How long would you wait for a cocktail at a restaurant before standing up, flipping the table, shouting "A POX ON YOUR HOUSE" and taking your business elsewhere? What if it was a very expensive restaurant, where the cheapest menu option is three courses for $85, and one of those courses has already come and gone, and your drink is nowhere to be found? It hasn't been forgotten — the waiter keeps saying it's coming — but he appears to be lying.
The answer to this question, for me, is longer than 40 minutes. I know this because that's the amount of time I waited for my cocktail on a recent evening at Patina. Failures of this sort are frustrating anywhere, but they rise to the level of shocking here, where it's hard to spend less than $400 for two people if drinks are involved, and where one of the main justifications for that price tag is the promise of smooth, superlative professionalism from the service staff.
Things go wrong in every restaurant at one point or another, but the acceptable margin of error shrinks in direct proportion to the depth of the dent in your wallet, and at this particular restaurant, that dent is more like a crater.
Patina occupies an odd position in the dining landscape of Los Angeles. On one hand, the restaurant looms large as a fine-dining standard-bearer, its name practically synonymous with luxury and quality. Its patriarch, chef Joachim Splichal, holds the kind of esteem reserved for legends. People who have worked there are automatically assumed to have immense talent, and indeed many of the city's best chefs have Patina on their résumés. On the other hand, it tends to go ignored in the general food conversation, popping up occasionally when the management decides to do something particularly extravagant — such as hiring a water sommelier — but mainly overlooked by local and national media, despite its supposed excellence.
Splichal opened Patina's original iteration in 1989 in Hollywood, and moved it in 2003 to its current downtown home, tucked under the glorious metal swooshes of Walt Disney Concert Hall. There was a time when Patina vied for the title of most important restaurant in the city, and as the flagship for the ever-growing Patina Restaurant Group, its reputation has spawned an empire of eateries and catering operations all over the country. So why doesn't anyone talk about it? Are we all so distracted by everything shiny and new, we've forgotten something genuinely exceptional?
I believe that if you ate at Patina on the exact right night, and ordered the exact right things, and had enough wealth that the cost didn't sting quite so much, a truly exceptional experience might be possible. But I have never managed to accomplish that feat.
All of the components are there. The room is hushed, the staff is suited and formal. Patina's current executive chef, Paul Lee, has an impressive résumé working under other legends, including Joel Robuchon. At Patina, Lee serves a three-course menu for $85 and a six-course tasting for $125, both with the option of pricey supplements. They even send you home with chocolates. From a distance, it looks very much like the other high-rent, tasting-menu restaurants in town.
Some of the food is on par with the offerings at those other restaurants. Tiny, delicate kabocha squash agnolotti come nestled in the center of a dramatic curved white bowl, their sweet creamy centers offset by amaretto (it sounds cloying but it works) and the barely perceptible but wonderful crunch of pork rinds. The amuse-bouche we were given one night — a frothy, creamy chestnut velouté — would have been lovely were it not for the truffle oil that overwhelmed the chestnut's delicate sweetness.
There's no doubt that Lee and his crew know how to cook; easy-to-mess-up proteins often are executed perfectly, such as squab that arrived scattered across the plate, its flesh deeply rosy with a lacquered, crisp skin. Dover sole, served with grapes and fennel, was a reminder of what a treat that sweet, white-fleshed fish can be when handled with skill.
But a lamb belly dish was almost dried out, its accompaniment of figs and a wan ball of falafel hardly groundbreaking but also not classic in the slightest. An appetizer of Dungeness crab comes tinged green — according to the menu thanks to kohlrabi, Granny Smith apple, dill and horseradish — but those flavors were barely perceptible, verging on bland.
There was only one dish I had at Patina that I'd classify as out-and-out bad, a kabocha squash dessert that tasted like mealy pumpkin pie to which someone had forgotten to add sugar.
But far too many things hover in the nice-but-unremarkable zone.
The wine list is long and almost exclusively focused on France and California, with barely a bottle under $100 (not counting half bottles) but lots in the above-$500 range. If you want a cult cabernet from Napa, you will be able to find it here; if you can afford a Grand Cru Chablis, there are plenty to choose from. One night, I managed to find a white Burgundy that interested me, which was on the lower end of the price spectrum (meaning, around $100). I ordered it, and waited, and was told it was coming a number of times as our first course was delivered, and waited some more.
When the waiter finally arrived with the bottle, it was not the bottle I'd ordered. "Yes it is," the waiter told me. I asked to see the list. "Oh! You're right," he said. "I would have to go get that bottle from downstairs. How about I give you this bottle for the same price as the one you ordered." I think this was meant as a gesture of hospitality, but the assumption that I'd made my choice based purely on price and not any genuine desire to drink the wine I'd ordered felt like the opposite of hospitable.
People like to say that fine dining is dead, but in the case of restaurants like Patina, it feels less like a death and more like delusion and apathy. No wonder we turn away from the genre — the gamble is too big, especially when there's now so much very good food to be had, almost everywhere you look, for a fraction of the cost. We're in danger of falling into a system wherein fancy food is designated as such simply because it's so very expensive, and not for any quantitative reason having to do with care or quality.
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SHOW ME HOW
Patina works with some ingredients that are hard to find elsewhere, and there's no doubt there's skill involved in cooking squab so very perfectly. But there are far too many dishes that fall flat, or rely too heavily on a brand of creativity that's now commonplace. Grapes with the fish is no longer a particularly electrifying combination. There are plenty of chefs who might pair lamb belly with figs and falafel, and I can think of more than a few who might cook that lamb belly more lovingly, too.
Where's the thrill? A restaurant charging these prices with this reputation ought to deliver more than nice ingredients on big plates in a quiet room. If there's a danger that a cocktail order will make the wheels of the place screech to a halt, or that fetching wine from the cellar might be too difficult a task, perhaps the format needs rejiggering.
It's possible Patina could go on for years to come, with L.A. sort of ignoring and sort of lauding it, a figurehead for a company that has mainly turned its attention elsewhere, a myth that all of us have heard about but few have experienced. The very wealthy could continue to come here and feel swaddled by its hushed opulence; the L.A. Philharmonic season ticket holders could continue to rush through meals squeezed in before concerts. In fact, it probably will do just that. But if Patina was my first experience of spending $400 on dinner, it would also almost certainly be my last.
PATINA | Two stars | Walt Disney Concert Hall, 141 S. Grand Ave., downtown | (213) 972-3331 patinagroup.com/patina-restaurant | Tue.-Sat., 5-9 p.m.; Sun., 4-8 p.m. | Menus start at $85 per person | Full bar | Valet parking