L.A. Restaurant Scene is Booming!

Hickory & oakwood-smoked Colorado 'double' lamb chops
from Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel Air dining room.

The first few months of 2012 have proved to be a scintillating scene for the restaurant festival which is our fair city. More than a score of interesting, even sensational restaurants have opened uptown, downtown, all over town. What depression? As a restaurant critic, I have never been busier, less hungry and more satiated with good food in great venues.

It began for me with the opening of Wolfgang Puck's extraordinary new restaurant in the $100 million+ revamping of the Dorchester Collection's Hotel Bel Air, to which I returned just last night for a re-check. Thanks to Martha DeLaurentiis, I discovered the most delightful, truly wonderful Thai restaurant in this city: the exquisite little Si Laa (1128 South Robertson, just above Pico. (310) 858-7738), where "Ben" and her 80-year old mother, Wilai, turn out delicious dishes at so-reasonable prices.

I marvel at the new Austrian restaurant, BierBeisl (9669 Little/South Santa Monica Blvd. Beverly Hills. (310) 271-7274) where Chef Bernhard Mairinger is packing them in every night for his schnitzel, goulash, spatzle and sausages.

I continue to tout the wonders of the authentic Cantonese/Mandarin Chinese food at Hop Woo, at the corner of Olympic and Sepulveda, and have been telling everyone via The Huffington Post and my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter about the unique Venezuelan restaurant called Coupa Café (419 N. Canon in Beverly Hills (310) 385-0420).

When people ask me for a quiet, attractive dining room serving superb food, I refer them to the just-opened Livello in the L'Ermitage Hotel (9299 Burton Way. (877-235-7582)), where Chef Joseph Elevado is mixing Asian and American dishes on his menu with aplomb, remaining faithful to both heritages. The Animal guys have opened a seafood shop on Third Street, which has become a restaurant row to challenge LaCienega.

I found the best pizza of my life at 2000 Main Street in Santa Monica at Stella Rossa, and dowtown's Lazy Ox gave me offal to enjoy, while Peruvian food on Pico drew the crowds. Italian cuisine was soul-satisfying at Mr C (1224 Beverwil Drive. (310) 226-6245), in the hotel of the same name, where Executive Chef David Perez is making me a devotée, and for a romantic Italian I have been going to Locanda Portafino (1110 Montana Avenue. (310) 394-2070). Two talented women chefs have blown me away with their food: Giselle Wellman at Petrossian (321 N. Robertson) and Nyeshsa Arrington at Wilshire Restaurant (2454 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica (310) 586-1707). Café del Rey (4451 Admiralty Way. (310) 823-6395) drew me to Marina del Rey, and I discovered a fabulous tomahawk rib steak at Caulfield's (9360 Wilshire Blvd in Bev. Hills (310) 388-6860) when Chef Cody Diegel sent it out to a delighted table.

Jazz and food mixed beautifully at Vibrato (2930 Beverly Glen Circle. (310) 474-9400) where Herb Alpert and daughter Erin are making great music together. Of course, I have become addicted to the best fried chicken ever, when Bouchon Bistro (2235 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. (271-9910) serves it on some Monday nights. And my Huffington Post about the secret menu at In-N-Out Burger drew the most astonishing positive response I have ever had for an article.

Executive Chef Sonny Sweetman is the man-on-the-spot daily in the Hotel Bel Air kitchen.

Which leads me the best meal I have had in the past several months ... at Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel Air ((310) 909-1644), where Executive Chef Sonny Sweetman made me and my two guests, restaurant critic Merv Hecht and his charming wife, Bonnie, welcome on their heated patio on a rainy night for a sunshine-filled dinner. Oh my, the food here is spectacularly good. I wanted to try some of the newer dishes, including the grilled items they now are offering, and wine maven Merv critically examined their wine list and pronounced it excellent to Restaurant Manager Andrey Godzhik. A few surprising amuse bouche: Osetra caviar from Northern California in wasabi creme fraiche "snow," the latter made in-house, frozen in liquid nitrogen and then rubbed on a microplane, garnished with calamansi and citrus zest. Another delicious item was a Jidori chicken liver mousse "pastrami" with smoked shallot marmalade on a rye crisp.

Black osetra caviar, local, served atop wasabi creme fraiche "ice" at the Bel Air.

Baby beets and roasted celery root began a first course, followed with the new "Spring Salad" ($20), tangerines, smoked Marcona almonds, spring vegetables with a nice ice wine vinaigrette. Merv and I are sweetbread aficionados, so veal sweetbreads ($23) from Marcho Farms were served in a caramelized shallot puree, with rhubarb compote. Yes: succulent, flaky, juicy, perfection. Already we were dazzled. A simply stunning pasta dish followed, the Hand-cut Sweet Pea Tortelloni ($18), with mascarpone cheese, marjoram and a dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano. Sonny told me that they had Black Cod just in from Casco Bay this night, which we shared. It was served with wild ramps, white asparagus, Black trumpet mushrooms in a mushroom emulsion. ($42). I had expressed a desire for grilled lamb, and we two men shared a dish of Colorado Lamb 'Double' Chops ($52), with a black olive tapenade. Merv and I laughed in astonishment at the satisfaction of gnawing on the juicy chops grilled to an ideal rare finish.

Pan-roasted quail was stuffed with toasted brioche and dressed with mushrooms.

Again, the chef told us they were featuring a wonderful ingredient that night: quail from the legendary Wolfe Ranch in Northern California. A platter emerged from the kitchen and we all greedily dug in. I commented that the pan-roasted birds ($36) were somewhat larger than usual, and Bonnie said she loved the toasted brioche bread stuffing and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms being served. Campana artichokes and savory natural cooking juices flavored with sage finished the dish. We ended with a delicious dessert I had never experienced before: the Java Banana Semi-freddo, which was like a banana parfait. It was finished with toasted brown sugar meringue and an espresso sauce. Not a crumb was left, a tribute to new pastry chef Cassie Ballard, here from Wolfgang's WP 24, the most elegant Chinese restaurant in the city.

Java banana semi-freddo from Cassie Balalrd's pastry kitchen at the Bel Air.

We sighed in satisfaction and all agreed that this was a "special event" dining experience, although I heard from Puck V.P. Tracey Spillane that many hotel neighbors have begun dining here several nights a week, now that the word is out in the community on the spectacular food being offered. Would that I could dine like this a few nights a week ... I will be happy coming here once or twice a month from now on. And yes, I will.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues) email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net