There's an odd, pervasive myth about the way Americans eat that at its most basic goes like this: The privileged among us eat well, while the poor eat poorly. It's an assumption that's deployed frequently when discussing food deserts, obesity, nutrition and other issues of food insecurity and hunger. But it also smacks of classism and ignores the fact that most Americans, regardless of financial status, eat poorly. In fact, I'd say that if we are going to generalize, it would be more accurate to say that the very wealthy in this country have some of the worst taste when it comes to food.
What other explanation accounts for the mostly terrible (yet very expensive) restaurants in Malibu, a city with one of the highest median household incomes in L.A. County? The dumbed-down selections on so many Beverly Hills wine lists? Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, many very good (and also very expensive) restaurants survive thanks to customers with both the money and taste to patronize them. But my guess is that if you surveyed the dining-out proclivities of the 1 percent, you'd find mostly crappy chardonnay, too-sweet cocktails, safe but expensive steakhouse fare and terrible pan-Asian food.
How else to explain Tao? The outrageously over-the-top mini-chain that originated in New York has seen its Las Vegas outpost become the highest-grossing and most profitable restaurant in America, and its New York locations aren't far behind. As of this past April, Los Angeles has a Tao of its own, along with a handful of other concepts from the same owners, all attached to the new Dream Hotel in Hollywood.
Much has been written about the genius of Tao as a moneymaking operation, about how 75 percent of its revenue is in alcohol when the industry standard is around 30 percent, and about how in Vegas the restaurant and its adjacent nightclub manage to attract convention-goers during the week and celebrities (as well as rich-kid celebrity wannabes) on the weekends. Hollywood is an obvious place to try to re-create that dynamic, and I can attest to the fact that it's working: During the week a steady stream of tourists fills the multilevel dining room; on weekends the valet line is a parade of brightly colored luxury cars disgorging brightly colored luxury people. Paparazzi swarm. Kardashians pout. Etc.
Inside the heavy wooden doors and through the dark entrance corridor, the space is a massive, overwhelming fantasy, crammed with symbols of Asian mysticism, spirituality and sexuality, as well as any other lazy stereotype you can think of. Dragons! Red lanterns! A giant statue of a multi-armed Guanyin bodhisattva that has birds and a glowing red heart and other random shit projected onto it!
The dining area is arranged like a theater, with the bodhisattva statue where the stage or screen would be and the large bar and lounge where the balcony would be. To reach your table, you descend into the tiered room and get a seat either on one of those tiers or at the bottom, under the statue. Much of the seating is engineered both to make you an audience to the spectacle and to engender performative dining. Couchlike seats face outward, and you sit next to your companions and eat off low tables. You feel as though you're being presented to the room, like a queen overseeing her (vaguely Buddhist?) kingdom. It's unnerving and ego-stroking and impressive as hell.
Given how much thought and money have gone into the design, I expected the food to be expensive, decent, Americanized versions of Chinese and Japanese classics. I expected the drinks to be too sweet, the sushi to be fresh and the kitchen to rely heavily on easy equations such as (pan + heat) x (noodle + sauce) = delicious.
What I didn't expect were dumpling skins so thick and glutinous that eating them was a little like biting into semi-coagulated library paste. I didn't expect a mush of pad thai without a hint of tamarind or fish sauce or sweetness, bland and pale and gummy. I didn't expect an uni hand roll to look like a rice ice cream cone with an uni garnish where the cherry on top might be — a mere smidge of urchin roe in the center of a few fistfuls of rice. Nor did I expect that uni to be the wan, dull-colored variety that you find in small-town, landlocked sushi bars, its creaminess turning to liquid, its oceanic pungent flavor edging on acridity.
OK, fine. Sushi is hard. Dumplings are hard. Surely the $34 orange chicken is good? It's a dish I tried in a desperate attempt to give the place a pass, imagining it to be the thing on Tao's huge and overwhelming menu that the restaurant was destined to make well, a dumb and yummy crowd-pleaser. The sauce was pretty tasty, made with real oranges, the seared bits of which were scattered about the plate as evidence. The pieces of chicken were big, almost chicken tender–sized, perfectly sticky and glossy and unfathomably dry. Chewy as jerky. Moderately inedible.
I liked the hot and sour soup in the same way I've always liked the tangy, cornstarch-thick dark brown stuff you get with Chinese takeout anywhere in America. The crab-heavy sushi rolls were unremarkable, at least the ones that hadn't gone anywhere near a deep fryer — in which case they were as gloppy and silly as you'd expect. I had a few slices of sashimi on a chirashi salad that were firm and fresh and vaguely tasteless. There's a giant fortune cookie dessert that comes filled with chocolate mousse and fortunes for everyone at the table, which clumsily refer to your sex life in ways neither clever nor sexy, but it is what it is: gimmicky, ridiculous, kinda fun to eat.
And I was right on one count: The drinks are too sweet, by a gajillion sugarwatts, including safer bets such as the margarita and the Manhattan variation, here called a 58th Street. There's almost nothing worth drinking on the wine list, unless it's a $450 Krug kinda night. The least offensive, least expensive way to alcoholically numb yourself is via the sake list, but if you're like me and sake makes you a little punchy, this might not be the place to test the bounds of your sake-influenced patience. Especially when the bill arrives.
I'm sure no one comes here looking for a bargain, but man, this place is a shocking ripoff even by tourist-trap standards. (In an odd step that seems to acknowledge the insanity of the cost or the drunkenness of the clientele or the volatile meeting of those factors, your waiter will ask that you sign your itemized bill — not just your credit card slip but also the bill itself — to concede that you did indeed order and receive the listed items. In case you wake up the next morning and cry foul? Who knows.)
Perhaps it's unfair to pick on Tao. The food isn't that much worse than what's available at any number of popular chain restaurants, from the higher end through fast food (though I would much rather eat the orange chicken at P.F. Chang's or Panda Express than the orange chicken at Tao). But I wanted to try to understand this very popular thing — surely there's something to learn from Tao's massive success. We in the food world live in our food-world bubble; we tie ourselves in knots talking about the peril of cultural appropriation in Portland food trucks while the highest-grossing restaurant in America blithely offers bottle service under a giant, reclining Buddha statue as paintings of demure geishas cast their eyes alluringly downward behind the bar.
I have stepped out of my bubble long enough to appraise Tao and to declare it bad in almost every way, and now I'll go back to my comfort zone of real Asian food (whatever that means) and Californian small plates, thanks very much. I set out to understand Tao's allure, to find the fun in Hollywood's gaudiest glam, and have found myself only more bewildered — and more aware of the cultural schisms that separate us.
Regardless, I will attempt to salvage meaning from this futile exercise and say: To the tourist visiting Hollywood and looking for an outrageous experience, you deserve better. To the guy looking to impress a date, you deserve better. To Americans rich and poor and in between: We deserve better.
TAO | Zero stars | 6421 Selma Ave., Hollywood | (323) 593-7888 | taolosangeles.com | Sun.-Mon., 5-11 p.m.; Tue.-Sat., 5 p.m.-mid. | Plates, $12-$91 | Full bar | Valet parking