I immediately recoil. I'd eaten two or three times at the original Spago in West Hollywood, closed in 2001, and twice at Granita in Malibu. By the time of my last meals there, I'd become completely bored with Puck's formulaic cuisine, the celebrity-ogling and the corporate culture that has resulted in his franchise fast-food spots, Wolfgang Puck Express.
I hesitate but write David back: "Please don't take offense, but I'd rather be set on fire than eat at Spago. Can we go somewhere else?" I recommend three other places -- Bastide, A.O.C. and Grace.
David writes back that he'd basically sold his mother into slavery to get a reservation for us at Spago on Friday night. We are going, he says, but we can go to Bastide on Saturday night, too.
I feel horribly guilty and agree. Then, a few days later, David writes me back and reports that he'd made the reservation a week early, so I am off the hook. He'd go to Spago with someone else. He makes a new reservation for us at Bastide.
Los Angeles Moment No. 2: I arrive in L.A. on Tuesday. It is the day before I am to drive to Santa Barbara for the oral defense of my doctoral dissertation, ending my seven-year quest for a useless Ph.D. I cannot sleep that night, so I drive out on Santa Monica Boulevard at 2:30 a.m. toward Silverlake.
I pull into a shopping center parking lot with a Benito's Taco Shop. There are about four of these tiny 24-hour spots around L.A. Orange, yellow and white, with only three or four stools outside, this one is host to a clientele that belongs in a Fellini film.
"Oh, honey, get one of those big, firm burritos," a voice says behind me as I stand at the window trying to decide what to order. Then I feel arms encircle me and a woman's body slide up and down my own. I look to my right and another woman -- one with the face of someone recently deceased from a heroin overdose -- is looking at me, maniacally laughing. I turn around, and my face is an inch from the woman who has been hugging me. I step back to take in the view. She is in leather hot pants, stiletto heels and a shirt just big enough to frame but not cover her breasts, stuffed into a push-up bra. She has a huge head of hair -- black, fuzzy stuff teased up 3 feet high, above eyebrows that look like boomerangs. She is, however, quite beautiful and funny as hell.
She begins slapping my face with her hair. Then she bursts out singing, "Doo do doo do doo do do doo." I recognize Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." She clears a space and points down the sidewalk and sings again: "And the colored girls say ... doo do doo ... ." Up the sidewalk walks a zaftig African-American chick in a lavender thong and boots laced up to her crotch. One hand is held out, swinging back and forth, marking the tempo of her impossibly swiveling hips.
A bum walks up and asks one of the women for money or a taco. When she declines, he screams, "She-males! Fuckin' she-male whores!"
"Hell yes!" the big-haired one yells back. "We are girly men!" They drag me over to a stool at the outdoor counter and we spend the next 30 minutes eating burritos stuffed with carnitas and guac, rolled tacos with carne asada and cheese quesadillas. The food is shockingly tasty. The hilarious company dispels all my anxiety about the next day. "These women, they love you," the cook tells me in Spanish. "And I love them," I reply, burying my head in the towering hairdo next to me.
Los Angeles Moment No. 3: Bastide, in West Hollywood on Melrose Place, has routinely made that city's best-of lists during the last few years. I'm looking forward, the day after passing my defense in Santa Barbara, to a leisurely meal of the restaurant's celebrated Provencal-California cuisine.
The restaurant is the apotheosis of L.A. style. The main dining room is outdoors. The interior dining room might as well be; one of its walls is floor-to-ceiling ferns. A staff in black suits circulates amid the white walls, and the clientele, dressed to the nines, spends much more time eyeballing people at other tables than the people they are seated with. When I go to the restroom, a woman stops me and asks, "Who made that shirt? Is it silk? My husband would look good in it. What size is it?"
When David and I are handed our menus, I am startled. "This is not Provencal cuisine," I say to our sever. "It's ... it's ... French molecular cuisine."
"Very astute," he says. "We hired a new chef two months ago and we are no longer doing Provencal food." The new chef turns out to be Ludovic Lefebvre, famous in L.A. for A) looking like a rock star and B) turning L'Orangerie into one of L.A.'s hot spots. He is the author of a new cookbook, Crave, that explores food from the perspective of each of the five senses.
Lefebvre's approach is to cook basically with French style and technique but to mix it up with the molecular style made famous at El Bulli in Spain and practiced by Richard Blais here at Bazaar. In fact, an amuse bouche here is a shot glass of blended foie gras much like Blais' milkshake. There's also a deconstructed Bloody Mary of glittering gels served on a big spoon.
I start with lump crabmeat with fresh yuzu oil, tomato consomme and lemongrass spiked with green tea and -- huh? -- sumac. I have to say, as beautiful as the dish is, its variegated flavors completely overwhelm the crab itself. David makes the better choice with prawns marinated in pistachio oil, served with caviar foam and pink grapefruit gelee with honey, avocado bavarois and some Oestra caviar.
My entree is amazing -- a decon-structed lobster. There is the meat of a claw marinated in yellow pepper jelly and served with red beet sorbet, sea salt and roasted beets. There is tail meat infused with smoked black tea served with passion fruit and fried vermicelli and clams. David orders dorade poached in seaweed, accompanied by tomato, crab, sea beans and lychees simmered in wasabi oil. "This is the fanciest food I've ever eaten," he says.
For dessert, I order ginger glace with blood orange slices, and David picks a chocolate tart. Both, a bit simpler, remind me more of the food I ate at L'Orangerie a few years back.
Los Angeles Moment No. 4: "You'll love it," my friend Peter says, as we drive to the French Quarter on Santa Monica Boulevard for Sunday brunch. "It's inexpensive, tastes good and is campy as hell."
Imagine that the Colonnade assumed the look of a gigantic wrought-iron gazebo. It's gays and grays for days here and the food is not the least bit French. But chicken roasted in Thai peanut sauce was actually good.
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