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¿Cómo Se Dice Rotten?

Ghost Town, U.S.A.: Estrella Del Mar won't help downtown Hollywood
Sherri Cohen

Take it from me: Never, ever treat a two-year-old to dinner in a restaurant. Amid the whining, the curiosity about the surroundings, and the shouts of "I do it!" as the glass of milk tumbles to the floor, you're lucky if you get a bite in edgewise. Of course, if you're a parent of a toddler, you're probably already heeding this advice. So go ahead, pat yourself on the back, you smug caretaker you. You've been smart enough to leave the monster where he or she belongs -- safe at home, throwing a tantrum for the baby sitter.

Unfortunately I don't always have the luxury of leaving my little one with a sitter. Logistics require that I sometimes take her with me. And frankly my husband and I dine out five to seven nights a week and can't afford to pay someone else to do our parental duty all the time. (Nor would we want to; we like to see the br…, I mean the darling, once in a while.) Lucky for me, though, I have a standing arrangement with my hubby. Tasting the food and observing the setting and service is paramount for me, and he understands that. So when the precious offspring acts up in a restaurant that I'm reviewing, he's the one to rocket out of his chair and race after her -- especially since she has recently learned not only to undress herself in public but to take off her diaper and swing it over her head while singing her ABCs.

'Course, he's not a saint either, and I hear plenty of grumbling about the privileges of sitting and eating. But things changed when we went to Estrella Del Mar, a four-month-old Spanish eatery in downtown Hollywood. This time little Zoe got itchy and went to explore the stage built into one corner of the large, square dining room, and Daddy almost eagerly got up and left me with an assortment of hot and cold tapas. On his way he tossed over his shoulder, "I don't know who has the worse job, you or me."

Indeed Estrella Del Mar is one of those eateries to puncture the illusion that I hold a dream job. The food in this establishment was so stale, spoiled, or poorly prepared -- you could take your pick of any of the criticisms on just about any of the dishes -- that I was anxious about tasting some of the items for fear of contracting a food-borne illness. It's a good thing my daughter was too tired to be hungry, because I wouldn't have allowed her to try anything we ordered. I'd be more apt to test the stuff out on a stray cat.

That's too bad, because I had high hopes for Estrella Del Mar. Owned by Hollywood resident Gail Winer and partner Sami Aziz, the eatery was hyped by the Community Redevelopment Agency, which is attempting (once again) to revitalize "historic" downtown Hollywood. According to the press release, the restaurant features a variety of Spanish wines, nightly flamenco dancers, and authentic cuisine. Estrella seemed like a neat addition to the area, since I couldn't think offhand of a good Spanish eatery in Hollywood. I wasn't even put off by the fact that we were the only customers in this dauntingly big space with its square, granite-topped bar; slate floor; red linen-topped tables; and brocaded red chair seats. We'd just strolled down Harrison Street on our way to Estrella, which is located on 20th Avenue between Hollywood Boulevard and Harrison, and none of the eateries (several of which are new) had more than one occupied table. The area had all the appeal of an urban ghost town.

I always take press releases with a healthy grain of salt, but this one needs to be taken with a whole salt mine. If Estrella Del Mar does indeed house "a selection of more than 40 Spanish wines," why are about 20 California vintages featured on the wine list, with about 10 unjustly expensive Spanish Riojas relegated to the back page? And why is the restaurant pouring only Beringer and Kendall-Jackson by the glass? And while we're asking questions here, where were the flamenco dancers? The only live entertainment we witnessed on that corner stage was our daughter, doing the toddler tango with her diaper.

To be fair about the menu, it reads authentically. It even reads deliciously. Tapas, highlighted in the press release, range from olives stuffed with anchovies to clams sautéed in sherry and olive oil. Most of the fare draws from the southern regions of Spain, where the use of almonds, cinnamon, saffron, and couscous shows the influence of the Moors. We were intrigued, briefly.

But we didn't even have to taste some of the dishes to know that we were in for a long evening. We could have just looked at the bread, thin slices hardening before our eyes, and smelled the pimiento-spiced butter, which reeked of the refrigerator. A soup of the day, made with chickpeas, was overlaid with a good quarter-inch of olive oil; we sent it back without even dipping into it. Lentil soup, seasoned with that ton of salt I should have taken with the press release, soon followed it back to the kitchen. We didn't bother to return the gazpacho, which had been mixed with so much vinegar it burned our throats like a poorly balanced salad dressing, but simply left it uneaten.

As for the touted tapas, a wedge of tortilla, or Spanish omelet made with potatoes, was so gray with age that at first I thought it had grown mold. The stale flavor of the tortilla, which was served straight from the refrigerator, confirmed that it had been made earlier -- much earlier -- in the week. A so-called hot tapas, oven-roasted pork ribs, was brought to the table barely lukewarm, arousing our suspicions that it, too, had been prepared in advance. Freshness wouldn't have helped it much, however. The measly ribs yielded more bone than meat, and what did cling to the bones was so tough we couldn't chaw it off. The garlic-paprika sauce that dressed them was oily and unpleasant, and the accompanying saffron cakes, comprising couscous and way too much saffron, were soggy. Finally, the first bite of an empanada, a microwaved turnover that spilled out a mixture of spoiled chopped seafood, was so off-putting that I questioned the wisdom of having ordered paella Valenciana for two as a main course.

I was right to be concerned. Though the paella had obviously been freshly prepared -- the soupy rice mixture was brought to the table in the skillet, still steaming -- it appeared as if the kitchen had tried to rid itself of all the shellfish that had been sitting around that week. And put simply, none of it was fresh. The multitude of mussels, both small black ones from the Mediterranean and large green-lipped ones from New Zealand, tasted fishy. Whole baby octopus were so plentiful, and so pungent, we thought the paella pan had been a nursery for them. A handful of langoustines, freshwater prawns that are traditionally served in the shell with head attached, smelled so raunchy that we didn't dare to taste them. The paella also contained chunks of chorizo, which lent a caraway-like flavor to the dish, and some over-gamey chicken.

The restaurant features plenty of meat, fish, and chicken entrées, and many of them sound tasty -- fish with orange-mint sauce, for example, or chicken breasts sautéed with garlic and tomatoes. But in retrospect I imagine whatever we'd ordered would have come out (a) dried into jerky and (b) with the same oily, tomato-based emulsion spiced with obscene amounts of rosemary, an herb that needs to be used sparingly. A veal chop had been doused with this sauce, as had veal scaloppini, despite its billed sherry sauce. The sauce on both of these meat dishes resembled the one that had dressed the oven-roasted ribs and in fact tasted like the lentil soup and looked like the chickpea soup. It began to appear that the kitchen, like makeup artists with only a lipstick but a need for blush and eyeliner, knew only one recipe but thought they could stretch it into a full palette.

I'd like to laud the service, because our waitress was so sweet to my daughter (she even offered to watch her while we ate and allowed her to color on her order pad) that we left her more than the 15 percent tip she'd added in for herself. But she couldn't describe some of the food items on the menu and failed to tell us what wasn't available that evening until we tried to order it.

In addition I'm not sure why a group of employee barflies, who seemed to include the people in charge of the place (that is, a manager or one of the owners) never came by to check on the only table in the restaurant. Inquiries about our meal should have been extended when it became obvious that we were sending back or leaving virtually untouched most of our food. In the end it was up to the waitress to apologize for the quality of the fare and extend us the courtesy of deleting the soups from the check. I wish I could offer her the same courtesy and apologize for the contents of this review. But unless drastic measures are taken with the unjustly pricey fare, I'd rather see the place entirely deleted from the downtown Hollywood dining scene, which is already struggling without this restaurant's help.


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