Since 1946, the Hotel Bel-Air has been a world-class retreat for the rich and fabulous. Cloistered on a windy road above Sunset Boulevard, the hotel is a lush oasis that has served as a home away from home for royalty both proper and the Hollywood variety. Known as much for its top-notch service and discretion as for the resident swans that groom themselves among the lavish gardens, the hotel is also home to its eponymous restaurant. Serving classic European-influenced fare, the Hotel Bel-Air Restaurant gives diners a taste of the luxe life.
With its collection of Spanish colonial structures painted a signature shade of pink, the Hotel Bel-Air has an old-world charm rarely found in L.A.'s eclectic scenery. Appearing on the Mobil Five-Star list more times than any other hotel in California, the restaurant has also earned the distinction of being one of only two Los Angeles establishments inducted into the prestigious Relais & Chateaux Gourmand organization, dedicated to fine French dining. But what really impresses are the 12 acres of well-manicured paradise, punctuated by stone paths, quaint bridges, and spurting fountains. From the bougainvillea-shaded terrace the awe-inspiring grounds become the main attraction.
Under Executive Chef Douglas Dodd, the restaurant offers refined standards appealing to the sophisticated, mature crowd. We start with the cold asparagus bisque with aged cheddar and smoked oysters. The soup itself is simple and tasty not too heavy on the cream and we later discover the hunk of oyster-dappled cheese submerged in it. It is a tad rich but pleasant nonetheless. Too bad the same can't be said for the Portuguese crab and codfish cakes. The concoction is marred by a mealy texture due to the cod, I suspect that is at once unappetizing and borderline inedible. And the smoked tomato fondue that it comes with? Just a fancy name for tomato sauce. Much better is the smoked salmon pizza on Indian naan bread.
As one would expect, the entree-sized salads are quite good. Nancy Reagan's finely chopped Cobb salad is a favorite of the ladies who lunch, but go for the herb-grilled vegetable salad. More decadent is the seafood salad with generous chunks of Maine lobster, grilled shrimp, and diver scallops. What makes the salad great besides the fresh and impeccably prepared seafood is the wonderfully tangy dressing.
Though I rarely order sandwiches, the selection here is more appealing than most lunch spots. The lobster club is straightforward but solid. The large chunks of fresh lobster get high marks and are perfectly in balance with the avocado and bacon. Too bad the accompanying potato salad is overwhelmed by copious amounts of mayo and onion. For a real treat try the ahi tuna sliders. The diminutive sandwiches are served four to an order with a delicious wasabi aioli on the side and a little seaweed salad. The "cilantro" fries are just regular French fries sprinkled with the herb, but they are so good we don't care.
However, the same cannot be said for the pesto-roasted wild salmon. Unforgivably dry and served with an unappetizing side of beluga lentils, the dish unleashes another problem. As soon as it is presented, we notice a bee buzzing around the table. Within minutes, a half dozen more are alighting on plates, food, and hands. The server seems non-plussed as he delivers a citronella candle to quell the insects and even then it takes several minutes before the bees disappear. Later, our waiter tells us this happens every time the dish is served.
Such is the attitude of the staff: deferential and totally unflappable. The sizable staff watches carefully from the perimeters of the terrace, tuned in to every glance and gesture of the guests. The only gripe is over the tragic uniforms. The stained tan suits are horrible: universally ill-fitting, not to mention terribly impractical. Standard white shirts or jackets should replace these atrocities.
Fortunately, the New York strip steak proves less of a health risk than the salmon. The cut is grilled with balsamic vinegar and is extremely flavorful but with a little too much gristle. Nothing spectacular, but a safer choice in more ways than one.
Desserts at the Hotel Bel-Air restaurant seem to parallel the rest of the cuisine: appealing, well-presented, but somehow falling short of the mark. Take the warm caneles. The provincial French favorite resembles little Bundt cakes, but lack the custard center that are the hallmark of the pastry. The creme brulee is enjoyable but there are no epiphanies here. The favorite is the baba au rhum, a small yeast cake usually doused with rum and topped with whipped cream. Though it seems a little less moist than the traditional version, the whipped cream does the trick.
The Hotel Bel-Air is a slice of L.A. history and a haven for those lucky enough to afford its considerable tab. On a gorgeous summer day, nothing is better than sitting under the bougainvillea watching the swans glide across the pond below. Maybe the food isn't up to par with the spectacular setting, but that seems somewhat beside the point. Unlike those at the neighboring table, you may not be a member of royalty, but you can be sure you will be treated as one.
Where: 701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles, 90077. Cross Street: Sunset Blvd.
When: Noon to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
What to Try: Seafood salad, smoked salmon pizza, ahi tuna sliders, baba au rhum cake
Noise Level: Moderate
Meeting Room: Yes, up to 250 people
Parking: Complimentary valet
Price Range: Appetizers, $14-$24; entrees, $24-$36
Reservations: (310) 472-1211
Reviewer Lindsey Styrwoll can be reached at L_Styrwoll@yahoo.com.
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