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There's a moment in each restaurant meal when you're forced to decide if what you are doing with your life is in fact enjoyable. It happened for me at Satoro Restaurant and Lounge while I was eating a slice of Mediterranean flatbread pizza that I did not order. A female saxophonist had sneaked into the lounge area where we were seated and proceeded to play over the generic and loud dance music belting from the loudspeakers. The awful combination sounded something like: thump, thump, thump, thump, bwarrrgggllmmmmfweet, thump, thump, thump, yip!
This must be what having an aneurism feels like.
Although painful, the incident clarified something about Satoro, one of the newest additions to Hollywood Boulevard's rambling strip of resto-lounges and clubaurants. Satoro, which opened in August, is full of disparate elements. It's like someone drew up a map of recent dining trends and flung wet napkins against it. Nothing stuck. It's a tapas bar. And a casual Mediterranean eatery. And a nightclub. With local food. And $13 cocktails. And Latin, French, and Spanish elements. The result is more confused than Glenn Beck in a high school locker room.
The place actually didn't feel so segmented on my first visit. It was a slow, weekday night, the humidity covering Hollywood Boulevard like a thick drape. Though Satoro was empty inside, it seemed like a cool escape. The modern-looking restaurant has an L-shaped dining room that wraps around the foyer, which opens up to a fishbowl kitchen where Chef Alexander Dziurzynski and his comrades are on display. Dziurzynski has done some notable turns: He was executive chef at the now-defunct Jackson's Steakhouse on Las Olas and its sister restaurant Fish; before that, he cooked at both the Bellagio and the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
On paper, Dziurzynski's menu looks vibrant. A loose, Mediterranean theme governs a series of wood-fired flatbreads and fresh salads. Local seafood such as grouper, yellowtail snapper, Florida clams, and shrimp flirt with Spanish ingredients. Hearty dishes like oxtail soup, grilled pork loin, roasted chicken, and prime steaks flesh out the rest of the menu. Entrées range from $16 up to an absurd $44, that for the restaurant's "signature" 22-ounce prime rib chop with roasted artichokes.
We were one of two tables inside the restaurant that night, seated just inside the front window and facing the open kitchen. The two chefs standing inside only accentuated the place's loneliness (in case of customers, break glass). Still, we had a fine time. We dipped sweet chunks of fresh stone-crab meat into a luscious mustard sauce ($12) and whittled at a stack of tomato and cucumber salad dressed lightly with lemon and fortified with tabbouleh ($8). I drank a stunning glass of Casa Lapostolle Merlot (one of the more expensive by-the-glass options at $12) and got messy with a sandwich made of crusty bread and pan-seared snapper ($12). Throughout it all, our server, Abner, displayed great command and a keen sense of humor. It was excellent service, which is to be expected when there are all of four customers in the restaurant.
The brightest spot that night was a piece of cheesecake ($9) so clarified in vision that you could pack it in a lighthouse case and use it to navigate ships at sea. Here, those Mediterranean flavors shine: The goat-cheese-infused custard has the slightly musty tang of chèvre, and its crust is constructed of honey-scented baklava. On the side sits a brunoise of apricot with slivers of fresh mint. Those strident flavors pierce your soul like a diamond-tipped engraving.
There was something so well-articulated about the dish, like it spoke to the core of what a restaurant should strive to be. So when I returned to Satoro a few weeks later with a gang of cheesecake enthusiasts in tow, we were ready to bust through that glass window and raid Dziurzynski's larder for every last sliver of the stuff.
Sadly, the restaurant wasn't much busier on that Friday night. By 8, a few people had filed into the bar to drink expensive cocktails and graze lightly on tapas over the orange, backlit countertop. Not all of my friends had arrived yet, so a few of us nabbed a seat at a long bar top running parallel to the length of the dining room.
The bar area houses the bulk of Satoro's dark wood tables. They're lined with cream-colored vinyl seats, which, under the room's UFO-like light fixtures that emit neon flashes of red and blue, resembles a 1970s airport waiting room. In the background, the same mélange of uninspired electro they play at day spas and dentist's offices droned on. My friend Fenton summed it up best: "I feel like I'm in A Night at the Roxbury."
When the rest of our party arrived, we moved to a table by the bar and waited. And waited. It was close to 20 minutes before someone finally came over, a young guy with short black hair who introduced himself as Jonathan Tovar, the owner. "Let me know if you guys need anything," he said as he moved to shake each of our hands. He poured us ice water from a pitcher in hand but ran out before getting to the last glass and never came back with more.
It's easy to forgive slow or bad service in a busy restaurant. Serving is hard work, and having financed my college career by waiting tables, I have the utmost respect for the people who do it. But there were all of four, maybe five tables occupied inside the place on this Friday night, with a few more two-tops outside on the sidewalk. And yet, our service wasn't just bad; it was amateurish. A bottle of Broquel Malbec we ordered for the table — another reasonable South American wine at $28 — was poured by the owner himself into my drained water glass. And when one of us finished our wine, our waiter would return and scoop up the empty glass instead of offering to pour more.
A flatbread pizza we ordered for the table also came out completely wrong: We had asked for the Florentine with spinach, capicola ham, and garlic-cream sauce ($12) but instead received a Mediterranean pizza with olive tapenade and artichokes ($10). My friend Miche cringed at the Kalamata paste — he hates black olives — but we ate it anyway, since we had waited so long for our food to begin with. Worse, when the bill later came, we were charged for the more expensive Florentine pizza instead — not to mention a sneakily applied 40 percent gratuity that we luckily caught.
What arrived correctly was not much better. Fenton eagerly awaited a bowl of oxtail soup ($8), but when the baked-over crock arrived, he was disappointed. "This could be any kind of meat at all," he said, pulling stringy bits of beef from the broth. With a chunk of crusty bread melted over with Manchego cheese, it tasted like a poorer version of French onion soup.
And then, the music launched into high gear. For some reason, each dance remix — ranging from R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" — alternated in volume such that at one moment, the place was near silent and at others, we had to scream across the table to talk. By the time the saxophonist arrived in her fishnets, we were all smiling and nodding without any clue as to what the other was saying.
Our entrées rescued us from strained conversation for only a brief time. Fenton's grouper ($25), wrapped in salty Serrano ham, was a mess of stale flavors. Its side of artichoke couscous was lousy with oversweet figs. A plate of pork loin ($16) was just as confusing: A layered vegetable tart was topped by the sauced, boneless loin chops, resulting in a visual clusterfuck that looked as if a team of middle schoolers were trying to imitate Jackson Pollock. Miche and his girlfriend merely shrugged at a listless helping of squash tortellini ($18) napped in oily sage butter. His Delmonico steak ($22) resting on a mound of mashed potatoes was at least well-cooked and plated.
But perhaps the worst thing on the table was my paella ($25). There was an episode of Top Chef this season in which Hollywood chef Ron Duprat was sent home for "deconstructing" paella by separating each element — the saffron rice, the seafood, the chorizo — and heaping them haphazardly across the plate. After this, I have to wonder if Dziurzynski and Duprat were sharing crib notes. It was entirely the same dish: mealy chorizo, overdone shrimp, bland clams, roasted red peppers, and passable scallops, each eternally laid to rest on a bed of bland rice. If this is supposed to be paella, then give me a dress and call me Padma. It's time to pack those knives and go.
At this point, we were tired, battered by obnoxious music, and ready to leave. Crowds of clubgoers in sparkly shirts had filtered in, and the music was on full blast. "I don't care what happens," demanded Fenton. "I'm not leaving without that cheesecake." And so, like Marines who won't return to base without a fallen friend, we devoured a piece of the exceptional cake with tactical precision before extracting ourselves for good.
That cheesecake still vexes me. How could this one dish be the sole thing at Satoro where contrast is played properly, where elements are not just tossed together in some disparate stew but massaged and folded? In some regard, it gives some hope that if Tover, Dziurzynski, and the rest of the team could revisit the menu and spruce up service, they'd have something special. But until then, that dessert is nothing but a brass solo in the middle of a bad tune.