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How the West Was Lost

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 7, 2006 5:39pm ET

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."

Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  September 8, 2006 1:50am ET
One thing I love about our restaurant is that my boss/the owner refuses to go w/ Open Table or any of the other online services. He wants guests to talk to a real person. No voice mail phone tree menus to beep through either. Our 3 main phone girls have been w/ us 5 yrs min. A familiar voice. We are a fairly high volume place ($6-$8 mil a yr). I realize this may not be cool to everyone in the new digital age but how many times have you wanted to get through to a real person w/ any business or organization?Also, those systems are not that flexible. You can't squeeze in a last second VIP or move things around as quickly as you can w/ good ol pencil, paper and an eraser. I remember bartending way back w/ the "new" computer systems. It made all of us rude because the system was so inflexible that the simplest requests were frustrating us so we in turn relayed that back to guests (circa 1980).
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 8, 2006 3:00am ET
Apj, I understand your point, but I love OpenTable for making uncomplicated reservations. One advantage: I can do it even if the restaurant isn't open. I made the original res at 1:30 in the morning. If the system doesn't show me what I want, I call the restaurant during open hours and talk to a real person....which I did in this case when I needed to move our arrival time earlier. The "live" person was totally unwilling to help. At the very least, he could have sounded regretful.
J E Shuey
Dallas, TX —  September 8, 2006 9:53am ET
I have used Open Table to make reservations is more than a dozen different cities in a half of dozen states, and I love it. As Harvey says, it's asynchonous...you can book when and from wherever you please. (Of course the points leading to dining coupons is an added bonus.)
Mark Owens
Cincinnati, Oh. —  September 8, 2006 10:19am ET
It all comes down to this, do they Care? If they cared, a lot of things in the experience would have been different. This is how I evaluate restaurants, do they care? When you care about customers or anything, you find ways to serve or accommodate your market. I look for restaurants that love what they do, love to entertain (with food) and love the "service business". These places make you feel welcome, where ever you are. The food usually tastes better when made with passion.Mark
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  September 8, 2006 11:47am ET
Your experience with a rude host reminds me of a similar one 3 or 4 years ago at Restaurant Hapa, in Scottsdale. It was new at the time and had received rave reviews in national magazines. We had a reservation for 8 PM in the main dining room as we had requested. There was a second dining area with a sushi bar and low, cocktail lounge-type tables. When our party of four arrived, the hostess was nowhere in site, but eventually greeted us, and said we would have to wait at least an hour because they had had a lot of walk-ins and were extremely busy. She also said we would have to eat in the sushi room, instead of the dining room. She didn't ask if we would like to have a drink at the bar while waiting. (Anyway, there was no room at the bar, because it was full of sushi room diners). This information was conveyed in a rude and arrogant manner, without the slightest hint of apology. After seething for 15 or so minutes, we decided it would be better to eat at McDonald's then to put up with this attitude. Just then another would-be diner, who was there with his family, and apparently had been waiting for over an hour, went up to the hostess to plead for a table. I went up to him and said, so the hostess could hear: "Why don't you do what we're doing; just leave"? Which we did. Looking for somewhere else, we happened upon Veneto Trattoria nearby. We were seated immediately, without a reservation, and enjoyed an excellent meal and great wine. Later I learned that Veneto holds a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  September 8, 2006 11:58am ET
I should have added that Restaurant Hapa has gone out of business.
Jay Anneaux
Gainesville, FL —  September 8, 2006 12:01pm ET
This is really the bottom line: That we believe in and most guest services should, in my opinion, at our upscale steakhouse, thats right in Gainesville, FL. "YES is the answer what is the question?"
Gregory Walter
Sonoma, CA —  September 8, 2006 12:25pm ET
Mark, you're absolutely right. The quality of the food in this case, as Harvey pointed out, is almost secondary. It's the fact that whomever was running the front desk -- and whomever trained that person -- doesn't care about customers. I can't tell you how many restaurants I've been in where I've booked the reservation through OpenTable, had to choose from a very limited list of available times only to find a sea of open tables on either side of my reservation time. Give me a place where people treat you as a guest and I'm happy even if the food isn't quite top notch -- Greg Walter
John L Vickerman
Sacramento Ca. —  September 8, 2006 12:32pm ET
When you visit the restaurant anonymously,do you pay the bill in cash or use your credit card?
Robert Fukushima
California —  September 8, 2006 12:36pm ET
Apj, I see your points and appreciate the ability to reach a person, and not a machine. I have used Open Table to make reservations fairly often, and too often had to adjust reservations on the day of. In SF, I have yet to encounter a restaurant that did not make every attempt to adjust a reservation once I asked. I do not see Open Table as a problem here, I see a poorly managed attitude in the front of the house, or worse, a managed indifference in an attempt to seem busy, as a problem here.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 8, 2006 2:45pm ET
John, when I visit a restaurant I use my own credit card, but only if a return visit is not required.
Alex Cobb
Fort Worth, TX —  September 8, 2006 4:34pm ET
Apj, I have been curious for a while as to what restaurant you work at in Dallas. I live in Fort Worth... -Alex
Atul Kapoor
los angeles/california —  September 9, 2006 1:48pm ET
Harvey, I too had a similar experience at West. I am in the business as well. The problem is Josh does not have a good surrounding staff, most managers of substance are ready to jump ship. When we dined there was no host or restaurant manager. The waitress did not know what 'cordon bleu' cognac is. i noticed a gentleman ( who we had shared our wine with) just walked out because he had not been given the check for over 20 minutes.It is beyond me to understand how the owners of that hotel spent millions,but shorted on good help. i do not believe they can last long with this set-up. They are lucky the location is good,but at those price points no room to come up short.
Jeffrey Nowak
scottsdale, arizona —  September 10, 2006 6:31pm ET
to mr newell regarding hapa. your experience is, of course, reprehensible, but not consistent with the many times i dined there before it closed. saying it is out of business implies that episodes like yours hastened it's demise. not really true, as the chef (a food and wine best chef and a james beard winner) had hot pants to be his own boss, and moved to napa. the so called sushi bar morphed into sea saw, a restaurant that remains open today, and sets a new standard for scottsdale dining. sea saw is part of the peter kasperski restaurant juggernaut, and will shortly move into new digs associated with the old town waterfront revitalization.
Jj Gallagher
Near Napa, Ca —  September 10, 2006 9:39pm ET
The sad end note is that Hapa's chef did come to Napa and had a highly acclaimed restaurant called Budo. Unfortunately it didn't last a year.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  September 12, 2006 3:20am ET
In case my opinions offend someone or may differ greatly from my employer's opinions I will hold off mentioning where I work for now. (wow! that sounds like one of those radio disclaimers).
Jeffrey Nowak
scottsdale, arizona —  September 14, 2006 5:31am ET
i couldn't remember the name of the napa restaurant i alluded to, and i was too lazy to look it up while i was typing. however, i understand that buda was a disaster. whether or not that was tied into service or not, i don't know. foodies i'm aquainted with who dined there said it was in a horrible location, and that pricing was...wallet chalenging.

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