Over-the-top glamorous Hollywood restaurants are fun to mock and easy to dismiss. But if any city in the world needs these types of establishments, it's Los Angeles — Hollywood may be an adjective for much of the world, but for us it's a very real noun. Like it or not, we need excessive Hollywood restaurants the same way Paris needs quaint bistros. The only question is whether it's possible to do the preposterously theatrical Hollywood hot spot well — or whether even the smartest incarnations are destined to be laughable.
Acabar, the new restaurant at the corner of Sunset and Stanley, just west of the heart of Hollywood, is a good example of a hot spot trying to do it right. It fills the space Dar Maghreb occupied for 39 years before closing in the fall of 2012 — a place known for its belly dancers, cushioned-floor seating and outrageous decor. "Dine in a Moroccan palace!" was the enticing directive offered by its promo materials.
Acabar has retained much of Dar Maghreb's design excesses — the huge gold front doors, the wild mosaic walls, the elaborately painted ceilings, the white columns and intricate plaster and woodwork — although dark wood and mirrors have been added to make the place feel sleeker.
Walking through the front door is like stepping onto a lavishly designed set for an Arabian Nights fantasy film. A bar that showcases liquor bottles in glowing jewel tones now sits along the back wall, and Dar Maghreb's warren of private rooms has been made into a cushioned lounge that's straight sexy.
It's dizzyingly extravagant, and not just a little silly. It's also gorgeous and more than a little fun.
The chef is Octavio Becerra, who for years owned and operated Palate Food & Wine in Glendale, a much-beloved restaurant that closed in March 2012. Becerra has since consulted on a couple of projects, but this is his first full-time return to the kitchen. Hired by Acabar's owners — director Roland Emmerich and a host of other boldface names — Becerra is presenting an ode to the spice trail, and the flow of flavor and inspiration that traveled that route from the Middle East to Asia to Europe and back again, loosely organized around cuisines that have been touched by France in some way. It's a theme that basically allows the chef to do whatever he pleases, which isn't such a bad thing.
So there is halibut ceviche with mango, uni, aji amarillo and mango, sharing the menu with Turkish cured salmon with caraway potato latke and shaved Persian cucumber. There's satay, curry, bouillabaisse, steamed buns and arancini. In recent weeks, Becerra added a ceviche and raw bar to a corner of the foyer, and you can have a tasting menu made entirely of raw fish and shellfish.
Everything at Acabar fits into a theme, but it's a very loose theme.
The crispy duck confit buns come with pickled stone fruit and have that fantastic melding of lush animal fat and sweet-tart fruit undertones, making them fairly irresistible. Lamb dumplings Provençal, which are about one-fifth Chinese and four-fifths French, come in a musky lamb broth, and the dumplings hold lamb meat and goat cheese. It's a funny mash-up, but it works. The "can o' sardines" is presented as just that — a rectangular can of Spanish sardines, peeled open to reveal mild and juicy fish, served with grilled bread and a shaved fennel salad. For $13 you can get three teeny merguez meatballs, served over white-bean hummus with orange marmalade. A lot of this food would taste a lot better if it were about 40 percent cheaper, but hey, this is Hollywood.
The place where price really becomes an issue is on the "communal large plates" section of the menu, which offers platters to share, like bouillabaisse for $70. It's meant to feed more than one, but that doesn't make the price any less heart-stopping.
A whole, fried sea bass comes with peanuts and an addictive Szechuan peppercorn sauce. Did it matter that the fish had been fried just a tad too long, leaving its flesh a smidgen dried out? It wouldn't have bothered me quite so much if it hadn't cost $44 — I had practically the same dish at Girasol a few weeks back, done better and for half the price.
And some of the food suffers from the problem of form-over-flavor. Those caraway potato "latkes" are very pretty as balls that dot the plate of cured salmon, but basically they taste like fried mashed potatoes. Bread with "house-churned butter" is really just bread and butter, nothing special, which for $8 it damn well should be.
But if the food menu is a bit of a mixed bag, the cocktail menu is less so. Created by Josh Goldman and Julian Cox of the Soigné Group, the list traces the history of the cocktail, from "archaic" punches from the 1700s through modern recipes created by star bartenders from around the world. It's not the first time a drinks list has been crafted around a historical timeline, but that doesn't make it any less fun to drink your way through history, from Acabar's Sazerac, on to a high-class version of a zombie complete with flaming lime, to a deliciously tart and cooling Chartreuse swizzle.
The server delivering these cocktails is likely to be very charming, very handsome, very French and, quite often, very absent. He will swoosh in and take your order, and then be nowhere to be found once you need a second drink or your check; when he does reappear, it will be in the tone of "here I am, so French, so handsome, aren't you lucky to have me?"
Unless you make abundantly clear that you'd prefer it otherwise, all of your food will come at once, and if your wee table isn't big enough to hold all the plates, the food runner will stare at you with a helpless and slightly accusatory gaze, as if this conundrum is entirely your fault. One evening, a busser unknowingly poured ice water all over the lap of one of my dining companions while attempting to reach across him for a glass. There was water everywhere, but no one on staff ever noticed. On the surface, Acabar's service staff is slick and suave, but the substance of hospitality is about so much more.
Yet it would be a little silly to expect a whole lot of substance from an enterprise like Acabar. The place is like a pseudo-Moroccan Disneyland for moneyed starlets, and as such it provides exactly what's needed from a ridiculous Hollywood restaurant: playfulness, good looks, great drinks and a menu that's as fun to explore as it is uneven.
ACABAR | Two stars | 1510 N. Stanley Ave., Hlywd. | (323) 876-1400 | acabar-la.com | Tues.-Sun., 6 p.m.-2 a.m. | Shared plates $12-$17, "communal platters" $42-$86 | Full bar | Valet parking