March 2, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
The Oak Room: Can This Landmark Be Saved?

A chili pepper-touched Grumpy Garcia  adds cheer to dinner at the Oak Room. Photo: Steven Richter.
A chili pepper-touched Grumpy Garcia adds cheer to dinner at the Oak Room. Photo: Steven Richter

        Maybe in another time the Oak Room would have had a chance. I can’t exactly imagine when for this once upon a time “Men Only” retreat. In the 30s we had a depression – perhaps the newly pauvres stopped by for 50-cent cocktails. Maybe there was a flurry of “tomorrow I may die” with the war in the 40s. And it did well enough in the innocence of the 50s before women invaded. Perhaps in some irrational bubble that has deflated, gadzillionaires living in 42-million dollar apartments above might have descended for dinner, high on the carved oak landmark overlooking the park, sipping $18 classic cocktails. But that bubble became a burp and tonight the halls are deathly quiet. Eloise has not been seen – not that we would recognize her at 70.  Maybe she grew up to be Carol Channing.

Feeble lighting fails to lift a sense of doom in this landmark room. Photo: Steven Richter

        No need for me to pound another nail in the Oak Room coffin.  Adam Platt shook the chandeliers a few weeks ago and Frank Bruni’s one star probably pulled the plug. Joel Antunes, the star chef who left a cozy perch in Atlanta to make this strangely lit room a destination, went home, leaving his second from Joel in Atlanta, Matt Ridgeway, in charge.  Now Tasting Table reports that Erica Hara is leaving his executive chef post at David Burke's Fishtail and Townhouse March 10, to take on the daunting task of resuscitation.   

Transcendent tuna sets off high hopes the evening. Photo: Steven Richter

        Before those critical blows fell, I’d come thinking that dropping a few hundred dollars for dinner might make me feel rich again. I’m not going to obsess about $28 appetizers.  In this newest makeover, good manners and formality are breached by allowing men to forgo jackets. Respecting history, we’ve left Bermuda shorts and Crocs at home.  Instead, it’s very Last Year in Marienbad in that sparsely populated grandeur, even with the lift of leggy mannequins and their wranglers at a late-gathering Fashion Week birthday party. “Probably a freebie,” our companion, a restaurateur himself, suggests.  Heavy silver plate, some garish design choices, oafish service, even sadly somber lighting.  We want to forgive it all for auld lang syne.  And the luscious $40 Morellino di scanseno from Elisabetta Gepetti, a lesser known wine from Tuscany, spotted on the very rich list by our wine-savvy companion, has definitely lightened my mood.

Truffle potato pancakes set off splendid venison. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s not the food – most of it is fine. Slices of Big Eye tuna marinated à la minute in rice wine, vinegar and shallots emerges wearing sprigs of cilantro, a $24 triumph in temperature, freshness, and the aristocratic quality of the fish.  Delicate buttons of potato gnocchi are united with perfectly cooked shrimp in lemon thyme butter in another $24 appetizer – thrown together, but not really melded.  Large banners of bacon, some blue cheese and a scaredy-cat hint of anchovy signal a perfectly fine Caesar salad. Smartly moist chicken breast, splendid rare venison, good enough mushroom risotto, marvelous winter vegetables on everything. 

Leftovers of exquisitely cooked lobster in a riff on Cobb salad disappeared in the kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I’d be thrilled to find such exquisitely cooked lobster so much lobster, still warm in a bowl with Cobb salad aspiration in any hotel dining room.  Our foursome is sharing the $28 starter as an extra. So much is left, I ask to take it home, imagining a fine breakfast salad. The captain returns with my stash in a Plaza shopping bag and offers to keep it in the kitchen till we go.  All of us are briefly distracted by odd triangles of carrot cake with gingerbread ice cream, very ordinary chocolate mousse and madeleines that would have been quickly forgotten by Proust. It’s not till next morning that I look for my shopping bag and realize the captain was as forgetful as I.

Wonderful root vegetables come with dreary short ribs. Photo: Steven Richter

        Can this grand old biddy be saved? What could a turnaround wizard do?  Maybe a more Victorian look? Plaid skirts on the tables, black velvet bows, something kitschy, but not too.  Whiter light that hits every table.  Comfort food. Comfort prices. A prix fixe.  A buffet. All you can eat for $39.95. More wines at $40 to supplement the three-digit treasures.  Cocktails with dinner priced by how old you are: $3.95 if you’re 39, $7.50 if you’re 75.  An Eloise look-alike contest for a free dinner.  I know nothing about marketing or how to run a restaurant but my email box is full of restaurants turning somersaults trying to stay alive.  Hopefully Joel Antunes will always have Atlanta.

The Oak Room at the Plaza. 10 Central Park South between 5th and 6th Avenues. 212 758 7777.

I Love Cut, But Can I Be Trusted?

Cash in a treasury bond to finance the ultimate imported Wagyu beef steak. Photo: Steven Richter 

        It’s possible my crush on Cut, Wolfgang’s steak house at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, is not to be totally trusted.  It was Valentine’s Day, with a special $120 menu including everything from gougères to knishes and four sides. And I had tagged along on the house’s effusive welcome for Jay Weston, longtime Hollywood wheeler-dealer with a restaurant newsletter that has been landing in Hollywood power mailboxes for 28 years (on paper, friends, not via the ether).  I’ve had a soft spot for Jay since he came after my novel Blue Skies, No Candy in 1976, determined to make it a movie.  Amazingly, he has not yet abandoned my heroine Kate, with her grand hobby of adultery in the afternoon.  He’s now decided Uma Thurman is our Kate and sent the book just this week to an agent who was probably too young to read it first time around.

Light wood, spare and modern with Big Brother is Watching You faces on the wall. Photo: Steven Richter.

        The Road Food Warrior and I fall into Cut, just off the lobby bar, to find Weston sizing up the crowd – producers who stole his ideas, hairdressing mogul Vidal Sassoon, various ex-wives, though not his own.  I sit facing portraits of Obama and Cate Blanchett. “Arnold is behind you,” says Steven.  Fully expecting a steak-loving governor in the flesh, I turn and see huge heads, all of them painted by Martin Schoeller.

VIP get extras like Waygu sliders and tuna tartare from the lobby bar. Photo: Steven Richter

        If anything, Weston’s royal treatment exceeds what I still experience in places where I’m known – La La Land not being known for subtlety.  First come menus and those warm gruyere-filled gougères and delicate knishes filled with potato and Parmigiana. “Not exactly Yonah Schimmel’s knishes,” he observes. Can a knish be Viennese?  Yes, in Puck’s imagination. And there are too many kinds of bread, marvelous bread – dense pumpernickel with a salty crust, exceptional whole wheat, butter from Brittany, cedar-smoked sea salt with rosemary. Then the house launches a parade of “Rough Cuts” from the lobby bar menu as extras - steak tartare on grilled bread, miniature Kobe sliders with pickles in brioche buns, tuna tartare on togarashi-spiced thin toasts and fries to dip into béarnaise.

        When our captain comes by with hunks of raw meat in black napkins so we can check the marbling, hunger is already waning.  “Let’s order two dinners for the three of us,” I suggest.

        Instead of showing us the exit, the waiter cries, “What a brilliant idea!”  And in no time we’re sharing ethereal slices of scallop gratin paved with giant truffle rounds and a salad of apple, fennel, red endive, Medjool dates, all julienned with a crunch of Marcona almond under shards of parmesan.  Good enough and perfect for three or four. 

You must taste the ambrosial short ribs with Indian spices. Photo: Steven Richter

        “You must taste the short ribs,” says Weston, “but it’s not on the menu tonight.” He dispatches the waiter to see if chef Ari Rosenson can find some. No surprise, the chef locates a stash. Roasted for eight hours in “Indian spices,” this ambrosial stew comes ringed with fragrant puddles of orange and green: cucumber mint raita and pumpkin puree.  

Rib eye, marrow bone, a rainbow of sauces and supernal fried onions. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our 20 oz. bone-in “aged 21 days” rib eye is divided on three plates – a small, juicy rare chunk, exactly enough meat for me, with monumental knuckles of bone marrow with various salts and mustards and a trio of sauces. We pass our marrow bones to Weston who eats two and takes one home.  Portions of four sides are included in the prix fixe – creamed spinach topped with a fried organic egg, soft polenta with parmesan, a toss of baby carrots, Easter egg radishes and young garlic, and a stack of the best fried onion rings I can remember. Banana Royale for two, with salty peanuts and caramel chocolate sauce on the side, sums up Cut as the spa for every steakhouse craving.

Banana split with caramel, salty nuts, chocolate sauce and ripe berries. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I cannot say what kind of service or perks the unknown wayfarer will receive. I would hope for style and obsequiousness at least near the velvet we were wrapped in.  I love the black folded napkin catching the splash each time water glasses are refilled. Of course, it’s expensive. Starters on the everyday menu range from $16 for pork belly to $28 for crab and shrimp cocktail. The catalog of prime American beef of all ages and Wagyu of varying provenances is best studied sober.  Imagine, petit New York prime is $48 for just 10 oz., $59 for its chunkier brother, up to $160 for 8 oz. of “True Japanese 100% Wagyu beef from Saga Prefecture in Kyushu Japan. Sides are $12 to $19.  But if you have to ask the price, you might stick to In and Out Burger. No one should arrive without sustainable credit cards.  Cash will always be in fashion. Valet parking at $15 doesn’t mean you don’t have to tip.

Beverly Wilshire Hotel 9500 Wilshire Boulevard, 310 276 8500.


I Did It My Way

That’s my crab “burger” on lettuces among Counter’s build-your-own burgers. Photo: Nico Ruderman

        It was one of those afternoons.  All of us needed a burger.  Father’s Office, the new burger obsession in Los Angeles, hadn’t opened yet, so Steven’s son Nico and his amie Anne took us to The Counter, home of the “Build Your Own Burger.”  It was an off-hour, mid-afternoon and we didn’t have to wait for a table. Nico explains the drill. Each person gets a questionnaire. Instructions are clear. 

        Step #1. Choose a burger (cooked medium unless requested otherwise). Beef, turkey, veggie or grilled chicken. Check one. Choose the size: 1/3 lb. $8.25, 2/3 lb. $10.25, l lb. $13.25. Specify on a bun or in a bowl, $9.25, $11.25 or $13.25. Check.  Over lettuce blend or mixed baby greens, check.

        Step #2. Choose a cheese (extra cheese $1). Ten choices to consider. Danish blue, Greek feta, Gruyère, horseradish cheddar, sharp provolone, and more.  Step #3. Choose up to four toppings from 18 offerings. Bermuda red onion, black olives, carrot strings, grilled pineapple, roasted chiles, corn and black bean salsa. This is like taking an SAT. You need to be able to read, for heaven’s sake. Ideally, you have a Masters. Step #4. Want “Premium” toppings? Avocado, Black Forest ham, chili, fried egg, homemade guacamole, honey cured bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, and more - $1 each. Step #5. Choose one of 18 sauces. Apricot, caramelized onion marmalade, country buttermilk ranch, Dijon balsamic dressing, mayonnaise, roasted garlic aioli, etc., etc., etc.  I need to put my head on the table and take a nap.  Step #6. Choose a bun. English muffin, hamburger, honey wheat.

We’re all fans of the crisp sweet potato fries.  Photo: Nico Ruderman

        I am saved from struggling with so many weighty decisions by settling on the “Burger of the Month” - Maryland lump crab cake with bacon, cole slaw and lemon basil tartar sauce, in a bowl on “lettuce blend” for $14.00.  Quite frankly, it’s exactly what you might expect from a $14.00 crab cake. Not the greatest crab, but good enough, with too creamy cole slaw.  And I get to taste everyone else’s - perfectly cooked rather flavorless meat, gorgeously, excessively decked out.  And the sweet potato fries are exceptional.  Ditto the black-and-white shake. Fun and near-wonderful.  I’m not sure it’s worth a trip to Santa Monica if you’re staying in Pasadena but Californians seem to thrive in that special hell of interlocking expressways.  They expect to drive for hours. If you panic at the prospect they might even pick you up.

The Counter, 2901 Ocean Park Boulevard, Santa Monica. 310 399 8383.

Patina Restaurant Group