Why Bazaar's Spanish Chef Got a James Beard Award

The James Beard Foundation has just acknowledged what those of us in the food/restaurant worlds of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. have known for several years... that 41-year old Spanish-born Chef José Andrés is simply the most inventive, innovative, and amusing character in our culinary universe. He was just named Outstanding Chef of 2011 by the James Beard Foundation, and when I received the email detailing the award, I immediately booked a reservation for last night at his iconoclastic L.A. restaurant, the four-star (from Irene Virbila of the Los Angeles Times) Bazaar located in ground floor space adjacent to the lobby of the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills (465 S. La Cienega Blvd, (310) 246-5555) just south of Burton Way. (Valet is $14, somewhat high, but there is no street parking.)

The unusual Philly Cheesesteak Tapas is their signature dish!

What do you get when you mix a celebrated Spanish chef (José), an iconic French designer (Philippe Starck), and a rich American entrepreneur (Sam Nazarian)? No, not an omelet, you get a fascinating, cutting-edge, $250 million hotel/restaurant complex which is beguiling, different, and curiously delightful. We have written extensively about the charming, gregarious Spanish import, with his several celebrated Washington, D.C. eateries (minibar, Jaleo, etc.) who just opened two venues at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, Jaleo and a festive Mexican-Chinese place called China Poblano. (What a fabulous idea; can't wait to try it. And he told me, confidentially, that this fall he was going to teach a course in culinary physics at Harvard's Engineering School. Would love to sit in on that!)

Chef Jose Andres in Bazaar kitchen. Photo courtesy of SLS Hotel.

Since we last visited the bizarrely wonderful local restaurant, a new chef de cuisine has arrived... and I was curious to see how he had impacted the tapas menus. The answer was... not too much, but he has tweaked the food preparation upward and added some nice subtle touches and dishes. Chef Joshua Whigham was last at Marea, possibly the best new Manhattan restaurant, but when his old mentor, Andrés, called... he came, leaving behind his bride, a top fashion buyer at New York's Barneys. ("We're taking a nice vacation to Barcelona in July," Whigham noted wistfully.)

Pasta vermicelli paella-style topped with shrimp is my favorite dish there... incredible.

New Chef de Cuisine Joshua Whigham has tweaked and refined some of the many dishes.

I brought my friend, Steve Shulman from New Hampshire, to the dinner... and had the fun of walking him through the amazing, cavernous lobby, where each unique area has its own color palate, vibe and decor... so the dining experience seamlessly weaves from three separate locations into a memorable gastronomic adventure. They have reinvented the concept of the hotel lobby, starting with Bar Centro off the entrance, with its tapas and caviar cart menu, raw bar and exotic cocktails (liquid nitrogen Caipirinhas!) served at a long 30-seat communal table with vintage movies projected upward onto the surface. Adjacent is the stunning dessert Patisserie, which we will describe later, and the third component is vitrines of attractive articles for sale from Moss. Want a model motor boat, or a pair of smart Spanish men's shoes? Gifts galore.

The Beef Hanger Steak tapas at $12 is just one of the 80 dishes to be had.

The Olive 'pops' are liquid olive essence with a coating; they explode in your mouth.

The attractive energetic marketing manager, Emily Bernstein, a Chicago native, came to fetch us to our table in the Rojo (Red) traditional dining room, one of the two dining areas, the other being the Blanco (White) modern space. Each features the amazing 80 dish tapas menu. There is another dining room, Saam, a small gourmet set-menu dining area which will warrant its own review shortly. But tonight we came to explore the classic tapas menu of Jose's homeland, offering authentic regional Spanish dishes juxtaposed with his modern interpretations. But first, as always, a pitcher of red Sangria ($52), a large decanter brought full of fresh fruit and then a bottle of Spanish red poured in and muddled. (Alternatively, there is a sparkling white Sangria - $62, but I always stick to the red.)

Little tins of Spanish seafood are a feature here... oysters, crab, mussels, sea urchin... all enticing.

Sauteed wild mushrooms are one of the many vegetables offered as tapas.

When I first reviewed this restaurant shortly after it opened, José Andrés sat with me and told me about some of the unique dishes we were eating. In the 50+ years I have been reviewing, I thought that I had seen almost every dish around, but here was a menu which was either entirely new to me or variations never experienced before. Tonight, I repeated some of the most memorable for my companion. The playful signature dish from his various restaurants: Philadelphia Cheese Steak ($8), a curved slice of toasted air-pita bread, injected with molten cheddar cheese, then topped with a seared Kobe beef slice. Steve marveled at this as I had a variation, three small steamed buns filled with sea urchin and avocado ($12). Before that the legendary 'Olives,' ($10), three regular olives stuffed with anchovy, and then a plate of four spoons bearing another olive... morsel... which, when you eat it, explodes with live flavor in your mouth... olive-flavored liquid encased in a thin membrane, the invention of El Bulli's Ferran Adria, with whom Jose worked. Papas Canarias ($8), tiny salt-encrusted fried potatoes; Jose had told me that originally fishermen from his home in Asturias cooked the petit potatoes in sea water 'til the water evaporated and they were imbued with a delicious flavor.

Many varieties of Spanish ham are offered. Photo courtesy of SLS Hotel.

Recently I saw a TV show with Chef Anthony Bourdain filmed in San Sebastian, Spain, in which he told us that a Frenchman invented canning in 1810, but that the Spanish were known for producing the highest-quality canned foods in the world. Bourdain said they paid $50-250 for canned seafood there; here at Bazaar, in tribute to this tradition, they prepare them fresh daily and serve it in tiny cans... Mediterranean Mussels ($9), in olive oil, vinegar and pimenton (smoked paprika). Oysters ($12), Sea Urchin ($14, my choice), King Crab ($20), with raspberries and raspberry vinegar. On to Jamon Iberia de Bellota (2 oz., $42), a luxurious rare imported ham from black-footed Spanish pigs which have been fed exclusively on acorns at the end. Other less-expensive hams, all served with Catalan-style toasted bread with tomato. Vegetables, pork, lobster and fruit are small-plate attractions in this restaurant. My absolute favorite dish tonight and every night: Rossejat ($15), tiny fried Spanish pasta shreds done paella-style cooked in a seafood broth topped with shrimp. Impossible to stop eating.

The interior of the hotel lobby features three different areas for drinks and dinner.

One of the most unusual tastes is cotton candy encasing a bite of foie gras.

I have only touched upon the amazing menu here; we had a Grilled Beef Hanger Steak ($12), medium rare, juicy and full of flavor; sautéed mushrooms, cauliflower, asparagus, peaches... so much to explore. Chef Joshua told me that on my next visit I must try the Braised Wagyu Beef Cheeks ($18), cooked sous vide for several hours 'til medium rare and tender, served with California oranges, the fruit cutting the heaviness of the meat. When I asked him if he visited the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, he laughed and said most of his produce comes from there... and he is even exploring a forager for fresher produce. This young man is a major talent, and I hope he stays in California for awhile.

We chose not to leave the table for the Patisserie dessert area outside, where you have your choice of cakes, French delicacies, chocolates and fruit confections . We chose to have a Spanish Flan and coffee at the table.

You can eat and drink in the bar from 6 pm to midnight and continue drinking to 2 am. The dining rooms are open until 10 pm during the week and 11 pm on weekends. And Emily has invited me to their High Tea ($35), served from 3 pm to 5 pm, which showcases sweet and savory selections, a playful twist on the normal tea service. The Patisserie is open from 6 pm to midnight, a perfect place to come by after a movie for a glass of champagne and a sweet.

Bazaar at the SLS Hotel is probably the most unique and interesting restaurant in Los Angeles, if not the country. Such a startling, truly remarkable dining-and-drinking experience which will require many visits to satiate -- if ever -- your excitement and wonder. Enjoy.

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