Normally, I don't like to dump on restaurants because of a single visit, but this story is too good. It involves a world-renowned opera singer, a new Los Angeles steakhouse, some unpleasant surprises on the wine list and a wildly overcooked steak.
This is why I won't be officially reviewing West, a rooftop restaurant in Brentwood that bills itself as an Italian steakhouse. The chef, Josh Moulton, had headed the kitchen at Union Square Cafe in New York and worked at several other top restaurants there. He sounded enthusiastic on the phone. He sent me a wine list. It was short, but I spied a few familiar names.
I was in Los Angeles last week to catch up on some restaurants for some upcoming reviews. So, with visions of Tuscan bistecca fiorentina dancing in my head, I booked a reservation on OpenTable.com using an alias. My friend, the soprano Renee Fleming, was in town rehearsing La Traviata at Los Angeles Opera. I asked her, her daughter and her nanny to come along for the fun.
The day before the dinner, Renee e-mailed me to let me know that she would be in rehearsal until 8:30 p.m. No problem. I went online and changed our 7:30 reservation to 9:00. I noticed that all the times in between were also available.
That mattered, because Renee called me at 7:35 to tell me that the rehearsal had ended early. They were on their way, and she was starving. Knowing that so many times were open when I checked the night before, I didn't expect a problem, but I immediately called the restaurant anyway. "I'll do what I can, but I don't think we can seat you earlier," said the host. He didn't sound like he wanted to help much.
We met there at 8, and got the icy stare from the host, who shunted us off to the bar. Renee had been rehearsing since 1:30, so she was hungry. But I couldn't throw my weight around. I was there anonymously. So she tried. She came back looking puzzled. "He was really rude," she said. Renee is not the sort of diva who demands attention, although it's pretty hard to figure an L.A. restaurant ignoring a beautiful opera singer who was featured on "60 Minutes."
Various kinds of crudo (Italian sashimi) were among the appetizers available at the bar. We ordered a few plates, and they were good. I was encouraged. This might turn out right after all.
Then they took us to our table. There were 10 or 12 empty tables around it, which made us all wonder why they had kept us waiting.
Renee ordered the Tuscan steak and said she wanted it rare. There ensued a long discussion with the waiter about just how rare she likes her steaks. Finally, she said, "I like it charred on the outside, red in the middle." It came, some 30 minutes later, well done. Not only well done, but dry, dry, dry. And then it took five minutes to attract a waiter from our remote location.
My chile-rubbed ribeye was actually a bit rarer than I like mine, so I gave Renee half of mine. The waiter got a replacement steak out in five minutes. (Renee took it home and got two lunches out of it.) But it wasn't bistecca fiorentina. Just a porterhouse steak marinated in olive oil and herbs. Even when they got it right, neither steak was anything special.
However, the Italian food was pretty smart. Aside from the crudo, the pastas and the wild mushroom risotto were splendid. Maybe they ought to change the name to Ovest (Italian for west) and focus on the crudo and the pasta.
A footnote on the wine list. There were some good wines on it, including Poliziano Asinone 2001, Allegrini Palazzo della Torre 2001, d'Arenberg Laughing Magpie 2003 and Felsina Cru Rancia 2001. Prices were in that sweet spot between $40 and $80. But a lot of good Italian producers, such as Avignonesi, Marcarini, Produttori del Barbaresco and Ornellaia, were represented by lesser vintages or less exalted bottlings than the ones that made their reputations.
The preponderance of mediocre bottlings on a 120-wine list made it imperative that the steaks be really great for me to review the restaurant. They weren't.
"Sorry the restaurant flunked," I said to Renee.
"Are you kidding?" she responded. "It was probably more fun this way."