Small bites equal big success at José Andrés new LA eatery, The Bazaar.
Here in the U.S., tapas bars are often less about authenticity than portion control.
I know I have repeatedly paid top dollar around the country for that obligatory ramekin of marcona almonds and a few forlorn olives, a paucity which in turn has convinced me that perhaps Spaniards do in fact subsist entirely on Marlboros. (No one smokes ‘em nowadays like the madrileños still do.) Making a meal out of a succession of tiny plates even has its own verb in castellano; to tapear can be loosely translated as “noshing” or “snacking” and this classic Spanish nibbling is nearly always accompanied by generous amounts of Sherry, a misunderstood wine here in the U.S. if ever there was one.
Translating tapas for Angelenos who far too often assume tacos from La Salsa or Baja Fresh qualify as Spanish food is a challenge unto itself. Who better to undertake this Quixotic quest than José Andrés, arguably the only well-known Spaniard cooking in the U.S.? With stunning successes in Washington D.C., the requisite television cooking show and a resumé that includes tutelage under the iconic Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, Andrés’ West Coast début at the new SLS Hotel was hotly anticipated in the food world. Would his trademark food-as-theatre aesthetic resonate with an audience that still considers tired wood-fired pizzas and dated California fusion food to be “gourmet”? Because no one on Cañon Drive is likely to serve you cotton-candy-coated foie gras lollipops or “Dragon’s Breath” tapas that make you breathe smoke from your nostrils anytime soon, that’s for sure. For that, you’ll need José Andrés and his team of molecular gastronomists, as they’ve been termed by some in the food press.
We headed to the Bazaar at SLS a while back with some foodie friends who were in town from San Francisco, as we thought this dinner would be great material for their popular website, chezus.com. My old Boston pal Lenny and his fabulous girlfriend Denise are in many ways emblematic of a new generation of empowered enthusiasts; armed with user-friendly blogging software, a good digital camera and a wry sense of humor, this duo carefully chronicles their culinary adventures at home and out on the town for a devoted online audience of like-minded 30-somethings. They like to eat and so do we, so when confronted by Bazaar’s dual list of “traditional” and “modern” tapas menus, we decided to go for the gusto and order a blizzard of small plates from both. Wisely, we entrusted our excellent server Carolina to serve this menagerie based on her own judgment; what ensued was one of the most unique and well, fun, dining experiences that we’ve ever shared.
When the smoke quite literally cleared about three hours later, we’d consumed nineteen (!) different items, each expertly and often theatrically presented. More importantly, each was expertly prepared. From the intense cloud of hickory smoke released from a glass cloche to reveal the perfectly cooked Arctic char beneath to the tableside alchemist who conjured sorbet from liquid nitrogen and cachaça, this was no ordinary meal. What I think marks Andrés most distinctively is frankly his bipolarity; rare is the chef who devotes as much rigor to unfashionable classics like canned Andalusian vegetables as he does to gastronomical experiments like his post-modern “olives” made from elaborately reconstituted olive oil. I was also impressed by his deftness with international flavors that are in no way Spanish. Somehow, in his capable hands, a Japanese eel taco and a Wagyu Philly cheesesteak seem equally native.
The term in Spanish is “genio,” or genius, because at Bazaar you’ll be in the hands of one. And like Einstein who tempered his own gifts with a healthy dose of humor, José Andrés doesn’t seem to take all this too seriously. One senses the chef’s sly humor reflected in Philippe Starck’s whimsical dining room décor, in the occasional tarot card reader who might pop by your table and in the sometimes downright silly menu descriptions. Eating at Bazaar is akin to attending a festival of shorts made by history’s greatest filmmakers, albeit lubricated with lots of alcohol. Each little dish, whether traditional or modern, is its own perfect narrative and Andrés’ odes to both classic Catalán cuisine and to innovative international interpretations show a mastery of the culinary short form. Even Ingmar Bergman would be having a good time at this party.
And don’t forget the vino — Wine Director, Lucas Paya, is also an El Bulli graduate and his wine list features some fantastic Spanish sips like the lemony verdejo from Rueda made by José Pariente or the excellent 2004 Reserva Rioja from Beronia, one of my favorite producers. Ask him or his talented assistant Aaron Sherman to put together a complementary pairing for you – you’ll need plenty of wine to get through this culinary adventure. A second stomach would come in handy too! At least that was our thought as we headed home, stuffed to the brim and feeling like we’d just attended the party of the decade. Shouldn’t every restaurant be this fun?
The Bazaar by José Andrés at the SLS Hotel
465 La Cienega Boulevard
Ryan Choura is a competitive slalom water-skier, family man, writer and speaker who just so happens to be the CEO of one of LA’s largest event agencies.