BACK IN LA: THE BAZAAR by JOSE ANDRES
Moving to a new town can be a strange and challenging experience as I am already discovering. I may not have moved to Los Angeles yet, but spending an extended period here as I help Sybil with the planning for the wedding suffices to remind me that it is different in so many ways.
Thankfully, I am being eased through the transition by the kind guidance of Sybil’s many friends and a handful of my own who combined, will ensure that my welcome in California will be a very warm one indeed. Even if I have resigned myself to smuggling in decent teabags and getting up at 7am every Saturday morning to watch proper football on ESPN.
Right at the top of the list are my dear friends, John & Liz Haskell, who since my first visit to Los Angeles nearly a year ago, have taken us both under their wing and treated us to some extraordinary meals. Often these take place at their home and involve days of preparation on Liz’s part as she produces meals recreating her innumerable dining experiences at the world’s Michelin starred restaurants. She catalogues these meals on her terrific website, REFINED PALATE. Well worth checking out
This time, however, they wanted to introduce us to brunch at one of their newest haunts, The Bazaar by Jose Andres at the new and incredibly swanky Stark designed SBE hotel in Beverly Hills. TV Star and Spanish dining guru, Andres also runs a number of hugely successful restaurants in Washington D.C. He brings together traditional Spanish cooking with a more avant-garde approach which will be familiar to anyone who has eaten at any of Spain’s modern Michelin recognised restaurants. Such approaches can and have left me stone cold, with innovation taking the place of technique. It can be like listening to someone attempt smooth jazz stylings before they have ever learned to play the piano. If done well, as they were here, and based in a root of classical training, they can be genuinely exciting.
If we were dining out rather than dining in, one thing did remain constant, the sight of John arriving with a wine carrier filled with an assortment of astonishing wines from his sizable collection. As we took a prime spot in the dining room, he handed over a bottle of ’85 Krug to be chilled, a sign of what was to come. As normal, however, I began my meal with a very dry martini. The mixing was good and it was suitably cold, but the thick sliver of pith remaining on the pre-made twist made the end result slightly bitter.
Liz and John had already eaten at Bazaar a handful of times and were familiar enough with the menu for me to leave the ordering in their hands and, as we drank the first of the Krug, we worked our way through a bowl of sweet potato chips which we dipped into a yoghurt, tamarind dip with a spike of star anise.
Initial small bites came in the form of white asparagus topped with Greek yoghurt and black olive powder. It was served in a tin, a nod to Spain’s long and illustrious tradition of preserving prime ingredients in cans. This was followed by “Bagel & Lox”, which came served in a cone made from Tunisian Brik and contained crème fraiche and topped with salmon eggs and dill.
Possibly my favourite dish of the entire meal followed in the form of “ Huevos a la Cubana , Andy Garcia” a simply stunning effort comprising twelve quail eggs served on a bed of crispy fried rice and topped with crunchy slivers of jamon Serrano. A glorious composition that I have been thinking about ever since the meal finished. Talking of finishing and jamon, we had now drained the last drops from the Krug as John made sure, in his normally generous fashion, that both our server and the chef received a glass. Next he moved us on to an entirely new wine to me, a Ribolla from Croatia whose acidity served as a perfect compliment to a plate of Jamon Iberico De Bellota.
My experiences of eating Spanish ham in the USA have often been pretty shameful. The turnover is usually so low that the hams are left to dry out. I was concerned when I noticed that the jamon at Bazaar was machine sliced, but reassured when they told us that the machine was hand cranked which avoided any friction damage to the fat. This was easily the best Jamon I have tried in the USA. The meat was the recognisable gorgeous ruby red colour and the fat had already begun to melt at room temperature. It tells you all you need to know that I suspect a plate of this quality would pass muster in Madrid, as indeed would the accompanying plate of Pan con tomate.
I would have been perfectly happy if the meal had ended at that high note, but the Haskell’s don’t roll that way, oh Lordie no. No sooner were our plates cleared than the next dish arrived in the form of “Tortilla de Patatas, New Way” a warm potato foam served with caramelized onions, a slow cooked egg and topped with chives along with crispy small dice of croutons and white truffles. All to be mixed up so the foam and the egg blend to a creamy sauce.
When I had wiped the small bowl containing the Tortilla clean with my finger, it was whipped away and replaced by what I was convinced was dessert, a “Torrijas” Spanish Toast served with vanilla ice cream. It was not dessert, merely a sugary interlude between savoury dishes and while well made, I am still to be convinced by the American love of French toast, which this was to all intents and purposes. Likewise, I was unconvinced by "Eggs Benedict New Way" whose cooking resulted in a gloopy and rather unpleasant raw egg white which spoiled an otherwise passable dish
Almost as inevitable as the appearance of these two dishes at an American Brunch is the appearance of a trolley with foaming liquid nitrogen at a meal claiming any relationship with Molecular Gastronomy. It does not do a lot for me and while the palate cleanser of blood orange and vodka frozen at the table was a welcome respite, a well-made sorbet would have achieved as much. I guess this schtick still plays as new in Los Angeles.
If the sweet interlude had been a little underwhelming, the meal reached new heights with the next four courses. Those who have read DH’s posts with care will know that we judge the quality of Spanish restaurants by the quality of their croquettes. The ones at Bazaar are some of the finest I have ever sampled, anywhere. Crunchy, freshly fried coating giving way to a creamy béchamel sauce studded with strings of rich pulled chicken, so good that, if I had not been developing food sweats, I would have asked for another order.
I am very, very glad I didn’t because as our excellent server, Ryan plopped the cork from a bottle of John’s fine Burgundy, plates of mini hamburger sliders were placed in front of us. These were no ordinary sliders, however, they were foie gras sliders topped with Membrillo and served on soft brioche buns. Delicious single bites of force-fed ducky goodness.
Liz Haskell’s capacity to eat is legendary, but even she was beginning to fade, so she just decided to order two more dishes. The first was a molecular take on the heart attack in sandwich form that is the Philly Cheese steak. In this case, crisp shells of pastry filled with whipped Cheddar cheese and topped with slices of rare beef. The second, a plate of Catalan sausage served with white beans. Both were excellent, but given the amount of food that had passed before us to that point, they were a challenge as much as a pleasure. Next time, I would like to start with these to do them justice.
The two more dishes Liz ordered, obviously did not count as dessert, which took the form of two more plates. Desserts rarely excite me or offend me. These were no different and both a Flan Catalan and a whole heap of chocolate passed me by with no more than a cursory mouthful. What did not was John’s final wine offering of 1er Cru Sauternes.
By the time I forced down a large cup of fresh mint tea and nibbled on some chocolate covered raspberries and chocolate covered Space Dust, I was wobbling from so much food, woozy from so much wine and blown away by so much generosity. The Haskell’s know their restaurants and Bazaar did not let them down. It is definitely a place Sybil and I shall be revisiting again both for brunch and for supper when I am told the place is jumping. We shall, I hope, also be spending a great deal more time in the company of John & Liz Haskell, two of the dear friends whose generosity will make my transition to the United States easier and all the more pleasurable.