Simon L.A., the new restaurant in the Sofitel across the Beverly Center, is not a bad place to experience a giant shellfish platter, a carefully composed beet salad with goat cheese or a $48 bone-in ribeye steak with glazed cippoline onions, especially slouched into one of the overstuffed banquettes that flank the patio like a conga line of king-size beds. It is a handsome, airy restaurant — booths set into curved, carved wooden pods that look like exploded German woodcuts, an open kitchen at one side of the room and heated terrace at the other.
Kerry Simon, the restaurant’s soulful, long-haired chef, helped create the modern crazes for reduced vegetable juices and flavored oils when he was Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s chef de cuisine at New York’s Lafayette in the ’80s, and the legendary Interview parties he oversaw in the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel may have been the Studio 54 of the early ’90s. He was the chef at the well-regarded Blue Star in Miami Beach during the birth pangs of the South Beach scene, and his sybaritic steakhouse in the Hard Rock casino in Las Vegas has probably seen more Champagne-fueled debauchery than any restaurant since the ascendancy of Maxim’s a hundred years ago. Rolling Stone once dubbed him the Rock ’n’ Roll Chef, a title he bears with the pride that other chefs tend to reserve for their James Beard Awards. Mick Jagger has eaten his food. And he has conquered the competition on Iron Chef — Battle Ground Beef, I think it was. Simon knows exactly what to do with a truffle, a pheasant and a lobe of foie gras.
But the emblematic dish at Simon L.A. so far, the one on the lips of the people whose names are inscribed in indelible ink on all the best clipboards in town, is the mammoth concoction Simon calls the Junk Food Sampler: a $25 dessert so insiduous, so awe-inspiring, that it may as well have been designed by a consortium of work-deprived Beverly Hills dentists.
The centerpiece of the sampler is a giant blob of pink cotton candy affixed to a paper cone kept erect by a few fistfuls of housemade Cracker Jack. There are Rice Krispies marshmallow treats, in chocolate as well as the traditional blond, a heap of freshly fried doughnut holes, two reasonable facsimiles of pink-marshmallow-frosted Hostess Sno Balls and two more of miniature Hostess Cup Cakes, a jiggerful of vanilla milkshake and a bag of cookies — oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip — that may or may not make it back with you to the car. If you are interested in feeling the way you might have after gorging on funnel cake, ice cream and caramel apples at the state fair when you were 13, the Junk Food Sampler may be for you. This isn’t a dessert; it’s a diabetic coma on a plate.
Many of the finest artifacts in American culture in the last decades have come from the collision of formidable technique and trivial obsession. Bill Irwin’s juggling comes to mind, as do Jeff Koons sculptures and Peter Sellers’ setting of Don Giovanni outside a Harlem crackhouse. And Simon L.A. is practically a shrine to the reimagining of America’s vernacular cuisine: meatloaf and shrimp cocktail, caesar salad and onion rings, truffle-oil-enhanced macaroni and cheese, and hand-chopped steak tartare paired with horseradish-painted beefsteak tataki. He grills the vegetables he whirs into an gazpacho, and although you can’t really taste the smokiness, the flavors are sweetened, intensified by the flame.
When Simon ventures into the world of Asian flavors, it is to scent tuna tartare with lemongrass oil, to replicate the red chicken curry at your local Thai restaurant with highbrow ingredients, to mash potatoes with wasabi, to laminate thin sheets of raw yellowtail onto a plate with a sort of deconstructed ponzu sauce. When he pays homage to sushi, it is not to the exquisite work of Kyoto masters but to tuna dynamite: the gooey, spicy mainstay of minimall sushi bars across the country. (To his credit, the glob of diced tuna, fresh lump crabmeat and red-chile aioli that blankets the dense blocks of sushi rice is very tasty.)
He has become obsessed with raw food lately, and although his raw “pasta,” ribbons of zucchini and daikon tossed with olive oil and clear tomato water, may not replicate many of the sensations of pappardelle, it is very delicious as salad. And the pizza topped with raw beef carpaccio, blue cheese and a little truffle oil — Simon may have a defter hand with truffle oil, generally an ingredient I loathe, than any chef in Los Angeles — is surprisingly good. The steaks, on the other hand, tend to be just okay, although the lamb porterhouse is a juicy, formidable plate of meat.
And then there is his dessert. If the Junk Food Sampler is a bit much after a dinner of shrimp and beef, and I rather suspect it might be, there are always cinammon-sprinkled grilled doughnuts or a giant chocolate truffle made with raw avocado instead of butter or cream. The avocado may not make the truffle taste any better, but just think of the Vitamin E!
Simon L.A., 8555 Beverly Blvd., (in the Sofitel), Los Angeles, (310) 358-3979. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Full bar. Validated valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$92. Recommended dishes: carpaccio pizza, lamb porterhouse, junk food sampler.