View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Wolfgang Puck's WP24: Or Look, Up in the Sky!"
WP24 so named because it is Wolfgang Puck's 24th restaurant? Is it because the building sits around the corner from Staples Center, where Kobe Bryant wears said number on his back? Does it remind somebody of the glint of pure gold? I prefer to think of it as a sneaky feng shui move, the sum of eight, eight and eight, a series of digits that adds up to guaranteed good luck. These are some thoughts you may have during the extended elevator ride to the restaurant, which occupies the 24th floor of the new Ritz-Carlton. It is kind of a Tokyo move, I guess, locating a restaurant on a random skyscraper floor, but in this case it kind of works. The first time I tried to go to the restaurant the entire place was block-booked by owners in for the National Hockey League draft, and for a breathtakingly expensive Chinese restaurant, you can't get more random than that.
The Los Angeles area is known for its Chinese restaurants, and it is easy here to find Yunnan soup merchants and Tianjin noodle dives, Xinjiang kebab joints and Chiu Chow seafood halls. There are restaurants where elaborate banquets can run well upward of $300 per person before wine or old Scotch; delicacies almost beyond imagination served in restaurants that also churn out fried squid and chow fun by the ton.
What Chinese L.A. had lacked, even in the boom years before the money started to flow back toward the motherland, was special-occasion dining rooms like Lung King Heen in Hong Kong or even Lai Wa Heen in Toronto, restaurants with stunning views, unquestioned luxury and cooking without compromise, restaurants meant for investors and CEOs.
Wolfgang Puck, although he is still probably best known for Spago, has been in the Chinese food game for a long time, first at Chinois, where it could be argued fusion cooking was born, then at places like Obachine and Dallas' Five-Sixty. For at least a couple of decades, a casual look at a Spago menu makes that restaurant seem almost Chinese too. So it makes a certain kind of sense that he would open a place like WP24, a Chinese restaurant unabashedly retailing luxury; a place with solicitous service, superprofessional cooking and a wine list heavy on Bordeaux; a place that no visiting Chinese could afford to miss.
When you sit down at the table, gazing out at the Griffith Observatory glowing in the distance, WP24 really does seem like a Chinese restaurant on a different level: tiny, crunchy triangles of the best shrimp toast you have ever had; baked dumplings stuffed with fish; and steamed buns stuffed with bits of seared foie gras. Klaus Puck, Wolfgang's brother, may have come over to suggest an Austrian red, whose high acids and soft tannins are perfect with this slightly sweet food.
You may have had slippery rice noodles rolled around braised Kobe-style ox cheeks, overcooked but pleasant cubes of roast suckling pig with a quince puree, or a delicious hot and sour soup enriched with toasted almonds, winter squash (sweet corn during the summer) and shreds of king crab. Are those fireworks erupting out of Dodger Stadium? They just may be. Suddenly the mandatory $70 three-course, prix-fixe menu seems almost reasonable.
But then again, maybe it doesn't. Because this is a superluxury Chinese restaurant without the superluxury Chinese foods: no sea cucumber or bird's nest, no bamboo fungus or conpoy, no abalone, geoduck or (thankfully) shark's fin. Farmers markets in Alhambra and elsewhere burst with fresh Chinese produce, the leaf or minicabbage that may be in season for only a few days a year, but you won't find any of that here — the braised Japanese eggplant, the yu choi greens, the pea tendrils that come with the black cod are the same ones you find at every other restaurant in town. The meat is from celebrity ranchers — quail from Wolfe Ranch and Kobe-style beef from Snake River — but the only offal you're going to see in the restaurant is that foie gras. The kitchen prepares a proper Beijing duck, with wispy, crackling skin, a slight overtone of malt and the faintest bit of smokiness, but no matter how elegant the tableside bird service may seem, the duck is carved into the kinds of thick slabs that make it nearly impossible to discern how good it is. (Traditionally thin, crisp, nearly transparent slivers of skin are carved from the duck and served with paper-thin wheat pancakes as a course separate from the service of the meat.)
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The fried beggar's purses, tied off at one end with a snip of chive, are stuffed with a forcemeat of shrimp and lobster emulsified so that it tastes really like neither. Shrimp? Lobster? Schmobster?
And while WP24 seems conceived as a Chinese restaurant, as opposed to the Chinois fantasia on Chinese themes, the farther the cooking strays from the Chinese ideal, the better it seems to be. So the whole sea bass, roasted in a spiced salt crust, may be closer to a Mediterranean preparation than to anything that you might think of as Chinese (including beggar's chicken); the fish emerges moist, firm and fragrant, faintly salty, refined. The grilled lamb chops, marinated with the Korean chile paste gochujang, sing with garlic and spice, enrobed in a fragile, microthin crust that practically spurts when breached. The "Singapore'' chili prawns are overwhelmed by their chunky, sweet sauce, a loose interpretation of what is concocted for Singapore chili crab, but the steak au poivre, prepared with a gently numbing dose of Sichuan pepper, nicely highlights the mild beefiness of filet mignon.
WP24, it must be said, may not be an ideal first date for those prone to vertigo, because even the trip from the hostess stand, past the kitchen, past the bar, involves walking the length of a basketball court along a floor-to-ceiling glass window several hundred feet above the street below. Once you get to the dining room, which is illuminated with perforated stalactites that resemble an upside-down Gotham City, you seem to float above the skyscrapers outside, and the freeways pulse in such stunning detail that you could probably dictate a drive-time traffic report.
WP24 | In the Ritz-Carlton hotel, 900 W. Olympic Blvd., dwntwn. | (213) 743-8824, wolfgangpuck.com | Open Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 5:30-10:30 p.m. | All major credit cards accepted | Full bar | Validated valet parking ($10) at hotel | Prix-fixe, $70-$100 | Recommended dishes: hot and sour soup; sea bass in salt crust; lamb chops in gochujang