Night of the Lotus

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Here, in the heart of Hollywood, at the White Lotus restaurant-club, a larger-than-life bronze Buddha presides over the vast, canopied patio. This is a slim Buddha — newly enlightened, still trim from the fasting and other deprivations he dabbled in before resting beneath the bodhi tree. His fingers are elegant and long and seemingly weightless; his expression is inward, serene. Meanwhile, around him on this Friday evening, thumping techno music blares from speakers, bartenders shake and pour large fruit-flavored martinis (the lychee, a friend swears, is “lovely”), and the room is filling up with a mostly young crowd: tables of men, freshly showered, carefully dressed, a bit restless . . . tables of women with bared shoulders and truly remarkable breasts.

The White Lotus is yet another Asian-themed scene restaurant — like Sushi Roku and Koi — that is lavishly designed and outfitted with art, sculpture and architectural detail from the East. Here again, we find bamboo, stone lions, lacquer and liquor. Here again, we have the requisite, profit-generating patio where young immortals can drink and smoke and schmooze to their hearts’ content — and they do. A smaller, elegant dining room houses a hard-working sushi bar. On a recent weekend, the hostesses confided, they were looking at 600 reservations for two nights.

The kitchen began as a collusion between Hiroji Obayashi, of Hirozen (Brian Ueno has since taken his place), and Andrew Pastore, formerly of Granita, the Pig and Whistle, and various New York establishments, some belonging to Vongrichten. If their credentials make White Lotus sound like a serious, even innovative, food-focused dining establishment, this would be misleading: What you eat here is essentially a fusion-inflected version of familiar club comfort fare . . . plus sushi, an already well-established combo in this town. For appetizers, there’s dim sum. For steak and potatoes, it’s steak and rice.

While expensive, the sushi is generally fresh and straightforward — though it lacks the fine personal touch of smaller sushi establishments. An otherwise respectable salmon-skin roll extrudes some sad, wilted daikon sprouts — usually one doesn’t see gaffes like that in such a presentation-oriented food form. An albacore-sashimi salad cluttered with jalapeño slices, micro greens and roasted garlic lacks the focus and synergy to make it something other than raw fish with stuff strewn on it. All told, this is not a destination restaurant for sushi — or for dining in general. Frankly, it is a scene with its own kitchen, and the offerings are mixed.

We do love the cucumber salad, the cukes cut in long strands to form a kind of fresh, non-carb noodle. They’re twined in a heap with supple curly red seaweed and dressed with a juicy soy ponzu — it’s a refreshing, textural pleasure. The Dynamite, here as elsewhere, bears testament to the inexplicable affection Japanese sushi chefs have for mayonnaise; this is a small, rich casserole of earplug-size scallops baked in chile-spiked mayo.

The aged New York, served pre-sliced, has a good, dry sour meatiness; it’s dished up casually, even inelegantly, with rice and stir-fried vegetables. Duck-leg confit has a good depth of long-cooked flavor, and comes with a snarl of soba noodles and mushrooms that is tasty and, again, oddly slapdash. There’s a heartiness and heftiness and bigness to the plates here that teeters on sloppy and undercuts any notion of “fine dining.”

Thai coconut bouillabaisse is a striking bounty of seafood: big scallops, lots of shrimp, half a whole lobster set at a rakish angle. Two really bad mussels, however, sorely mitigate the pleasure of the dish. A hefty if dry slab of halibut wears a crunchy sesame crust and sits on a pillow of sticky rice in a pool of a sweet Thai glaze — a pleasing layering of textures and flavors, but I wish the fish weren’t overcooked.

The only dessert we try, a strange deep-fried banana crepe, is a mistake — the crepe is thick, crunchy and crusty, the banana uncooked within. But food and dining, as I’ve said, is not the featured attraction; White Lotus is a locus, a scene — and a pleasant one. The door and service staff are genuinely friendly, the hostesses remarkably so given the fact that a large part of their job is crowd control.

As the evening deepens and the throng thickens, the noise level rises, the martinis flow, sushi flies from the sushi bar, guests drift from their seats, and one has to wonder: What would Buddha do?

White Lotus, 1743 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 463-0060. Dinner Tues.–Sat. 6 p.m.–12:30 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking. Entrées $14.50–$32.

AE, D, MC, V.

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