First Bite

First Bite: José Andrés Opens in Los Angeles

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By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- The leafy Brussels sprout salad sweetened with apricots and dressed up with lemon "air" has come and gone. Not a speck of seafood remains in a little round tin that moments earlier held a glazed mussel ceviche dusted with sweet-and-smoky pimienta powder.

As for the Philly Cheesesteak, everyone at the table loved the dish so much earlier in the evening that we request another round; it's hard to resist the siren call of shaved and blowtorched Wagyu beef, caramelized onions and cheddar cheese foam served on a wisp of crisp pita so delicate it practically levitates.

Just when my companions think the show has reached its peak at the whimsical new Bazaar by José Andrés (465 S. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310-246-5555; http://www.thebazaar.com), along comes a suit with another treat. Andrés, a protege of Spanish phenom Ferran Adrià of El Bulli but a trailblazer in his own right, clearly has more surprises in store. As we each bite down on what looks like an ordinary cluster of popcorn, trails of liquid nitrogen hidden inside the snack stream from our noses. Dragon's Breath, the magical morsel is billed.

"Come for dinner, stay for the chemistry show," our server says, probably not for the first or last time.

The Bazaar, which made its debut in November, defies easy labeling. It's a celebration of Spanish tapas old and new that can be eaten in one of two rooms designed by Philippe Starck in the SLS Hotel: a vision in pearly white called Blanca and a study in red known as Rojo. But the 400-plus-seat Bazaar also embraces a cocktail lounge with low couches and tall tables, a patisserie that channels both Willy Wonka and the Parisian pastry shop of your dreams, and a wacky gift shop that pretends the recession never happened. Looking for a model of the Titanic? It's yours, for $20,000.

The Bazaar, Andrés says, is meant to evoke "an enclosed market" and offer a sense of discovery at every turn. It is also the Spanish native's first foray outside Washington, where his edible empire includes Jaleo, a trio of tapas bars; Cafe Atlantico, a nod to Latin America; Zaytinya, a tribute to the mezze of the Middle East; Oyamel, a paen to Mexican flavors; and Minibar. The last is the six-stool venue whose unconventional cooking can now be experienced in greater La-La Land. (Minibar's tasting menu costs $120 a head; the Bazaar's small plates average $10.)

Aside from a few tweaks here and there, the many dishes that made the move from East Coast to West taste pleasingly similar. The Bazaar's traditional tapas include goat cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers, garlicky sauteed shrimp and veal cheeks braised with orange, all reminiscent of Jaleo; among the contemporary tapas are foie gras in a cloud of cotton candy and guacamole in sheer purses of jicama, whimsies that will ring a bell for anyone who has sat through Minibar's 30 itty-bitty courses. Credit for the successful translation goes to the home team; the Bazaar counts three full-time veterans from Andrés's businesses in Washington, and the boss plans to spend at least four days a month in Los Angeles. In the small-world department, the Bazaar's chef de cuisine is Michael Voltaggio, 30, the younger brother of Bryan Voltaggio of Volt restaurant in Frederick, Md.

Like the nearby Spago Beverly Hills, watched over by Wolfgang Puck, the Bazaar is both a serious restaurant and a place to gaze at the stars. Will Smith has been in. Paris Hilton has, too, several times. Having eaten there twice, I prefer to graze on the tapas in Rojo, whose black tables look onto the exhibition kitchen and whose small bar could pass for that of a chic watering hole in Barcelona. Matadors look down from frames on the wall, and a haunch of Iberico ham, its signature black hoof attached, awaits carving. (Two ounces of the delicacy, which comes from pigs raised on acorns in southwestern Spain, goes for $36.) From Rojo, I like to move on to the patisserie; the rewards there include a classic flan, Pop Rocks flavored with chocolate, and a coconut floating island that arrives in clouds of guess what. (The Bazaar employs liquid nitrogen the way other restaurants use chicken stock.)

A few wallflowers sneak into this exuberant party. Avocado tempura goes down like oil on butter. It's rich but bland. Spicy carrot fritters would be better if they were crisper. And until someone identifies us as a posse of food critics during the first visit, service is rushed and a little cranky. (No, we can't hold on to the wine list.) But the oohs and ahhs outnumber the unfinished plates, and Andrés says he has been surprised by the success of certain tapas. Those Philly Cheesesteaks fly out of the kitchen at the rate of 300 a night and require the full attention of two cooks on weekends.

Right now, there's no hotter ticket in Los Angeles than dinner at the Bazaar, where the fun includes a fortuneteller on weekends. Andrés wants to keep it that way, too. "I didn't build this to be a one-day hit," says the chef, 39.

He didn't build it to be the only marketplace of ideas, either. Might there be a Bazaar in Washington's future? "It could happen," he teases.

Tapas, $5-$36.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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