I have spent too much time in downtown lounges over the last few months, supping on martinis and crab cakes alongside the antique turbines at Edison, martinis and crab cakes in the converted loading dock at Royal Clayton, martinis and crab cakes among the hockey fans at Liberty Grill, sauvignon blanc and crab cakes after an art opening at 626 Reserve, martinis and crab cakes and the Lakers at Trifecta, martinis and crab cakes and loud Iggy Pop at the Redwood, and so on. Some people call the loft-driven downtown boom a renaissance, some an economic miracle, some a rent in the living fabric of downtown. Others point to the crab cakes. And to the martinis, of course, which are as essential to the urban penthouse thing as an Eames chaise longue and the copy of Kind of Blue downloaded onto your iPod. The era of Gorky’s and the Atomic Café seems very, very long ago.
First among equals and not a crab cake in sight, Blue Velvet is a hyperdesigned lounge fitted into the ground floor of a former Holiday Inn on a side street near Bunker Hill, a glass-and-steel Case Study House interior fashioned from eco-friendly materials (its owner, Bret Mosher, runs a green building-products company) — glass and iron wrapped around a glowing swimming pool that turns every vantage into a David Hockney painting, with the cool blues of Staples Center and the financial-district skyscrapers just beyond. (The kitchen serves late — Blue Velvet would be a great place to stop after a Lakers game or a concert at Disney Hall.) Some of the herbs and vegetables are harvested from an organic rooftop garden. From a spot by the window, a seat at the long communal table perched under what look like giant illuminated marshmallows, or from one of the cabanas outside by the fire pits, downtown is as glamorous as the view from a penthouse in a Fred Astaire movie, except that the music, occasionally curated by a live DJ, tends more to Nirvana and De La Soul than Cole Porter and Jerome Kern.
I understand the principle behind the dish of slow-poached sea trout, which is potentially soft and luscious, garnished with chicken oysters (those ovals of meat that slide out of a chicken’s back) and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. It’s an essay in slippery textures, in the nuances of protein and heat. But Morningstar can’t resist the temptation to sear off the sea trout, which adds a slight crunch to the fish at the expense of its hard-won succulence, and the sharp, tobaccolike funk of the roasted mushrooms takes over the dish in the absence of an acid — after a minute or two, the combination begins to make sense, but the first few bites are disconcerting.
Morningstar redeems himself with what might be the city’s first beet dessert, a chewy, sweet beet financier cake with two colors of beet purée and a melting scoop of fresh goat-cheese gelato. Sometimes I wonder what Miss Destiny from John Rechy’s City of Night might do with a scoop of goat-cheese gelato, stumbling into what she thought was one of her old hangouts in this former boarding-house neighborhood and settling down at the sustainably built bar. I imagine she’d chase it with a shot of Four Roses. Or a biodynamically grown Chardonnay.
Blue Velvet, 750 S. Garland Ave., L.A., (213) 239-0061. Open Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., Sun.–Thurs. 5:30–10:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30–11 p.m. Bar open seven nights until 2 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $78–$98. Cheaper bar menu. Recommended dishes: flatbread with brandade; lobster cassoulet; squab crepinette; beet financier.