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Flesh and Bone 

Playing with Kobe at mighty Cut

Wednesday, Dec 6 2006
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Have you ever tasted Kobe beef? Not the admittedly decent Idaho-raised wagyu/Angus cow, but the real stuff, the $200-a-pound steaks imported from Japan?

A whole fillet of Japanese beef, as wrapped in ninja-black cloth and carried around by the beef sommelier at Wolfgang Puck’s steak house Cut, is as ghostly white as an alabaster slab, like steak as seen in a photographic negative, like something Francis Bacon might have carved out of soft stone. Cooked, a single mouthful of Japanese rib eye from Kyushu pumps out flavor after flavor after flavor, every possible sensation of smoke and char and tang and animal you can imagine until your teeth have extracted all the juices. If you happen to be at Cut, and you happen to have in front of you what would ordinarily be a perfectly splendid corn-fed Nebraska strip steak, aged 35 days, seared at 1,200 degrees, then finished over oak to a ruddy, juicy medium rare — or even an example of American wagyu rib eye — you would take one bite of your neighbor’s Japanese Kobe steak, cooked the same way, and look around for rocks to throw at your own hunk of meat.

If you have $120 million to spend on a painting, you might as well buy yourself a Klimt. If you have $120 to spend on a steak, you might want to consider visiting Cut — and splitting the Kobe strip four or five ways, because unless you happen to play in the NFL, there is no way you can digest even a small example of the plutonium-dense meat by yourself. There are always the American Kobe short ribs cooked into a jelly with Indian spices, the extra-juicy brined Kurobuta pork chops or the apple salad with dates and curls of Parmesan cheese to try as well.

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Inserted into a new Richard Meier–engineered space in the Regent Beverly Wilshire, Cut is one of the most designed restaurants in the universe, a remodel of the room that used to house the Mandarin — and more to the point, Romanoff’s, which was probably the most fashionable Hollywood restaurant of the ’40s and ’50s, the Spago of its day. The dining room is in the shape of a pure, white semicircle whose angles make you feel as if you’re dining in a white-on-white mid-’60s Frank Stella painting, cut obsessively by architectural lines parallel to the diameter, drawing the eye toward a mysterious spot in the fuzzy middle distance rather than toward the windows, which face out, after all, onto the hotel’s unglamorous lobby and valet-parking zone. Meier also designed the plates, the chairs and the flatware, which is a neoclassic design probably influenced by Mackintosh, and if he could have, I suspect he would have found a way to design the plating of the food.

But if Spago is Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, its menu plumped out with his easygoing air, his enriched stocks, his Austrian favorites, his signature tinge of wood, Cut, despite obvious signs of the master’s touch, is actually the love child of Puck’s senior chef Lee Hefter, whose obsessions lie as much in technique as they do in product, whose menus of warm veal-tongue salads, succulent maple-glazed pork bellies, and warm asparagus salads surmounted with dripping, barely fried eggs tend to be more modern but a bit less user-friendly than what one suspects Puck would turn out on his own. Sherry Yard, Spago’s resident dessert genius, is all over this kitchen too — a lot of the appetizers are stamped with her miniaturist aesthetic. Dana Farner, the indie-rock goddess sommelier, is perfectly cheerful selling Bordeaux or big-ticket Cabs, but she seems happier when you let her talk you into a bruising Nero d’Avola from southern Italy, a Malbec from the Mendoza area of Argentina or a supple, earthy wine from Languedoc. You’ll be happier too.

Are there celebrities here? This is a Wolfgang Puck restaurant: Warren and Annette, Tom and Katie, Larry King, Martha Stewart, the occasional young star presiding over a tableful of models, and an impressive range of young waiters in well-cut black suits presiding over their food and wine. Is Cut really a steak house? Sure — if you’re a steak-house guy, you could have a butter-lettuce salad, a sirloin and a side of onion rings, and leave thinking you’ve been to the best restaurant in Los Angeles. Cut is to the other steak houses in town what Spago was to the pizza parlors back in 1981, the restaurant that defines Los Angeles at the moment, or at least Beverly Hills.

If you were going to paint current-day Beverly Hills in four quick strokes, you could do worse than Cut’s succession of canapés that seem to find their way onto the table of regulars: crisp, little potato knishes served with the haute-cuisine version of ballpark mustard; tiny hamburgers, “sliders,” made with ground American Kobe beef; the airy French cheese puffs gougères; and pied noir sandwiches of foie gras sandwiched between leaves of brik pastry and dusted with fierce Arabic spices, propped upright, like a duck-liver Stonehenge, in thick puddles of puréed dates. Ashkenazi Jew, dressed-up Middle America, luxury-loving Europe, Tunisian passing as French — a 700-page Jackie Collins novel couldn’t begin to do as good a job at illuminating the day traffic on Rodeo Drive.

There are at least a few dishes with the air of classics about them at Cut, dishes you would swear were plucked from the pages of Escoffier but seem to be straight from Hefter’s brain — for example, the appetizer of marrow extracted from roasted veal bones, whirred with cream and egg yolk, then spooned back into the bones and baked in a warm-water bath until the custard is set. There are few dishes in the world more delicious than Fergus Henderson’s roasted marrow bones at St. John in London, on which Hefter’s version is clearly modeled. Cut’s version, like Henderson’s, is served with coarse salt, slices of toasted brioche and a little salad of parsley chopped just enough to tame its weedy overtones. But Cut’s marrow bones may be even better, with all the richness, all the flavor, all the slightly transgressive sensation of feasting on a part of the animal that nature has so fiercely guarded, without quite the grossness — the charred ends, the charnel-house smell, the random pools of searing, liquid grease — that you sometimes find in the simpler preparation.

The potato “tarte tatin” is another Hefter invention I thought I would find in Escoffier, Pomiane or even Robuchon’s brilliant little book of potato recipes, but it too seems to be an original, a sort of melting potato dauphinoise completely encased in a thin, crunchy sheath of potatoes Anna, a crackly, buttery crispness giving way to the forthright creaminess of long-simmered spuds, close to, but more complex than, the potato cake at the Parisian bistro L’Ami Louis that may have been its inspiration. Fourteen dollars is a lot to pay for a side dish of potatoes, but it may be a reasonable price for art.

Cut, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 276-8500. Dinner Mon.–Sat. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. California Contemporary. Main courses, $38–$160. Recommended ­dishes: bone-marrow flan, warm veal-tongue salad.

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