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I’ve been meaning to write about The Bazaar by Jose Andres at the SLS Hotel for weeks now, but words have escaped me. There’s nothing like it in L.A. — or anywhere, for that matter. It’s the closest thing you will find to Vegas on the coast, the Cirque du Soleil of culinary adventures and a total sensory overload. Call it performance dining. The only place I’ve been that rivals its down-the rabbit-hole quality is Green T. Living in Beijing. Both are visual feasts, with settings that outshine the food but make the dining experience a magical, mystical journey — especially for people with ADD. The only problem is that element of surprise is ephemeral. I’ve been twice, and my second experience was not nearly as thrilling. The place gives you a fabulous sugar high the first time you see it, but sugar highs wear off.
Philippe Starck, with his quirky sensibilities, has his fingers all over SLS, as does owner Sam Nazarian. The Bazaar is designed like a three-ring circus, with two tapas restaurants on the left, one traditional and one modern, called Rojo y Blanco (the colors match the names). They’ve got a wonderful jamon (ham) bar serving the formerly banned jamon iberico, and tapas ranging from the most traditional (simple but delicious tomato on toasted bread) to the most experimental molecular gastronomy creations. We’re talking syringe-like pipettes of mozzarella you squeeze into your mouth with a cherry tomato and a liquid olive served on a spoon that’s the consistency of an over-easy egg yolk, solid on the outside, pops on your tongue. Foam is clearly the chef’s friend. Whether you sit on the modern or traditional side, you can order from both menus. Caricature artists and fortune tellers entertain on weekends.
In the center ring is Bar Centro, which has a more limited menu of caviar, raw bar selections and a few tapas. Except for the predictable crowd of Beverly Hills babes, this place is crazy cool. Individual movie screens are embedded into a communal table in the center. There are all kinds of eclectic nooks and crannies with unusual furniture where you can sit and eat, surrounded by screens that morph monkeys into men and giant crystal-like light installations that scream 80s retro chic. Waiter/performers roll around carts featuring liquid nitrogen cocktails that smoke like a science experiment and cotton candy machines used to wrap the sugary pouf around foie gras on a stick. Behind that is the whimsical patisserie with its twisted (like it melted) white chandelier, featuring desserts on display under precious glass containers, even chocolate pop rocks. Yes, we’re talking the kind that killed Mikey.
The third ring of this bizarro world is a museum-like emporium from Moss with edgy and offbeat high-design trinkets. Lots of twig/woodsy themes, which are in now, a Dutch Delight dildo, golden pigs, finger puppets of recently deceased celebrities, including Heath Ledger — you know, the usual. Judging from the prices on display at Moss and the tab it must have taken to design this place, it’s clear the concept of a recession was nowhere in evidence when The Bazaar was planned. If you need an escape from reality, this is the place to be. And yet, the prices are not nearly as bad as I expected. Tapas plates are small, so you have to watch what you order or the tab does add up, but there are dishes you can buy for $4 and $5.
And how is the food? I’m not sure it merits the Four Stars the LA Times lavished upon it, but I certainly had some delightful dishes during my two visits. The Spanish chef, star of the public TV series “Made in Spain,” owns several D.C. restaurants and trained under the master culinary experimenter, Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain. He’s credited with bringing tapas to America, and for that, we thank him.
My husband's favorite dish was the Philly cheesesteak, which was like a pastry — they call it “air bread” — with gooey cheese and Kobe beef in the center. They have a veggie version, too, with mushrooms called a “Hilly cheesesteak.” My sister, currently on a veggie diet, gave that one a thumbs up, too. I’m a fan of the bite-sized caviar and salmon roe cones and all the cured hams. And my friend Jan looked orgasmic while eating the foie gras cotton candy (only $5).
The group’s favorite dish might have been one the waitress recommended, which I probably would not have ordered otherwise, the jicama wrapped guacamole with micro cilantro and corn nuts. I’m not a big cilantro fan, but this dish was crunchy and packed with flavor, a real winner. I also recommend the gambas al ajillo (shrimp and garlic), the Japanese tacos of grilled eel, shiso leaf, cucumber and wasabi, as well as the tomato and mozzarella pipettes, which just made me happy. The watermelon and tomato skewers are also delightful and refreshing, as is the olive, if you like olives, which I definitely do.
My husband raved about the paella with shrimp, which he described as “rich and hearty.” I thought it was passable, nothing spectacular, but big enough for a table of four to share, which was nice. The wrinkled potatoes are also a good bet for a big group. The name makes the dish sound downright awful, but these tiny potatoes are cooked in seawater, soaking up the salt. I love salty. They come with a dip of parsley, cilantro, garlic and olive oil. The spinach dish with apple, pine nuts and raisins was also a highlight.
Andres is into old-time canning, although the canned dishes are actually made fresh daily so it’s more of a serving shtick. I was underwhelmed by the canned crab and mussels. The flavor was a little bland. Jan was also disappointed with her mushroom soup, which she said tasted like Campbell’s. My husband and I had a sip and thought she was being a tad harsh, but hey, it was her soup. I would also skip the carrot dish. My sister said it wasn’t worth mentioning. I know there was a steak dish and a tuna dish that I enjoyed, but their names and exact details escape my alcohol-sodden memory. Hey, it was my birthday dinner. I wasn’t taking great notes. (The sangria, by the way, is terrific.) After dinner, they lead you to the patisserie for dessert, where we had fun squeezing a capsule of chocolate into our mousse filled with pop rocks.
After my first visit to The Bazaar, I felt all sparkly and shiny, like I was floating. It was definitely one of the most exciting dining experiences of my life. By my second visit, I felt like Dorothy after Toto pulled the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz. The service, unfortunately, was way off that night. The table next to us, which sat down after we did, got at least two dishes before our drinks or any scrap of food arrived. By the time our first dish finally appeared, I was starving. We had to remind them to bring our drinks at that point. Not good. I felt like Estelle on “Seinfeld” describing dinner with George’s would-be in-laws: “We were sitting there, like idiots, drinking coffee without a piece of cake!”
The pushcarts were also missing in action that night, but we ordered their tasty delights anyway. Unfortunately, our servers forgot to bring the cotton candy foie gras and caviar cones. After the meal ended, we had to remind them. And this place got four stars? Where was the magic of my first visit? There’s no question The Bazaar is a must-see spot, especially for people who are into design. You can pretty much wander around for an hour and stay amused. The place has a kitschy sense of humor, and it’s fun. Whenever out-of-towners visit, I’m sure I will bring them to experience the insanity. However, the restaurant should not rest on its LA Times review, especially in this economy. They need to concentrate on the basics like service so locals will keep coming back. The hip place today can easily turn into the has-been of tomorrow. Keep the magic alive and serve the food on time. — Jenny
The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel, 465 South La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-247-0400
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