Went to Trader Vic's last night for a very expensive birthday dinner for a family member. No real surprise there -- you go to Trader Vic's knowing it will be pricey. I've been going to Trader Vic's on and off for over 25 years, but hadn't gone within the last year or two.
Drinks remain excellent in quality and strength. They use the same bottled Trader Vic's mix for the Mai Tai that you can buy in stores, so I usually opt for something else on their large drink menu, and the drinks are well made with good quality rum. I don't think there is a drink under $10 and many are $12.50, but some are fairly large, and all are pretty potent. They also make nice "virgin" tropical drinks for kids and non-drinkers, though most of them clock in at about $4.50 a pop.
Interesting bread basket. Same old fresh from the oven hawaiian bread, but they've added some cheesebread poppy seed twists, along with cracker bread, all served with dishes of "homemade" peanut butter. Not peanut butter dipping sauce mind you, but actual, hard packed, somewhat dry peanut butter that tastes like it may be boosted with a touch of coconut and maybe a little sugar. The initial reaction of the table was "What the...???", but then we all tried it on the bread, including kids ranging from 12 to 16, and everyone loved it -- just couldn't stop eating it. Go figure.
Many old favorites gone from the menu, but the classic Cosmo Tidbit pupu platter is still there -- great large fried prawns, sliced pork, ribs and the Crab Rangoon puffs (fried wontons stuffed with cream cheese and crab). $20 a platter, so again, not cheap. And each feeds two, maybe three. Bong Bongo soup still on the menu -- cream of oyster with pureed spinach to give it a light green tinge, maybe some nutmeg too. More bland than I remember. I think it was $9.00 or so for a small, but filling bowl -- very rich.
They've really cut down the menu from what it once was. They're kind of going for a pacific rim asian fusion thing. My wife had mahi-mahi with macadamia nut crust in a wasabi cillantro sort of sauce. Vey good, but not outstanding, especially at around $28 to $30. Meats cooked in the special chinese ovens (kind of like a not quite so hot tandoori type thing) are very tasty -- the half a roast chicken comes out juicy with a nice peking-duck like crispy skin and at $24 comes with chow fun noodles and is one of the better "values" -- a relative term here -- on the menu. A 3 inch thick prime beef tenderloin with a horseradish reduction sauce comes out of the chinese oven very juicy and with pretty good flavor, though not on par with steaks you'd find at Mastros or Mortons. Priced in the same neighborhood though -- $38.
Still some "chinese" dishes on the menu, though none of them even pretend to be authentic. My daughter had some sort of beef with noodles -- very tender steak with kind a a dark, sweet sauce that reminded me of Madame Woos beef (the original in Santa Monica, not that Grove fiasco). Very good, if not "real" chinese food. I think it was $20 to $24 or even a bit more. I had fried rice with pretty much every thing they could throw in -- tasteless rock shrimp, dried out barbeque pork and chicken chunks, decent but not great. I think it was $18 or so.
The dining room remains an interesting combination of elegant and south seas tacky, leaning more toward the former than latter. Very professional service, friendly and welcoming, but not going overboard.
Save for a short period when it was "cutting edge" back in the mid sixties, Trader Vic's has never been known for its food, and given the Beverly Hills location the prices have always been on the high side. But you could choose carefully from the menu and eat and drink pretty well without putting yourself in the neighborhood of some of the more expensive places in town. That is no longer true. Right now, cost wise, it is right up there with places that offer substantially better food, whether it be steak houses like Mastro's, Morton's or Ruth's Chris, or fine dining places like Spago, Providence, Jar, Josie and the like. Lord knows there is much better chinese food --even Americanized cantonese food -- for much, much less. This branch just seems confused about what it is trying to do. Friends in the bay area tell me that the Emeryville branch is much better, with a larger menu and many more options, including a lot more of the solid and reasonable, if not outstanding, traditional Trader Vic's standbys.
The place was quiet, even for a Tuesday night, though friends tell me it remains a Beverly Hills hangout on Sunday nights -- complete with silver haired gentlemen with puffy pink faces wearing blue blazers and yacthing caps.
Still, it can be a fun place with nice atmosphere, and good for a celebration, though I'd limit myself to a trip to the bar for the still great rum drinks and the excellent Cosmo Tidbits pupu platter. Dinner? I'll go elsewhere thank you.
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