Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ooh Baby, It's Making Me Crazy: How Bazaar

Having waxed philosophically about the phenomenon of molecular gastronomy earlier this week, I now delve into some real word experience. A few weeks ago, I had dinner at Bazaar, Jose Andreas' new restaurant in the SLS Beverly Hills Hotel, which is actually in Los Angeles (maybe they should call it the SLS Beverly Hills Adjacent Hotel).

Is Bazaar all it's cracked up to be? Yes. Is it experimental? Yes. Is it bizarre? Somewhat, but not to the extreme. Aside from the molecular tricks and post-modern decor, is it great food? Absolutely.

Bazaar is a tapas restaurant; the menu is broken down into two parts: traditional and modern. The traditional dishes are the types of cured meats, cheese and seafood tapas that you would expect to see in a Spanish restaurant. The modern reveals the chemist side of the establishment. There are also two tasting menus which mix it up a bit, a small one at $45 per person and a larger one at $65. We decided to go for the large tasting menu. I should note that the night I attended, chef de cuisine Michael Voltaggio was not in, so the sous chefs, including Top Chef Marcel Vigneron, were running the show.

Even the cocktail menu at Bazaar is divided into traditional and modern, so we tried a number of modern cocktails. The Manhattan came with a maraschino cherry "spherification," a cherry shaped, cherry flavored, liquid filled gel. The margarita was topped with a salty foam, and the much reviewed magic mojito was poured over cotton candy, which melted upon contact with the liquid.

This was not the best start to the meal. These cocktails appeared to justify the worst stereotypes of molecular gastronomy. They were gimmicky and the molecular tricks enhanced neither the flavor nor the experience of the meal. It was like a movie that was all special effects and no plot. Luckily, the rest of the meal did not follow suit.

It speaks volumes to Andreas' talent that among the three or four best dishes of the night, half came from the traditional menu and half from the modern menu. The two sided menu allows Andreas to demonstrate his traditional chops as well as his creativity. I won't go through every dish, but these were the absolute highlights.

One of the first things we were served was Jamon Iberico, which is one of my favorite cured hams. It was light and subtle and had that melt in your mouth quality of only the finest Spanish hams. I suppose serving a plate of ham doesn't reveal much about your cooking talents, but it certainly reveals good taste.

Another favorite from the traditional menu was the goat cheese stuffed roasted red pepper. This was such a basic dish; it sounds like a throw-away antipasto, but it was beautifully executed. The pepper was smooth and sweet and the cheese was tangy, and just slightly melted. The dish came together so beautifully with the sweet, the tangy, the chewy pepper and the semi-liquid cheese. In some ways, this dish was the antithesis of everything that molecular gastronomy stands for. It was the simplest of dishes, pairing two very basic elements to create a beautiful harmony.

The next dish that really wowed me was lamb, cooked sous vide with a wild mushroom jelly and wild mushrooms on a potato foam. Full of foam and gel and cooked sous vide, this dish sounded like a molecular gastronomy greatest hits plate, but it all worked marvelously. The lamb was wonderfully moist and tender, but not too gamy. The mushroom jelly had a rich, concentrated flavor, and the potato foam was like a cloud of mashed potatoes. Here, in contrast to the cheese stuffed pepper, each element of the dish was quite complex, yet it still came together in remarkable fashion.

My fourth favorite was something we added on to the menu after seeing it go by. The popular foie gras cotton candy consists of a cold square of foie gras on a stick, topped with crushed corn nuts and wrapped in a cloud of cotton candy. You ate it from the stick in one bite, first sensing the sweetness of the cotton candy and then the deep, cold richness of the foie gras. We had it as our final dish before dessert and it was a lovely end to the procession.

Not every dish worked as well as these. There was a lack of emphasis on seasonal produce that hurt some of the dishes. A "salad" of a cube of watermelon topped with tomato pulp might have been wonderful in July or August, but with neither tomatoes nor watermelon in season, it was bland and dull.

On the molecular side, other interesting dishes included the starter of sweet chips and a Greek yogurt dip with anise, tamarind and olive oil which was whipped to an almost foam state. There was a caprese salad with tomatoes, basil and liquid mozzarella balls that looked like regular mozzarella balls but exploded in liquid upon the first bite. It was texturally fun, though the taste was not much different from that of a traditional tomato-basil-mozzarella salad. I enjoyed the cous cous made from cauliflower, which felt like cous cous but tasted strongly of cauliflower. The lobster bisque was a small cup of strong lobster broth with a foam of cream on top, which was served with a small piece of Norwegian lobster on a seaweed salad. One of the most amusing dishes was the Philly cheesesteak, a pastry, filled with something approaching cheesesteak cheese whiz, with a seared slice of Kobe beef on top. The cheesesteak was playful and fun, but not the best dish of the evening.

Several themes emerged during the meal. There are playful ingredients that Andreas loves to work into his dishes. These include cotton candy and corn nuts, both of which appeared multiple times on our menu. From where we were sitting, we could see the kitchen's cotton candy machine, which was in nearly constant usage for mojitos and cotton candy foie gras. We wondered if he makes his own corn nuts or simply grabs a few of the red bags from the nearest 7-11.

I approached Bazaar with a healthy degree of skepticism, but in the end, I was fully converted. This was a WOW meal, not just for in form, but in substance. How Bizarre indeed.

SLS Hotel
465 S. La Cienega
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 246-5567

No comments: