It is a truth universally acknowledged that a chef in possession of talent must be in want of his own restaurant. Many a grueling hot hour in an employer‘s kitchen is no doubt spent in contemplation of what a restaurant of his own would look -- and taste -- like. Thanks to this powerful innate drive, sous chefs and executive chefs eventually drum up investors, scout locations and bid adieu to their mentors andor bosses to strike out on their own. With permits and licensing, remodels and staffing, opening a restaurant in Los Angeles is no breeze. Dreams invariably are compromised by reality, but it’s nevertheless always interesting to see what form these new restaurants take.
And so, it was with interest bordering on excitement that I visited Mako, the new Beverly Hills restaurant started by Mako Tanaka after he left Wolfgang Puck‘s Chinois on Main.
On Beverly Drive in the former location of Il Mito and the short-lived La Veranda, Mako’s room has been redone in a simple, casual style with lots of pale wood, pretty blue hanging lamps, and attractive original art, some of it by Mako‘s wife, Lisa Brady.
If you sit at the counter, you’re a rolling pin‘s length from pastry chef Amy Machnak as she torches sugar on brulees, caramelizes bananas and toasts the tips of a meringue. Behind her, six or seven people work the line, including chef Sam Maeda -- it’s a miracle of civilization and the social contract that so many people can work together under pressure in such a small area, full of fire and sharp knives. As executive chef and owner, Tanaka, a lean, handsome, focused man, stands facing the room, and keeps track of the orders on slips before him as if playing a complicated game of solitaire.
The dining room is well-staffed. Hosts and servers are attentive, good-natured, full of enthusiasm. They‘re serious, and pulling for this restaurant; and the group effort is heartening. Mako serves up a familiar Pacific Rim fusion strain -- EuroCal eclectic with strong Asian influences and an emphasis on seafood. The menu looks promising, and sometimes the kitchen makes good on the promise. But sometimes it doesn’t. I had at least some quibble with most dishes, quibbles that might sound niggling except that the food is at a price level where customers should expect a very high degree of satisfaction. These are fine-dining prices in an essentially casual room -- the food had better justify it.
Occasionally, such satisfaction comes: An appetizer of deeply caramelized braised short ribs with black truffles and gnocchi is hearty and delicious -- though still pricy. (It‘s so filling, why not make it an entree?) Big, beautiful scallops are perfectly cooked, served on the shell with a bit of mashed potatoes and lots of slivered black truffle -- excellent. Also a hit was grilled filet mignon, a tasty, beautifully cooked piece of beef with a side of sweet soy sauce, and spinach. Rack of lamb, cooked way on the rare side, is rich and good, the hybrid sauce (rosemary, plum wine and ginger) subtle, and the “crispy” tofu a nice touch.
The great risk of fusion is a murky multiplicity, in which the diverse parts don’t add up to the whole. Unfortunately, many of the dishes here slipped into that murk. A generous slab of sauteed foie gras, served on half a poached pear, has a soy glaze dominated by wasabi, and the proportions are off: too much pear. Four densely breaded “crispy” oysters, topped with chopped, herbed tomatoes and pesto, come with a heap of strong pickled beets. Huh?
Lobster salad at $18.50 is also only an appetizer; the chunks of lobster are tender and sweet, but they‘re stretched with many chunks of “crispy potatoes” (bearing an uncanny resemblance to home fries). The salad tastes like wasabi-flavored picnic food -- the daub of osetra caviar and flakes of gold leaf are lost, silly, superfluous.
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One night, roast chicken was inedible -- long overcooked and served with hard, undercooked vegetables and a greasy, gray cake of crispy rice. The staff, noting how little I ate, responded with perfect aplomb, but how did such a mess escape from the kitchen in the first place?
The best dessert is yuzu lime tart, an individual tart with a cute, singed beehive of meringue and delicious coconut sorbet. Cheesecake with fat blueberries is fine, but uninspired; chocolate cake bundled in pastry falls flat; a crumble with apple, currants and nuts is a cross between mince pie and granola.
My general impression is that I’m paying for rent, rather than food. The same food at 25 percent less would not be as vulnerable to complaint, although I wouldn‘t rush across town for it. The only real solution is to dramatically improve the cooking. Streamline the dishes, banish the murk (no more wasabi, please, or “crispy”), enforce much higher standards. Then the prices (not to mention the food) would be far more palatable.
225 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 288-8338. Open for lunch weekdays, dinner Mon.--Sat.; closed Sun. Entrees $21.50--$29.50 with Kobe beef at $75. Full bar. Valet parking at dinner. AE, DC, MC, V. Recommended dishes: braised short ribs, chicken soup (lunch only), filet mignon, yuzu lime tart.