Watching Gordon Ramsey is making me violent. The three-Michelin-starred Scottish chef of the Fox reality show Hell's Kitchen is the foulest-mouthed, most evil-tempered brute in a business with more monsters than a Ken Russell retrospective. Ramsey has the same effect on my testosterone as too many hours glued to the tube with Tony Soprano: My language coarsens. I lose patience. I want to rough up glassy-eyed waitrons, hurl burned steaks and wilted salads, kick garbage cans, and spit into congealed risotto.
Sir Gordon — Ramsey was knighted by the Queen despite his ceaseless spew of obscenities — has zero tolerance for crap. He scares the shiitakes out of the schmucks who labor in Hell's Kitchen (last contestant alive wins her own Vegas restaurant and a $250,000 annual salary). But you totally get where he's coming from. He's the only thing standing between his customers and a plate of underdone chicken or disintegrating fillet of sole. You wince when he calls a frightened sous chef a "bloody stupid donkey" and when he says to a young cook, "I wouldn't feed this slop to a pig," likening her dish to "baby vomit," but you don't doubt whose side he's on. He's right with the people who are sitting in his dining room waiting for a topnotch meal. "You're going to fucking poison somebody!" he shrieks at a line cook who's mixed some spoiled crab into an appetizer. And you think to yourself, "Damn, if only every chef had my back like this."
I realize that the restaurant business runs according to its own version of Murphy's Law. We diners often have no clue what kinds of major fires were doused to get us that prettily composed and exactingly seasoned tower of tartar. But it's reasonable to expect that the chef will at least ensure that our food is properly cooked, served at the correct temperature, and not poisonous. At best, he or she offers us a range of memorable, unexpected, delicious foodstuffs. The relationship between diner and chef is a contract, unspoken but implied, based on trust. The restaurants I'm devoted to have never let me down. They rarely have bad nights. Sometimes you just know from your first visit, as you settle down to sip your chilled cocktail, that something about the place — from the chic décor to the attentive service to the delicate and flavorful bread basket or amuse bouche — makes it clear that the chef is batting for your team.
I don't know if 33-year-old chef Michael Wagner, who opened his first bistro, Lola's on Harrison, in July, is a Ramseyesque tyrant behind the scenes. He looks like a pretty mellow guy from his pictures. But after a single meal at Lola's, I entered our unspoken contract joyously and unreservedly: I agreed to come back as often as I could afford it so long as Wagner would keep serving Coca-Cola barbecued beef ribs with herby creamed corn, sassy salmon tartar, and beautifully prepared seafood risotto, or something equally heavenly. With a few gestures Wagner had conveyed that he respected his customers and strove mightily for our delight and ease.
Lola's menu draws on American home-style and Southern regional cooking, gussied up with trendy international spices and flavorings and fresh seasonal vegetables. Sun-dried tomatoes are comfortable on the same menu with white anchovies, tobiko or American sturgeon, sesame seeds, red pepper marmalade, orange-horseradish gremolata, mangoes, wild Bolognese cherries, chorizo, and corn bread. It's a worldly view of a personal aesthetic. You never quite know where Wagner is going with something until you get a little piece of bliss in your mouth.
Wagner has been well-mentored: He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and worked locally with Allen Susser and Johnny Vincencz. He was executive chef at Abe and Louie's in Boca before taking over the space formerly occupied by Prima Notte in Hollywood. He's transformed what used to be a small, dark room by adding new, white, zinc-topped tables and elegantly minimal touches of cream and chocolate. All the tile and mirror can pump up the noise level, but a bistro isn't a bistro without the buzz of conversation over clanking crockery; it gives the place a busy, festive air. The bar serves refreshing champagne cocktails ($7 with blood orange juice or other infusions) and saketinis.
Lola's menu has a wonderful sense of humor. Wagner can take the most mundane bar food, potato skins, and dress them in haute couture — so you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear! Start with purple spud skins ($9), mash up the innards with sun-dried tomato crème fraiche and shards of smoked bacon, then sprinkle with chives and a dollop of American caviar. The result is smoke and gently soured cream, crisp against cloud, the greeny bite of onion, and the explosive brininess of fish eggs.
Or take scallops Rockefeller ($10). Wagner has defamiliarized the N'Awlins oyster classic by transposing it with tiny, flavorful, slow-roasted bay scallops. It's a warm surprise. Divers scallops appear on every menu these days, but you almost never see bay scallops. These have a subtle, clean, gently sweet flavor set against a bit of sautéed spinach, pancetta, and creamy tomato hollandaise. They're spooned into a sea-scallop shell set over a bed of rock salt garnished with dried ancho chilies.
The kitchen takes the yawn out of salmon tartar ($9) with a cheeky bit of world fusion: a salty-sour lemon-sesame vinaigrette tossed into glistening pink fish scattered with red tobiko, black sesame seeds, and drops of jalapeño oil. It's strong stuff — almost too much so until you realize it's meant to be eaten on pieces of light-as-air cassava chips whose sweetness, hint of Indian spice, and crunch temper the vivid tartar beautifully. Other apps include oyster shooters at $5 each, beef short ribs with ricotta salata, and coriander-rubbed baby lamb chops with red pepper marmalade.
A lineup of semifamiliar entrées too successfully "make it strange." There's the superb, dramatically presented passel of Coca-Cola barbecued beef short ribs ($22), a mountain of silky, fall-off-the-bone meat brilliantly balanced between hot, sweet, and sour, topped with super-sized buttermilk onion rings so light and airy that they seem to float. Paired with creamed corn flecked with tarragon, this is a summer barbecue gone wild with flavor. You remember every rib you've ever eaten, the smell of slow-cooking in August, and cold bottles of soda, and at the same time, you've made a new memory that overlaps and interweaves with the old, deepening your appreciation for good living.
Seafood risotto ($12 small, $24 large) comes thoroughly infused with shellfish broth, poached leeks, Sauvignon Blanc, and green herbs. A dish like this with perfectly cooked shrimp has a kind of sheen — it's as luxe and radiant as a silk nightgown. The beautiful shrimp are tossed with mussels, calamari, and those tiny bay scallops while the risotto retains its texture and moisture. There's jerk-seasoned snapper and crab-stuffed ravioli on the menu too, as well as roast chicken served with chorizo corn-bread stuffing, flat-iron steak, and turkey tenderloin with polenta and pomegranate sun-dried tomato gravy. A tropically inspired plate of pan-seared salmon made the transition from summer to fall with its citrus butter and cucumber-mango relish: It arrived with a vaguely autumnal side of fried parsnips and brown rice studded with almonds. This is such lovely food.
A state-of-the-art slice of key lime pie ($6) demonstrated delicacy with its vanilla-wafer-ground pecan crust, fresh whipped cream, and lime zest over a creamy sweet-sour filling. Molten lava cake ($6) is the yin to the key lime's yang — unbelievably dense, head-clearing chocolate paired with wild, sour amerena Italian cherries and a chocolate-cherry sauce so rich and vaporous that you could get drunk on it.
Go ahead and get drunk: Order another mimosa or an espresso saketini or a half-bottle of Moscato to wash down your last bite of guava cheesecake. These are happy times in Hollywood. And chef Michael Wagner will see that you get home safe.
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