crispy as advertised, but completely dried out inside. Too bad, because the accompaniments -- soft roasted eggplant, baby artichokes and roasted tomato with basil -- are delicious.
With braised beef short ribs and beef tenderloin we are moving into the realm of hotel food as usual. It's good beef, expertly cooked, and that's about all to be said for it. The same goes for the lamb medallions. Poached Maine lobster with fresh corn ragout is just that, fine but unexceptional. The most interesting thing about the dish is the vibrant fresh corn.
Shelton's Farm chicken is prepared two ways, both of them overcooked. And I don't know quite what to make of Dover sole with plantains and clams in a bouillabaisse sauce. Each of the elements is fine, but altogether, the flavors are disconcerting.
All in all, Hampton's menu is not as compelling as I'd expect from someone who's headed up Lespinasse and who has worked with world-class chefs. Gamba's menu aims for simplicity and freshness, yet many of the dishes seem overworked and are marred by overly reduced sauces. All his finesse and background are not enough to make the dining experience register as anything more than hotel food with typical bells and whistles.
Keeping with the idea of all things in moderation, the wine list offers a number of half bottles, perfect for a couple who want to drink both a white and a red. It may not be the most exciting selection, but it's nice to see those small bottles, which are difficult to come by. Champagne would be a good choice here too; there's a nice selection of vintage and nonvintage sparklers.
It's a decent wine list for such a new hotel, and includes such curiosities as Rosenthal Chardonnay from Malibu and Brewer Clifton "Sea Smoke" from the Santa Rita Hills. But the hotel needs to work on the wine service.
A couple of desserts are worth noting. "1,000 layers" (read \o7mille feuille\f7) is three thin sheaves of pastry curled up like a skateboarders' run and layered with a fine-spun pistachio cream and raspberries. It's feather-light yet satisfies that urge for something luscious to end the meal. I love the flavor of the coconut panna cotta served with fresh pineapple. If the pastry chef would cut down on the gelatin, this would be the star of the dessert menu.
Do I walk out feeling revitalized? Not exactly. I walk out feeling grateful for my friends. Without them, this would have felt more like a business affair at a high-end hotel than a dinner out for the fun of it. Hampton's may need more time to come into its own. But right now the highlights of the menu -- basically the appetizers -- aren't enough to make it more than a respectable fallback for a neighborhood that's needed more choices.
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Rating: * 1/2
Location: Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, 2 Dole Drive, Westlake Village, (818) 575-3000; www.fourseasons.com/westlakevillage.