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Spago Jr. 

Wednesday, May 15 2002
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What makes a restaurant fun? An excellent place to explore this question is Wolfgang Puck’s brasserie, Vert, in the new Hollywood & Highland mall. But the answer isn‘t simple; rather, it’s synthetical, a case in which the parts amount to more than the whole. Taken apart, piece by piece, Vert has its strengths and occasional weaknesses. The cheesy ‘80s pop music, for example, would never alone generate or accompany my idea of fun -- think “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, say, or Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen” . . . Everyone I ate with at Vert complained about it. But that didn‘t stop us from having a grand old time, every time.

Vert is on the fourth floor of the boulevard’s new concrete fun zone. Of all of Wolfgang Puck‘s lesser restaurants (lesser meaning less expensive andor ambitious than his fine-dining establishments, Granita, the multiple Spagos and Chinoises), Vert is hands down the best -- even given that soundtrack. The decor isn’t particularly seductive. One of the two dining area is huge, windowless, with a view of the open kitchen, very reminsicent of the Spago design. The other is light-filled, overlooking the mall, with a bar in its center; this is more reminiscent of the Wolfgang Puck cafes, although the mosaic motif is confined to a sober, pretty stone-tiled wall. The nods to classic bistro decor are strictly postmod: Rough-hewn wooden beams span linen-colored acoustic tile; chandeliers incorporate snaky bottle shapes atop thick glass disks and aluminum squares. Metallic-blue booths are very comfortable and very well-spaced. Overall, there‘s a generosity to the layout, room to stretch out -- without flinging a hand into your neighbor’s soup.

So what makes Vert so fun? Well, a lot of it has to do with the food. The menu was designed by Spago‘s chef du cuisine, Lee Hefter, and combines his favorite Italian and French classic bistro dishes -- “everything I like to eat,” he claims. Portions are generous, the food full-flavored and satisfying, starting with the baked goat cheese in olive oil and tapenade that comes with every basket of bread. Scoop it up with that buttery, cheese-sprinkled lavash or snappy grissini (bread sticks) and you’ll get a quintessential mouthful of Southern France.

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Everything is simple and good, as if designed to avoid culinary complication and mistakes --not that Vert‘s cooks, who until recently made up a good portion of Spago Beverly Hills’ kitchen staff, would have any difficulty cooking anything. Vert‘s chef and partner, Matt Bencivenga, was Hefter’s right-hand man for Spago‘s first years. The general manager, Klaus Puck, is Wolfgang’s younger brother, who ran Spago in Chicago for many years.

More fun comes in the form of sharing a huge pan of mussels mariniere -- I‘ve only seen mussels that plump in the south of Languedoc -- served in their steaming liquid with slabs of toasted bread dripping with bearnaise sauce. Split the order, it’s huge. Also revelatory -- and shareable -- is the fritto misto: lightly battered thin slices of lemon (oh my god), little crunchy exploded capers, rock shrimp, green olives (!), slices of zucchini, shredded onions, all served with a smooth lemon-garlic aioli. Snails, plump and springy, swim in a parsley-green butter. The steak tartare, served with quail eggs and capers in a thin band of parmigiano cheese, is excellent. There‘s a classic frisee aux lardons, the “bacon and egg” salad, and one of butter lettuce with blood oranges and Roquefort; both are beautifully fresh and cleverly assembled, but a tad too sweet.

Wolfgang Puck is famous for his pizza, and Vert’s are among the best yet. They‘re Roman style: thin, chewy crust, not necessarily slathered in tomato. Try the tarte flambe Alsace, with caramelized onions and chunks of delicious bacon, or a heady pizza with paper-thin potato slices, pancetta, bits of buratta (the “creamy mozzarella”) and an earthy sprinkle of thyme. Also listed along with the pizzas is a croque monsieur, the classic French grilled Gruyere and ham sandwich, the cheese aged and sharp, the ham mild. At lunch, you can get spaghetti with veal meatballs; at dinner, the only way to taste Hefter’s sublime meatballs is to order a pizza topped with ‘em and onions. All pastas are the excellent, porous Latini brand.

You can have a snack for as low as $7 or $8, or you can have a multicourse meal with some sizable entrees. The steak frites is a juicy prime New York with thin, crisp, perfect fries. Grilled tuna on cannelini beans is topped with that beautiful green basil butter; somehow the parsley and garlic suffuse the rare meat -- it couldn’t be better. Roasted salmon is less dramatic; crusted with slivered almonds, it‘s also slightly overcooked. Lamb T-bone chops are meaty and also deeply seasoned; the accompanying escarole has good compelling bitterness, but is a bit overstewed.

The dessert menu is appealingly large, with something for everyone, although I mostly crave the Italian doughnuts, served with almond ice cream. But the molten-centered chocolate souffle cake is proof that, all evidence to the contrary, civilization does at times ascend. While the tangerine granita has a more shardlike than an ideal pebbly texture, its flavor sings; combined with vanilla gelato, it’s a 5050 bar for the 21st century.

Hefter‘s unabashedly full-flavored food, the terrific service -- not too constant, not too distant -- the many pages borrowed from Puck’s past triumphs, the flagrant play for quality and pleasure all make Vert a happy place to be. As for the music? We can live with it. If we have to.

Hollywood and Highland, Hollywood; (323) 491-1300. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Entrees $10--$24. Parking in underground lot ($2 first four hours). Major credit cards.

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