As the great middle ground takes over dining in L.A. and beyond, we're left with an odd conundrum: Where can you go for a truly special occasion? Fine dining is too stuffy for many, and the difference between Saturday-night dining and Tuesday-night dining is generally measured only in dollars, not atmosphere. Where is the restaurant that feels sparkly and celebratory without being stiff and intimidating? Are you really going to propose marriage in the din of Bestia while some producer beside you complains loudly about his workday?
Enter 71Above, the restaurant that occupies the 71st floor of the US Bank Tower. The dining room circles the inner perimeter of the building, so no matter where you're sitting you're in range of the floor-to-ceiling windows, beyond which Los Angeles spreads out in all its twinkling glory. The sparse white echo chamber of a lobby, where you'll be greeted by a host, the elevator ride up, the majesty of that view ... well, it feels special. This is not a Tuesday-night restaurant, and you know it.
71Above is attempting to be a landmark restaurant for Los Angeles, and the place's design — even aside from that view — is sleek opulence. The name of the restaurant is rendered in marble and metal on the floor at its entrance, the ceiling is decorated with hexagonal sculptural forms, the waiters have the suave formality of first-class airline stewards. The cocktails are expensive and a touch too sweet. The music is electronic and smooth.
In the kitchen is Vartan Abgaryan, who came to 71Above from a stint at Cliff's Edge in Silver Lake, where he raised the quality of the food considerably. Abgaryan's cooking never seemed quite right at the neighborhood-centric Cliff's Edge — it was too pretty, too formal for that sprawling space. At 71Above, his penchant for high-end drama on the plate is much more at home.
The format here is a three-course savory prix fixe menu for $70. You don't have to pay ahead of time, as with many prix fixe menus these days, but you do have to buy a ticket if you want to sit at a table next to the window and take full advantage of that amazing view. In that case, you must purchase a reservation ahead of time, the cost of which will be deducted from your final bill.
This is a romantic restaurant above all else, which makes it a little lame that those window-side tables must be purchased for three or more guests. If you want to come as a couple and also be guaranteed a window-side seat, you need to buy a table for three. The extra $70 — the cost of the empty seat in the eyes of the restaurant — also is applied to your final bill. So if you drink a bottle of wine and have a dessert (not included in the three-course prix fixe), the math should come out in your favor.
For his prix fixe, Abgaryan offers a number of choices within each of the courses. Luxury ingredients abound, and you can see here the chef's training at Lutèce, the legendary French restaurant in New York, where Abgaryan worked after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu. This food is engineered to feel fancy and modern but also to please a wide number of people. I assume it will succeed in that aim.
You can have oysters poached in Champagne and topped with uni and caviar, or a standard but luxurious steak tartare. An old-school foie gras terrine shares menu space with a decidedly modern parsnip dish, roasted in duck fat and served whole on the plate surrounded by dollops of strained yogurt and date puree, and scattered with rosemary, pistachio and parsnip chips. Scallops come imbued with the flavor of an aromatic vadouvan curry, and amped up with barrel-aged fish sauce. If that sounds too exotic (our server sure worried it might be), you can instead opt for roast chicken with foie gras, black truffle and asparagus. 71Above excels at presenting a menu that might appeal to old-school and new-school luxury tastes alike.
If I have a complaint about Abgaryan's food, it's the same as the one I had at Cliff's Edge: Sometimes I feel as though the look of the food is more important than the taste. This isn't to say that Abgaryan puts together flavors that don't work in order to create visual appeal; it's more that sometimes the prettiest dishes are a little boring to eat. This was true of a sunchoke soup that was gorgeously textured and looked amazing as the server poured it from its little vessel to surround the whipped creme fraiche and orange pearls of trout roe already in the bowl. But the soup itself had very little flavor, so mild it almost tasted as if potato was the featured tuber rather than sunchoke, and the trout roe were oddly resilient, making the work of biting through their skin a distraction. I'm not sure whether their briny flavor might have complemented the soup if they'd popped delicately, but either way they seemed to be there mainly for visual appeal.
Conversely, the foie gras terrine was so buttery that it seemed to have been made with texture in mind over flavor. It spread beautifully, but I missed that decadent, livery tang. Even the hunk of prime rib-eye, while cooked perfectly, failed to hold my attention. Some of the food here is nice rather than thrilling.
Desserts are optional and not included in the prix fixe, but you really should leave room for pastry chef Gregory Baumgartner's sweet creations. Baumgartner has been bouncing around town over the last couple of years, showing up everywhere from West Hollywood's E.P. & L.P. to downtown's Spring. At 71Above he's making desserts from the serious fine-dining school of modern cooking, showcasing an aptitude for elements such as cremeux, ganache and burnt-yogurt sorbet. Desserts like this are almost old-school these days, but I welcome the precision and playfulness that the best of them exhibit.
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In many ways, going to 71Above is like going back in time about 10 or 20 years. Even the service is a throwback to the days when waiters mansplained ingredients as common as curry or dry aged beef. Perhaps this says more about the clientele that 71Above expects: Tourists, picky wealthy elderly diners, bratty expense-account business folks. But for those of you who have been to a restaurant in the past decade and understand the mechanics of a modern menu, it might rub you the wrong way to have some vest-wearing schmo tell you, "This is dry aged beef, so it's going to have a different flavor profile than you're used to."
It's these things that date the restaurant: the style of service, the too-sweet cocktails, the techno-lite soundtrack, the glitz that veers into Miami Vice territory. This is the paradox of our era: We reject fine dining as too stuffy while also feeling as though the unstuffy places don't quite cut it for special occasions. And when a place like 71Above comes along, which tries to reinject a sense of occasion and grandeur, it feels a little out of date.
Twenty years ago, 71Above would have been an incredibly exciting place to eat, one where creativity and sea urchin and inventive vegetable preparations crept into the mix. In 2016, it's a nice albeit slightly dated fancy restaurant with a jaw-dropping view. For some purposes — like a birthday or anniversary or a location to propose — the view alone will be worth the price of admission, and Abgaryan's beautifully presented food will be icing on the skyscraper. Perhaps that's enough. In this era of "casual" $200 meals, there's a lot to be said for a place that manages to feel truly special.
71ABOVE | Three stars | 633 W. Fifth St., downtown | (213) 712-2683 | 71above.com | Mon.-Wed., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thu.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-mid.; Sat., 5 p.m.-mid.; Sun., 5-11 p.m. | $70 per person prix fixe, desserts and additional courses extra | Full bar | Valet and lot parking