The paparazzi are out in full force, loitering and chatting between RivaBella and Chi Lin. The two restaurants share an owner, a valet stand and two adjoining spaces on the corner of Sunset and Doheny in West Hollywood.
Once past the photographers and inside Chi Lin, sensory overload takes over. The space is dark, super-dark, and all around the walls, panels of fractured-light, kaleidoscopic, Asian-ish tree scenes confuse the vision and scramble the brain. Also brain-scrambling: the length, or should I say lack of length, of the metallic gold dresses the female staff is wearing. This isn't just Hollywood; this is a Hollywood fantasy of Hollywood.
Chi Lin opened in early May and is owned by the same restaurant group that brought us RivaBella, Innovative Dining Group. The "culinary partner" is Cecile Tang of JOSS Cuisine in Beverly Hills, and the kitchen is being run by executive chef Yujean Kang. Innovative Dining hasn't much hyped Kang's involvement, which is odd given that he has quite the following after running Yujean Kang's Gourmet Chinese in Pasadena for more than 20 years, serving lavish, Chinese-banquet cuisine. Yujean Kang's Gourmet Chinese closed in July 2012.
The food is billed as high-end, authentic Chinese, with the usual caveat: "Chi Lin combines the spirit of ancient China with the style of 21st-century Los Angeles, melding a variety of regional cuisines in a refined approach that utilizes fresh ingredients in preparations with unexpected flavors and presentations." The menu is ambitious in places and not in others -- there's crab and uni xiao long bao and also BBQ orange baby back ribs. That xiao long bao had wrappers that were slightly tough and a seafood filling that was pleasant but not particularly uni-ish.
More confounding: Lamb shao bing that you stuff yourself. Basically, they give you a bunch of tiny pastry pockets that would be hard to fill with anything but tweezers, and a cup of minced lamb. You're supposed to somehow stuff the pastry thimbles with the crumbly meat.
There's cod with favas and pineapple, which is very sweet and odder than it sounds, and cocktails with cute names that are also very sweet and often odder than you might expect. You can buy a Japanese Wagyu New York strip steak for $84, or tangerine beef for $24. The crowd tends not toward people whom the paparazzi outside would actually want to shoot, but people who are aiming to be those people one day, as well as tourists who are trying to figure out which of those among us are actually famous.
It's early days yet for Chi Lin, but right now the place is very good for a certain type of people-watching and a fabulous place for decadent Hollywood sensory overload. The jury's still out on whether it might become a good place for eating.