Chinois-on-Main: Santa Monica -- Every Day's A Holiday; Every Meal's a Feast!

Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff opened Chinois in 1983, bringing the world the first Chinese-Californian fusion. Actually, the first such fusion was the California Railroad built by Chinese workers, but the resulting food was terrible.

Susan Swerdloff outside Chinois-on-Main, Santa Monica

Chef Puck is truly Shakespeare's Puck, a clever sprite who conjures up delicious drama by stirring the pot. I dined last week at his Santa Monica legendary restaurant, Chinois-on-Main, and had an elaborate experience that was all about institution. Greeted and seated by Bella, who has been there since 1983, I dined with famed Los Angeles restaurant critic Jay Weston and one of my first friends in Los Angeles, circa 1988, the ever-lasting beauty Susan Swerdloff. We were soon joined by Chinois'  most stunning dish, co-creator Barbara Lazaroff.

Her name sounds exotically delicious, like a spice you have come to Istanbul to find. You whisper the name to vendors in the Grand Bazaar, using curvaceous hand gestures as a common language.

She breezed through Chinois front door in a swirl of a hot pink coat, which was whipped off at our table side to reveal a deliciously-foreshadowing raspberry colored dress that had one purpose, to tempt us into wanting dessert.

I hoped the dessert was this luscious. While Wolfgang created the cuisine, she designed the room, and still produces the show every night. She is as beautifully put together as anything on the menu -- good jewelry exactly coordinated with couture dresses, her signature long tresses and gracious generous spirit which flows about the room making you glad to be there.

The very moment we were seated, we were in a winter production of  Midsummer Night's Dream, starring Puck and his most brilliant guest stars, whose orchestral prologue commenced from the open kitchen with the rumblings of his time-seasoned woks.

Chinois-on-Main Kitchen

Tradition, timing and loyalty is Chinois' specialty. To last in Los Angeles is a miracle. This city is as temporary as a pretty woman hooker, poised to be literally tossed aside by an earthquake. Judy Garland was torn down and thrown away at nineteen, the same fate as every film set once principle photography is wrapped. We botox our faces, plump up our lips and drop to our skin tight Gucci-clad knees in a vain effort to beg the city not to get rid of us. We are not done.

Jay Weston has been doing Los Angeles a flavor for forty years with his Restaurant Newsletter reviewing and reviving eateries worthy of his passion for food. (Email him to subscribe - $70 per yummy year!) Jay was at Chinois prior to it being opened to the public, before even the stoves were connected, at a private party. The meal was prepared on temporary gas ranges set up outside in the alley. Hollywood's glitterati had no idea that their Roasted Cantonese Duck might had been glazed next to a homeless man. The show must go on. Dining with Jay is thrilling because he shares these tales and the whole fried catfish. I'm hungry for both.
 
We needed no menu; we either knew what we wanted or we sat back anticipating Bella's orchestration of our meal. Now a partner, she has been running this room since 1990 and stands guard seven nights a week. When I noticed that her eyes aren't weary, she said she is buoyed every night when she sees the room stuffed with eager-to-feed diners, and she is revitalized, eager-to-please. 

We were here to eat and they knew it. I like to dine at and review a restaurant somewhere in between the honest, up-front Jay, and the wig-and-wit disguised Ruth Reichl. I fear my meal might be affected by the chef's fear that I will pepper my review as liberally as he peppered my scallop; however Jay finds that it's best to let them know we are there. He told me they can't change the menu.

Puck's dishes were dispatched like well-equipped soldiers to our table with rapid-fire precision. Fanny Bay oysters so lightly fried they seemed baked, were kept afloat by curried cucumber sauce. It's amazing they didn't sink under the weight of the salmon caviar.


Chewing each bite is my jaw's applause for such good food. Luscious offerings flowed onto our table like Ziegfield girls parading on stage in a review. As a costumer might have wrapped a showgirl in mink, here they served us tempura-wrapped tuna, like an unwed starlet tenderly trying to conceal a scandalous pregnancy, or a perfect asparagus spear.


I quickly dredged each bite through the champagne mustard truffle sauce as if I wanted to drag it off and teach it a painful lesson.

Everyone is there to have the Chinese Chicken Salad -- I think it was born here. You can probably get a Chinese chicken salad even at Mexican mecca El Cholo, but have the authentic one at Chinois.

I loved watching my great-grandmother Mimmy cook in her spacious kitchen in Linden, Texas. As an old lady, she moved through the room like a tornado -- a little ragged, grey, and a blur. But instead of resulting in the unpredictable disaster of a storm, I knew the meal would be wonderfully perfect. I asked her once what was in the soup she was making. She had a tiny, sweet voice that had seen hard times but only remembered the good, A little bit of everything in this kitchen -- and if you turn your head a minute I'll squeeze the kitchen dishrag in it. I hoped she would.

Their Chinese chicken salad might look like it has too much going on:
 

But no -- Puck's chefs honor the recipe he so brilliantly crafted. His salad might have fifteen layers of flavor, but as your fork picks them all up in a single bite, and you begin to eat it, you realize that they each have an important and separate role in the overall production. The flavors are like if the contentious delegates of the UN all shared a fat Maui doobie and mellowed out.

You are tasting masterful, purposeful food design executed by genies.

If you have one dish at Chinois, have the Shanghai Lobster. But don't have just one dish -- all of the food is served family style. Life is a banquet, and each night is a party at Chinois -- you're a guest and as Puck himself proclaims, live, love, eat!

This sumptuous curry sauce on this outstanding lobster dish lets you know that China not only borders India, but has crept in for centuries. I have no idea who the chef slept with to perfect the mystical flash-frying of the spinach, but I'm sure he walked funny for a week after the lesson.


I'm not showing you their legendary whole fried sizzling catfish, although me love it long time. This is LA, and we prefer to show you beauty. Here is the East Coast Black Bass:


This fish was stuffed with so much ginger that I knew the chef had both puzzled and angered the vendor at the farmer's market by buying every piece they had. The price of ginger must go up globally each time a Chinois chef shops. The fish was full of flavors that I didn't try to distinguish, I just bucked up and enjoyed each succulent forkful as if it were my last meal. The fried rice is better than others because it has grilled corn -- my advice to everyone else making fried rice: Step it up.

I am not going to call the marinated lamb chops a miss. We all found them too salty, but I took the leftovers home and changed my mind when I had it for breakfast the next day with an omelet. I think our judgement had been clouded by the ten preceding courses and we were just really full. It was like having six older brothers who went to school before you -- by the time you get there, the teachers are all bored with your family and you practically have to hold sparklers with your nipples to be thought of as special.
  
Like sisters sharing clothes, Chinois shares the magic of Spago's pastry chef/goddess Sherry Yard. A waiter threw his back out, struggling under the weight of the huge tray we were served that held every dessert they offer.

There was a sweet star dessert, quivering vulnerably in the corner, bruled Lemon Floating Island. I sternly cracked the brunt sugar shell like a virgin's hymen, then dragged each bite slowly through the thick, sour raspberry reduction like I wanted to reform this tart from her whorish past. The others at my table sat back and let me have my way with her soft, young body. They both were distractedly content to complacently pick at some deceptively light, warm chocolate cake, which might have been whipped into that fluffy state by a scorned lover in a secret dungeon kitchen.


Our meal ended. I pushed back from the table a bit to breathe and digest the night. Bella checked on us, knowing we were all right, but just to smile and pat us on the back reassuringly, There there, we knew what you wanted...

I looked around the warm, busy room. It was Monday night, and just as full as I was. If I came back Tuesday, it would be just as packed. Blessed, yes, but for good reason.

My great-grandmother Mimmy taught me about loyalty, You have to dance with the one that brung you. Los Angeleno diners are as fickle as the film business.  But Chinois is an anomaly of Los Angeles dining. Sure, if you build it they will come, but they're enjoying an extraordinarily long run because if it's worth it, they will stay.

Dining with an institution, at an institution, on food as fresh as it is legendary, is a rare chance, and one I recommend highly.

As I left, Barbara and Bella said goodbye. For the first time dining in my long and illustrious life, I felt as welcome leaving a restaurant as when I had first walked in.

Wonder what a meal at Chinois is like? Sit in a park and watch an old couple, perhaps who have been together for thirty years. Watch him pull a handkerchief out of his pocket and dust off the bench before his bride sits. See how tenderly she looks into his eyes as she pulls off a piece of a sandwich. They hold hands as they enjoy the view, perhaps one they have seen many times before, but each time it feels better than the last.

Chinois-on-Main: 2709 Main St, Santa Monica, CA 90405 (310) 392-9025.

2 comments:

  1. Lord, what fools these mortals be, should they pass up a dish as sweet as thee!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Greg! we loved every word! your descriptions are the best ever! 30 years...ever! all the best! hurry back!

    love Bella and staff

    ReplyDelete

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