Olives that flood your mouth with flavor. A foie gras lollipop wrapped in cotton candy. The definitive shrimp with garlic. Innocent-looking bites that shoot smoke out of your nostrils.
How to describe the experience at the Bazaar by José Andrés in the new SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills? Fellini-esque, a gastronomical circus, a flirtation with the flavors and soul of Spain?
Los Angeles has never seen anything remotely like this exciting restaurant from Spanish chef Jose Andres.
The Bazaar is actually several venues in one. (The entire ground floor of the former Nikko hotel has been gutted to accommodate it.)
There are the tapas bars -- Blanca (contemporary) and Rojo (traditional). Then there's Bar Centro with its sexy sofas in the dark, tall communal tables with vintage movies projected onto plate-sized screens, covet-able cocktails and raw bar and caviar offerings. Next to it, the Patisserie, with its exquisite bonbons under glass cloches, looks like just the place for the Mad Hatter's tea party (and it does serve a remarkable high tea every afternoon), but you can also repair to one of the nooks or communal tables for dessert. Or just stop in for a post-event sweet or two.
In a city that's full of Philippe Starck restaurants, this is his best design.
The Bazaar also (bizarrely) features vitrines curated by Murray Moss of Manhattan's (and West Hollywood's) hyper-design shop Moss, and if you see something you've just got to have -- a fabulously expensive Nymphemburg porcelain tchotchke, a gilded piglet piggy bank, a vintage model powerboat, a fetching pair of gentleman's shoes or, my favorite, a set of finger puppets depicting five or six notables (including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi) -- why, by all means break out that platinum credit card. The rest of us will just goggle.
It's all very fun, but would only be a light divertissement if everything on the plate weren't so captivating. The ebullient Andres is a culinary powerhouse -- restaurateur, cookbook author and star of the public television series "Made in Spain." Born in Asturias in north-central Spain, the 39-year-old chef grew up in Barcelona, and trained and worked with some of the region's best chefs, including Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Roses, one of the best restaurants in the world and one of the most influential.
The Bazaar has some of the same theatricality, but it's more accessible. And more fun. I don't think I've ever been to a serious restaurant (serious in the sense that each dish is a revelation) that was as engaging and playful. Yet each dish has a kind of laser precision, especially the more contemporary ones from the Blanca side of the menu.
But don't worry, you don't have to choose between traditional or contemporary. Wherever you sit, on the Rojo side with its scrawl of blackboards and giant black and white portraits of matadors, or the Blanca side with its little sofas and armchairs slipcovered in white, you can order from either side of the menu, or mix it up, which is, I think, the best of both worlds. Or you can just have the kitchen send out a selection to the tune of $45, $65 or $95 per person and be surprised. And you will be, guaranteed.
One night, blinged-out hip-hoppers sit stony-faced at a table in one corner of Rojo. They don't seem to know what to make of the place. Small plates? Spanish? Across the room, a woman tosses her hair and waits for an artist to finish drawing her caricature. Secluded behind a billowy curtain, a tarot devotee in a throne-like chair reads cards for any comers. Both are complimentary on the weekends.
Sleight of hand
The hip-hoppers begin to thaw when "magic" mojitos arrive and the waiter pours the cocktail over a ball of cotton candy, dissolving it in the glass (festive, but too sweet, I found when I tried one.) Meanwhile, a cart pulls up to our table to offer nitro caipirinha cocktails made with cachaca and lime. The server pours liquid nitrogen from a Thermos into a bowl filled with the cocktail ingredients and whisks like crazy as a fog rolls over the cart like something in a horror movie. After awhile, he hands us each a small glass filled with chilly, utterly refreshing caipirinha sorbet to bring our palates to attention.
Now I see Andres leaning over the hip-hoppers' table, telling them that when they eat this next dish -- "dragon's breath" -- they must look at each other. Really!, he says as he presents what looks like a piece of mochi on a skewer. It's very cold. Very delicious. But that's not the point. As soon as they pop a piece in their mouths, extravagant plumes of smoke shoot out their nostrils. And they crack up.
I know exactly what they're experiencing because we just had the same thing minutes ago. Weirdly festive, just one slight trick in Andres' formidable bag of fireworks. They're loosening up and starting to have fun now. "Crazy," I can lip-read one big guy say to his friend, laughing.