The Nine Thirty restaurant might be the last place you would expect to find a culinary epiphany in Los Angeles, jammed into the back of the Westwood W Hotel, adjacent to a bottle-service bar, past at least two velvet-rope gauntlets of bouncers who do not have your best interests at heart. The music from the lounge bleeds into the dining room, which is great when the DJ grooves on extremely old-school hip-hop, and less so when he or she moves through the sort of generic electronica that I have actually called W-lobby music for years. You are surrounded by surfaces of loosely woven wood slats — after your third Grey Goose, you may feel as if you are trapped at the bottom of a clothes hamper — which are occasionally punctuated by paintings that look as if they were lifted from a grungy coffeehouse wall. If you are so inclined, you can have a blueberry-crumble martini or three for dessert.
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Eye of the nightlife storm: Nine Thirty's Monique King.
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Thanksgiving-flavored pork chop
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Southern-fried duck confit
But Nine Thirty is the latest redoubt of Monique King, one of the most underrated of Los Angeles chefs, a farmers-market-obsessed woman I once called the Lauryn Hill of New American cuisine in Travel & Leisure magazine. There is a sense of improvisation, of play in her food rarely seen in serious hotel kitchens, food that swings.
Between terms as the executive chef at Border Grill, King was chef at Soul Kitchen in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, which focused on the cooking of the New World’s black diaspora — country-fried quail with molasses-baked peaches; pecan-crusted catfish with black-eyed peas and collard greens; and shrimp and grits such as no Carolinian ever dared to make. It was 400 years of African-American history on a plate. The Firefly Bistro, a restaurant King runs with her husband in South Pasadena, is a modest neighborhood place, but it still shines where it hews closest to the sweet-hot Southern flavors, robust portions and delicate frying that are the hallmarks of her style. (King’s ancestry may be half Puerto Rican and half Jewish, but she cooks as if she spent her formative years cooking chicken and collards for AME picnics.)
At Nine Thirty, King’s dishes seem influenced by the pre-Katrina New Orleans restaurant cooking at places like Jacques-Imo or NOLA, huge assemblages of hearty, well-seared food that could probably be deconstructed into two or three courses apiece, but which at their best weave their own narratives, like discursive novels or epic poetry. (It’s one of those restaurants where everything is charred, including the lemons served with the swordfish.) A bowl of clams, for example, is cooked in the manner of Creole-style barbecue shrimp, which is to say simmered in a strong, black broth fortified with Worcestershire sauce; and a brined, lightly smoked pork chop is served on a bed of succotash, puréed root vegetables and a molasses-spiked pan reduction — pure Thanksgiving. A rack of lamb is enhanced with half of a Tunisian pantry — dates, cracked wheat, merguez sausage, cured olives. A summer soup of Dungeness crab and corn is deceptively simple, but the complex herbs oscillate between coastal Oregon and the Middle East.
The maximalist approach doesn’t always work: A massive braised short rib, cut to resemble an osso buco, is just overwhelmed by the mass of green beans, fried onions, barbecue sauce and potato salad on which it sits. The picnic conceit may work on paper in this case, but not necessarily on the plate. I love the idea of coriander-rubbed foie gras served with roasted figs and a savory bread pudding, a dessert structure grafted onto an entrée, but the duck liver is overseared on the griddle, and the charred, caramelized flavor, while probably intentional, makes it seem almost more like well-done French toast than like a luxury meat. And the wine list reads like a document put together by a committee of cocktail drinkers. At a recent dinner with a couple of wine-obsessed friends, there was literally not a single red that either of them wanted to drink.
The best dish King serves is probably a main course of duck: a slab of soft, rare breast meat sliced into sashimi-size oblongs paired with a piece of duck confit that has been dredged in flour and fried crisp, like a Dixie-fried chicken leg. The duck leg rests on a small wad of collard greens stewed down to a point well past al dente, and is flanked by a sweet roasted onion, and a ripe grilled peach oozing juice. In less-skillful hands, this could be a mess, a sugary jumble of disparate ingredients, but each component is carefully prepared, and the vinegar snap of the house-made pepper sauce both cuts through the richness and ties the dish together — it’s a Fourth of July supper, as American as Kentucky-fried confit.
Nine Thirty, in the W Hotel, 930 Hilgard Ave., Westwood, (310) 443-8211 or www.ninethirtyw.com. Dinner nightly. Full bar. Validated valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $84-$120. Recommended dishes: barbecued clams, roasted duck and chicken-fried confit duck leg; corn and Dungeness crab soup.