Hotel Bel Air: Wolfgang Puck -- Fairytales Come True

Brunch becomes a legendary meal with Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel Air, tucked away in a fairytale hideaway replete with live swans floating by like an unattainable woman, or a fluffy dessert.

Quiet, tree-lined Stone Canyon Road sweeps you up and away from trafficky Los Angeles into Puck's perennial midsummer day's forested land. Valet parkers disarmingly dressed as cricket players whisked my car off to a seemingly better place. I sniffed as I strolled through the gardens to the restaurant. Is the air better up here? It seemed sweet, fresh and inviting.

The hotel gives Puck's food a fantastic opening act. He carries the rest of your movie star dining experience like the blockbuster he is.

Jazzy Joe LoPiccolo plays you softly into the main dining area with his appetizingly unobtrusive live guitar music. Tables are nestled next to thick vines of luscious candy-colored bougainvillea. The main seating area is under a sun-diffusing canopy, resulting in flattering, soft light as if placing the diners in a well-lit movie. This is a room and an event worthy of a special occasion like Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, or today.

Propose here, grow old together here -- just pull your director's chair up and tuck in. The fun bartenders will shake you awake with a Bloody Carrot cocktail, or a tequila-spiked Bloody Maria. As I sat a moment while my table was being readied, they stirred everything with a smile and squeezed in a wink.

I love that for me at least, their dirty martini had a dirty joke sidecar.

I need brunch to be a meal that supports a total lazy Sunday habit and not make me think. I'm willing to eat at my desk and work through lunch and then roll my sleeves up at a shabu shabu dinner, but the languid, mid-day brunch is sacred.

This is the weirdly-timed meal that straddles breakfast and lunch. If you're an early riser and you've already wolfed down eggs by the time this meal rolls around, they offer sweet blintzes here, and pancakes.

If you pastried it up since sunrise, Puck's fairies have savory flavors such as a Black Angus burger slathered with Shallot-Jalapeno Marmalade so fantastic that it must be made my some kindly old grandmother they have chained to the canning vat in the kitchen.

You can also have oatmeal and fruit if your pacemaker rats you out for just looking at the Chilled prawn cocktail with spicy tomato horseradish and herb aioli or the Huevos rancheros con black beans, ranchero Salsa, avocado and cotija cheese.

The menu is simply presented on two facing pages -- choose one course from the left and one from the right. An icy glass of champagne or a crisp Bellini, included in the brunch's $68 price, is slipped into your hand to make sure you sit back and chillax.

I got a foreshadowing of dessert in the sweet and savory breadbasket baked by whimsically talented Pastry Chef Cassie Ballard.

I was brunching with my 5-year-old niece, and as soon as she spotted the unicorn-horn baguette Chef Ballard stuffed in the basket, she gave the baked goods a tiny but mighty thumbs up.

I started with Tortilla soup with crema fresca, grilled chicken, avocado and Guajillo chilies. I lived in Dallas where Chef Dean Fearing fearlessly introduced con mucho gusto Southwest flavors, so I am protective of what he accomplished. I'm ready to kick the ass of an offending interloping chef who misinterprets this lovely Mexican soup.

But one look followed by one spoonful and I was ready to kiss the ass of Hotel Bel Air's Chef Sonny Sweetman. That sweet man got it right. He must have stirred in the cumin while slow dancing to Bolero. The grilled chicken was so tender that it was hard to tell it from a chunk of avocado.

The texture of this soup is so important -- the tortillas have to be ground so fine that you have no idea they are even in it. They must have churned through a powerful blender stolen off a jet made by Rolls Royce. I grabbed the edge of a crisp tortilla strip and dragged it through the broth of roasted chilies to pick up all of the other components.

I was glad to not go into the kitchen and have a come-to-Jesus meeting over Southwestern cuisine on a Sunday, mostly because I was too comfortable in the cozy private both overlooking the lush, fern forest of a garden. The swans would miss their view of me.

Just as this classic restaurant has been updated in beautiful good taste, the Maryland Blue Crab cakes bumped up against mounds of basil pesto aioli and tomato relish are a call back to the classic days when crab cakes still starred Crab.

These were no has-been crab cakes, you know the type -- stuffed like an aging star's face with filler and sawdust. The crab meat was as loose and lovingly chunky as a slutty overweight actress. I could have given each forkful a name had I eaten slower. The thick slashes of basil pesto aioli held my bites together as I bid them adieu and into my mouth. The hard time Chef Sweetman served in Maryland restaurants paid off.

Our table was being handled with precision by Jennifer. She knew every detail about every dish; she let us know what was coming with each course, preventing us from making the dreaded menu item double-dip. Her lips turned up into a smile easily, and often. Her accommodating, professional attitude was as refreshing as a bite of warm strudel after being lost in the Black Forest.

My niece shrieked as she innocently pulled a chocolate muffin out of the basket that had been savagely bitten in half by an ogre and then casually tossed back in the basket. But all was well -- it was just an ogre in her father's clothing.

The Egg white frittata filled with asparagus & sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese and caramelized shallots is whipped into a middle-of-the-road compromise of a dish.

The eggs were soft and light, obviously fluffed by the wings of hummingbirds fluttering nearby on the edge of the good Bernardaud china. Creamy goat cheese is such a good pairing for herbed egg dishes.

We ordered the Thai style chicken salad, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, Napa cabbage & ginger-lemon grass dressing, and it was good. The dressing was the star but she was a little heavy for a delicate Thai girl salad. It made me long for Puck's Chinois Chicken Salad.

I might have preferred the Lobster Cobb salad full of avocado, chopped egg, point reyes blue cheese, smoked bacon and balsamic vinaigrette. If I'm going to Fatty Heart Attack Hell, I want to ride a rich lobster gurney whose wheels are greased with bacon.

Honey-haired beauties have long swum in the hotel's pool, including Marilyn Monroe, seen here in these round golden globes of Hotel Bel Air Benedict: poached eggs atop a white cheddar biscuit swimming in maple hollandaise.

Like a new starlet from the Midwest, the eggs are fresh off the farm. The rich, orange color of the yolks came spilling out like hot sunshine.

A sweet hint of maple lingers a bit, a delicate balance to the tart sauce. A thin layer of tomato coulis spread onto the in-house baked, oh-so-much-better-than-an-English-muffin biscuit, makes this dish the girl with something extra.

My Pan roasted Alaskan halibut with wild field mushrooms, wild sorrel, English peas and Meyer lemon sauce had been made with commitment.

It was crackly on the outside and buttery smooth inside, fearlessly prepared. This fish hit a skillet that was so hot it made a loud sssssssssssizzle, startling the jam-making granny.

This chef knows how to fry fish, fried-chicken crispy.

Jennifer slid graceful, swan-necked glass teapots onto the table to gently segue us into dessert.

Laying back in the cushioned, private booth, images of tanned pool boys hand feeding maidens popped into my head as fresh as the plump, juicy, local berries Jennifer brought, which I plopped into whipped cream.

The quenelles of raspberry sorbet resting on a baked meringue disk are like a chubby little pink princess dancing at the ball, standing on the top of her daddy's shoes.

As soon as it was placed on the table, I greedily ate the tiny nugget of gold perched atop the apple tart. It was just enough for me to claim that I will always have gold coursing through my veins. The pastry was as flaky as this town, only the caramel sauce kept it together. The molten chocolate cake oozed sin, and I ate it up.

The banana ice cream covered the shiniest star of the course: thin slices of ripe banana that had been kissed by a sugary angel and then brûléed to a brilliant candy crunch.

I didn't want to leave. But the proverbial clock struck midnight as the valet opened my coach door. I crawled in and it turned back into a pumpkin as I drove down the winding canyon. My fantasy screeched back to reality in a halting traffic jam on Sunset Boulevard. Noisy firetrucks tended to an accident most likely caused by horrible driving wicked stepsisters.

To see my niece watching her first, live and private performance of Swan Lake with a front row seat made me believe in fairy tales. A moment like that can make me believe in everything.

If anyone finds a slipper in the garden, I dropped it.

Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel Air. 701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles, CA 90077 (310) 472-1211


  1. What a beautiful meal! And to start with tortilla soup reminds me of a visit to Jacksonville, Texas where i was directed to the Jalapeño restaurant which was vouched for as one of the best in town.
    Now i have eaten Mexican long before Shep was a pup and have awakened with more than one Margarita headache deep in Mexico proper, so my credentials are not without some basis.
    The soup was not what i expected and i informed the waiter that was not the way tortilla soup was made. Her comment was, "you know, a lot of our customers say that".
    The idea of fine crumbing the tortillas for addition is a good one, Greg.
    Con mucho gusto,

  2. Yum! Not as articulate as you put it, but YUM!

    1. Thank you! If you come to LA, spend a lovely day tucked away in this hotel hidden in a canyon....


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