Chinois' love of the eighties extended way beyond these dessert plates and turquoise hue...
Wolfgang Puck was the first celebrity chef I ever knew of in my life; not so surprising considering I was a kid growing up in the Southern California ‘80s when Spago took L.A. by storm along with that whole new breed of California continental fusion cuisine.
In high school, one of my closest (and most exotic) friends Sylvie had a father who was a French chef named Michel and worked with Puck for a while. Michel was a big part of my foodie roots because when I would sleep over at their house, he would come home at midnight from whatever restaurant he had worked at with hunks of cheesecake and legs of frog and other tidbits of foreign goodness and would serve it to us with sips of red wine (even though we were only 14). My Francophile disease was obviously largely fueled there.
So by the time I actually lived in L.A. the Spago-craze had simmered from its boil with his newer restaurants taking reign, and I don’t mean the fast food Puck joints that have replaced California Pizza Kitchen in all the mega-malls. I am talking about places like Chinois on Main in Santa Monica that touts itself as an Asian Fusion restaurant and in 1983 when it opened its doors, was considered one of the nation’s finest examples of this. I had very high hopes when the Cute Gardener took me there this past weekend as one of our pit stops on the DineLA week but unfortunately left with a very cold taste in my mouth that I could not shake. After feeling baffled by Chinois’ (seemingly) overhyped 30-year reputation combined with our expectations in comparison to the actual experience, we realized that we might have been suffering from being too modern in our foodie-ness.
Spice Table's smoking hot behind-the-bar grill
Let me explain. Just the week before we had ventured out to Spice Table in Little Tokyo – also touted as Asian fusion but contemporary style by chef Bryant Ng. We ate a meal there that was exciting and revolutionary with flavors and spices that danced from Thai to Vietnamese to Indian all on the same plates, in new marriages and cutting edge ways.
Chinois’ Thai coconut soup tasted like chicken stock with bulbous overcooked meats and no typical citrus-based sprightly-ness…
…while the creamed kale with housemade paneer and pork belly starter at Spice Table pleased in its eccentricity.
Chinois’ crab cakes were mushy and bland, served in a boat of sauce and book-ended by two shrimp while….
...Spice Table’s version was a soupy spread of crab for toast adjacent to savory lamb belly skewers, pumping up the ordinary satay.
Chinois’ pork cube was dry and ordinary compared to…
Spice Table’s braised pigtail with meat that fell off the bones and little bits of marrow between all the joints.
Even though this dish was beautiful, the curry jasmine rice was nothing we hadn’t tried a thousand times before while the Spice Table’s rice came in a neo-sambal sauce.
Maybe what Chinois was suffering was just old age, something that should provoke a proper respect towards the trail it blazed. Kind of like the way new Italian restaurants use fresh ingredients rather than the daylong soaked canned tomatoes in a pot on red-checkered tablecloths of yore; or the way New Vegas eaters are regaled with Michelin star restaurants beyond the sea of cold prime rib buffets; or the unctuous, introduction of imported sashimi in Japanese restaurants replacing the teriyaki and tempura dinners. I guess it’s good that there exist the old and the new for both kinds of foodies: those who resist change and rely on the flavors of their comfortable old plates and those who are constantly seeking out new tastes from chefs who continue to explore and discover.