Is U.S. restaurant capital shifting from N.Y. to L.A.? Critic sizes up the cities

April 21, 1991|By Jane Freiman | Jane Freiman,Newsday

"The restaurant market in New York is tied up," says Eberhard Muller, executive chef of Le Bernardin restaurant in New York. "L.A. is going to be, and already is, a very important city."

In mid-June, Mr. Muller will move to Los Angeles area to open his own seafood restaurant, as yet unnamed, in Santa Monica, Calif.

Fluctuations of fortune in the restaurant world have prompted two other acclaimed chefs -- Patrick Clark, formerly of Odeon and Metro, and Rakel's Thomas Keller -- to take their toques to Los Angeles. Mr. Clark now heads the kitchen at the Beverly Hills branch of Bice. Last month, Mr. Keller was hired to breathe new life into Checkers, the dining room of an upscale Los Angeles hotel of the same name.

Mr. Muller's defection comes at a pivotal period. The restaurant recession and this new trickle of chefs westward pose a question that Manhattan restaurateurs would have considered unthinkable a few short years ago: Has Los Angeles replaced New York as the No. 1 restaurant city in America?

Money magazine says yes. Its national dining-out survey,

published in July, calls Los Angeles "the culinary capital of the U.S." and declares Chinois on Main "best current eating spot in all of L.A., and perhaps in all of America."

That conclusion smacks of a little more than this critic can chew after eating in more than a dozen top Los Angeles restaurants last month. A more reasonable contention may be that Los Angeles is giving New York a run for its money.

Money also writes, "the average price for a fine meal in 1990 in New York is nearly half again as expensive as in Los Angeles." According to figures provided by the 1991 Zagat restaurant surveys, a three-course dinner with one drink, tax and tip in one of the 20 most popular restaurants in each city tallies up as follows: $61 in New York and $43 in Los Angeles.

Is the food half again as good in New York? Probably not. Given the freewheeling Los Angeles mentality, chefs there quite naturally produce vibrant, exciting food that is markedly different from the more conservative, authentic, classically American and European-rooted fare we value on the East Coast.

Innovations in L.A. focus on the use of ethnic ingredients from indigenous Mexican, Japanese and Cantonese cuisines, plus Vietnamese, Thai and Iranian flavors introduced by immigrants. The quality of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the presence in California of one of the world's major wine industries, are obvious strengths.

Wolfgang Puck is arguably the dominant force in Los Angeles. He owns and operates three seminal restaurants with his wife, restaurant designer Barbara Lazaroff. The most famous of those, Spago, sets the Los Angeles style with its designer pizzas, open kitchen and informality. No one, including celebrities, gets dressed up to go there.

Mr. Puck's Chinois on Main crystallized the much-touted Pacific Rim cuisine -- Oriental concepts and ingredients spectacularly wedded to European technique. His Thai-inspired curry risotto with lobster, crisply fried spinach leaves and shredded ginger is a stunning case in point.

Chinois looks like a slightly wacky lanai. Setting tables with chopsticks rather than Western cutlery is a major statement. Service is brisk but efficient, and the noise is horrendous. To say this is the best Oriental-inspired restaurant in the country is a valid claim. Suggesting it as best restaurant overall seems unsupportable.

The Pucks' third and newest restaurant, Eureka, may be the most arresting and innovative of all because it combines a

microbrewery and space-age beer garden. The enormous open kitchen at one end adds a larger-than-life theatrical element to the dining experience, and the menu roams the world, incorporating Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Hawaiian, German, Italian and American food ideas.

Eureka's lobster and red chili potstickers with cucumber-basil salad, or grilled mahi mahi with toasted Los Angeles on macadamia nut sauce, sound like something from a scene in the movie "L.A. Story," but the food is professionally cooked and presented. It breaks new barriers.

The Zagat survey shows people in Los Angeles prefer Oriental foods. Matsuhisa, a low-key, but spectacularly imaginative Beverly Hills sushi bar, is rated first, followed by Chinois on Main. However, Zagat and the Money article notwithstanding, in my opinion, the most delicious and consistently well-prepared food in Los Angeles is to be found at Joachim Splichal's Patina.

While not as flashy, informal or as cross-cultural as the Puck-Lazaroff establishments and others, Patina is a bastion of fine cooking, attentive and informed service, and a pleasant, comfortable setting.

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