It's a cliché, of course, to say the service in France is impossibly haughty. Even having experienced it in the past, I found myself on a recent trip to Paris being overwhelmingly grateful for the enthusiasm and kindness of American sommeliers. At high-end restaurants in France, the act of selecting a bottle is mainly an exercise in showing off one's knowledge, finances and good taste. The sommelier is there to witness this exhibition, to approve or disapprove. God forbid you have a question or need some guidance.
I thought of this recently during a visit to Wally's Beverly Hills, the giant wine shop/restaurant/bar/retail operation that opened last year. It shares ownership with the wine shop of the same name.
Wally's the store, in Westwood, has long been the largest independent wine retailer on the West Coast and is known for its massive selection and celebrity clientele. When Wally's was bought in 2013 by longtime employee Christian Navarro and Guess founders (and brothers) Maurice, Paul and Armand Marciano, it soon became clear that they were not going to be content with Wally's remaining a simple retail operation. The vinoteca was opened in December of last year (its original name was Wally's Vinoteca but has since been changed to Wally's Beverly Hills), and there are ambitions to take the brand global, to become "the premier wine organization in the world." An article in The Hollywood Reporter around the time of the restaurant's opening reported that there were plans for Wally's vinotecas in Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, New York, England, France and Italy.
No doubt this concept could do well in just about any city with a moneyed population. It's incredibly appealing in its look and feel; there are walls of wine that reach to high ceilings, and long, thick marble tables that run through the center of the open-plan room, flanked by a bar in one space, a cheese counter in another and more walls of wine acting as dividers here and there. It feels vibrant and alive, a place to join friends to drink wine and nibble on cheese. There are ladies lunching, Hollywood agents conducting business and well-dressed women with tiny dogs. If Beverly Hills were a high school, this could be its tony cafeteria. The people-watching is top-notch.
The original chef, Ralph Soroczynski, did not last long. In August of this year, David Féau took over the kitchen. Féau is known in L.A. for serving as the opening chef at the Royce restaurant at the Langham hotel in Pasadena and before that as the executive chef of Patina Group. Féau has a résumé too long to cover in full here, but the French native has accomplishments as impressive as any chef: He worked for Guy Savoy in Paris and was executive chef at Lutèce in New York and Las Vegas.
At Wally's Beverly Hills, Féau is tasked with feeding people on both a casual and a very high-end level, oftentimes on the same plate. If you want white truffles shaved over your $26 Wagyu Wally Burger, you can have them. If you want caviar service before your charcuterie platter, you can have that. And if you peer back into the kitchen where Féau is working the pass, you'll see a space set up in a formal style and Féau himself using tweezers to finish the plates — even though most of what's on the tables around you are fries (with truffles), pizza (with truffles) and burgers (mostly without truffles, thank God).
Which isn't to say that Féau's talents are wasted here. The burger is in no need of truffles to make it delicious — it does that very well by itself, showcasing the kind of tangy, juicy, high-quality beef that almost justifies the $26 price tag. Well, maybe not quite.
And Féau gets to put those tweezers to good use with some of the more ambitious food. The "purple and blue" salad is festooned with roasted beets, figs and shaved radishes placed so carefully and prettily the bowl appears almost kaleidoscopic.
Barely cooked yellowtail sits on a plate painted with various smears and daubs of sauce: a black brushstroke across the plate, little green dots, a quickly melting citrus sorbet topped with a nasturtium on the side. The fish itself is lovely, and the plate is modernist artwork. I'm not convinced it all goes together on the tongue as well as it does visually, but it's fun nonetheless.
But I have questions about this food, questions most patrons will never get to because they're too busy eating the (perfectly decent) personal pizzas. I was thrilled to see venison on the menu, a meat that had a bit of a heyday about 10 years ago and then fell out of favor again. But the two tiny pieces of lovingly cooked meat came surrounded by a mess of Brussels sprouts and chestnuts that were blackened and tasted downright acrid. Why were they black? Were they supposed to be? Were they burnt?
A braised lamb shank dish is as peculiar and ambitious as any dish anywhere in town, the lamb meat — which is practically melting — jumbled with oddly chewy rounds of squid ink pasta, squiggles of bouncy cuttlefish and hunks of tame, almost bland merguez sausage. Also on the plate are two blistered, large red chilies, the flesh of which could provide some much-needed sweetness and spice, except it's hard to get to any of that flesh through the skin and seeds. For a restaurant that in some ways dumbs down its menu to appeal to the tastes of its pickier clients, the risks Féau does decide to take are really ... risky. I applaud it, in theory, but also find it a bit perplexing.
If the food is geared toward a moneyed set with specific tastes, then the wine is even more so. This is a protracted list for people looking to impress and looking to spend money — most of it is dedicated to Bordeaux, Burgundy and California, with some German and Italian bottles thrown in for good measure. Wonkier varietals, and regions with fewer Parker-approved labels (such as the Loire), are simply ignored. Smaller producers are mainly not represented, and it's likely that they couldn't be for reasons of scale. If Wally's is looking to take over the world, it's not going to do so with wines that aren't available in vast quantities. This is not the place to learn and explore — it's a place to go and spend your money on something you already know you want.
The bottles that line the wall are all for sale — this is just as much a wine shop as it is a restaurant. Servers will tell you that the restaurant wine list and the retail selection are the same, and that the prices on the list are the retail prices plus a $40 corkage fee. This obviously makes for a low end that's not very low — a $15 bottle becomes $55. In theory it also makes for a high end full of bargains, and those may be here somewhere. But I found many, many weird discrepancies between the retail and list prices. For instance, a 2005 Domaine d'Ardhuy Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru that's $100 if you buy it retail is $240 on the wine list.
When I ordered a bottle it turned out they didn't have, a sommelier I hadn't yet spoken to brought me a bottle of the same varietal but from a different end of the world. "I don't have what you ordered, but I have this," he said, not looking at me. I paused, and wondered aloud if Italy and California might produce very different wines. "It's the same price," my unfriendly friend said, channeling his best French attitude.
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Ah, well. That's what I get for deigning to spend only $70 on a bottle of wine on a Tuesday night in Beverly Hills.
WALLY'S BEVERLY HILLS | Two stars | 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills | (310) 475-3540 | wallysbeverlyhills.com | Daily, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. | Entrees, $26-$29 | Full bar | Valet and lot parking