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Review of the Bazaar at the SLS Hotel

Seven pics on my blog at: http://grubtrotters.com/2009/03/21/ci...

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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  1. Thank you Jenny and others who have provided a review of The Bazaar. I too have contemplated for my b-day (50!) and appreciate the many opinions. Sounds like a place to try once, a not to come with a big appetite-small bites, big bill, hit-or miss quality. Sounds like a place to come to when Disneyland has worn through ones skin.
    Quality of the food and service is REAL important to me, not necessarily display. So now where do I go? Providence? (I don't mind spending money if the food and service meet the bill) KQ

    13 Replies
    1. re: Kitchen Queen

      Personally, I love Melisse in Santa Monica for food and service, but I live in Venice. The decor is rather conservative, about as opposite from The Bazaar you can get. It's my top choice for special occasions.The Bazaar is definitely worth trying at least once just for kicks.

      1. re: grubtrotters

        Thx for the suggestion! :) I don't mind the drive - esp. for a great meal.

        1. re: grubtrotters

          I actually prefer the food and atmosphere at Bazaar to the food and atmosphere at Melisse. I find Melisse unnecessarily stuffy, and the good echoes the environment. I have been to both places twice.

          1. re: lotta_cox

            I also love the atmosphere at The Bazaar but prefer the food and service at Melisse.

            1. re: grubtrotters

              I'm with you grubtrotters. Melisse is another level above The Bazaar. But The Bazaar is a different experience, different food, different feel. Big culinary fun, simple, mostly tasty. If someone is buying me a meal and I have my druthers, I'm going to Melisse. (I just ate at Providence, and again had the chef's menu - took a friend who appreciates this stuff - and she was knocked out. I told her it was like Le Bernadin, but (I think) a little better. She agreed.

            2. re: lotta_cox

              I have to cosign this; one of the least enjoyable meals I have had in LA (when taking into account "value" as well) was at Melisse. It was a truly mediocre at best experience.

              Although, with all of the raves it receives, I wonder if perhaps it was just a really off night.

              1. re: a213b

                That can happen anywhere.

                1. re: grubtrotters

                  True, hence my considerations for going back. That being said, it's hard to want to go back and drop $500 knowing how stunningly mediocre the last time was.

                  1. re: a213b

                    I hear you. I'd feel the same way. I've been there at least half a dozen times and never had a bad meal. Although, it's never a place that's going to buzz like The Bazaar. The atmosphere felt more like Le Bernadin in New York.

                    1. re: grubtrotters

                      That's what is so funny; like you and many others (including some very dear friends of ours), it seems most everyone loves this place.

                      That's why we've pretty much decided we will go with said friends, since they still cannot believe our thoughts (encapsulated in this thread http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/526124) on the place. But as I said, it's hard to stomach that hit to the wallet with the previous experience, which is what's keeping me from running back.

                      1. re: a213b

                        You know, I had a similar feeling about Sona. I took my husband there for his birthday, and unlike your experience, nothing really went obviously wrong. However, we did the tasting menu where they brought each of us different dishes. This seemed like a great idea at first. But the dishes are so tiny, and we each wanted to try what the other had, too. So we ended up with just one bite of each dish. I'm sure it was a decent amount of food, but at the end, I felt unsatisfied and hungry still. It was like the ultimate culinary tease. I think we may have even stopped for pizza on the way home, which you really don't want to have to do after dropping more than $300 on a meal. The whole experience soured me on tasting menus for awhile:

                        http://grubtrotters.com/2008/04/05/do...

                        1. re: grubtrotters

                          Oh my God! You know what's hysterical? We each had the same experience, albeit at the opposite restaurants! I've had AMAZING meals at SONA, and completely love the place!

                          It just goes to show that no matter the level of a restaurant, every place can have a bad night.

                          1. re: a213b

                            Yes, it's true, and a lot can depend on your mood that day, too.

        2. "He’s credited with bringing tapas to America, and for that, we thank him."

          Tapas existed long before Jose Andres come to the states. You can credit him for bringing Ferran Adria style cooking to the US.

          4 Replies
          1. re: Porthos

            The idea that he brought tapas to the US is humorous.

            1. re: lotta_cox

              He may not have done it, but he is credited with it:
              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A...
              Perhaps I should have said, "if that's true, we thank him."

              1. re: grubtrotters

                I think that's more appropriate! There is a Spanish restaurant serving tapas in New Jersey that has been open since 1976. Andres was 7 years old when it allegedly opened, and did not come to the states until 1991. I personally have been going to a restaurant in Sacramento called Tapa the World since the 1994, so I don't even think we could accurately say that Andres popularized tapas. I believe he opened the first Jaleo in 1993. Although, an NPR blurb in 2005 does state just such an assertion: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/st...

                Apparently, he popularized tapas in the U.S.! Either way, I am a fan. Love his food. I am eating at Bazaar again two times (someone else's invite) in the next 6 weeks. Can not wait.

                1. re: lotta_cox

                  Thanks for the info. I edited the post on my blog! You can never really trust Wikipedia.

          2. More info on Bazaar here - some with pics.
            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5732...