By LINDSEY STYRWOLL
Few establishments in Los Angeles can claim a role as integral to Hollywood mythology as the Chateau Marmont. Set atop a hill overlooking Sunset Boulevard, enveloped by brick walls and shrubbery, this hideaway is the repository of some of Tinseltown’s best-kept secrets. The Chateau is not only infamous for the wild behavior of its long list of artistes-in-residence, but also for its discretion. Almost an afterthought to the low-key glamour offered at the Chateau Marmont is the small restaurant in the hotel’s garden. Diners may visit for the romantic setting or A-list sightings, but they will be pleasantly surprised by the fare.
Built in 1927, the Chateau Marmont was modeled after the Loire Valley’s Chateau d’Amboise. Originally intended as an apartment complex, high rents drove away potential residents leading to the reimagining of the castle as a hotel. Hollywood soon made the Chateau its home away from home. Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn famously told his stars, “If you are going to get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” The list of those who followed Cohn’s advice is impressive as it is long, and civilians have made this the place to soak up a little of that decadence.
Though the property got a minor makeover in the early 1990s after its purchase by hotelier Andre Balazs, it still maintains its own brand of well-worn charm. The dark wood and tiled floor typify the “old world” European decor of the cavernous lobby. Even on the sunniest day, the interior seems bathed in a dim, golden haze.
It is a sunny and unseasonably warm November day when we visit the restaurant. There is indoor seating, but the garden, with its low, woven-cane tables, is where all the action takes place. High foliage encompasses the unexpectedly small quarters, lending an even greater aura of exclusivity. One look at the fellow diners tells you that the crowd is full of entertainment types hard at work on the next deal.
The Chateau’s draw has been the scene, not the food. But that changed recently with the arrival of Carolynn Spence, former executive chef of New York gastropub the Spotted Pig. First associated with the neighboring Bar Marmont, she is now in charge of the hotel’s kitchen. With a rotating seasonal menu of simple eats, I was pleasantly surprised by the exceptional California cuisine and relatively restrained prices.
We start with the arancini appetizer, fried little rice balls that are a traditional Sicilian favorite. Filled with mozzarella, the orbs are infused with fragrant black truffle. If this sounds a little rich, it is. But the accompanying wild mushroom salad is dressed with a vinaigrette so tart it will make you pucker. Somehow the two extremes work together even though they may have failed on their individual merits. Not as successful is the crispy shrimp and artichokes with rosemary and garlic. Though the dish is tasty, it only comes with two smallish shrimp and a plateful of fried artichoke more artichoke than you would ever want or need.
Where the Chateau Marmont’s kitchen seems to shine is taking something pedestrian and creating magic. The radish and cucumber salad is an excellent example. With halved radishes and celery leaves, the fresh flavors are married with a divine dressing. The king salmon is given a similar treatment, playfully surrounded by the components of a Nicoise salad: hard-boiled egg, cherry tomato, olives and green beans. The schmear of saffron aioli and sprinkling of capers adds flavor to the vibrantly colored fish. Also noteworthy is the ravioli filled with creamy ricotta.
Dessert selections here are compulsory but well played. The scoops of vanilla ice cream comprising the banana split are drizzled with a sublime butterscotch sauce. The white coffee creme brulee is also good but unfortunately the adorning raspberries are subpar. No worries: The exceptional coffee served in large silver pots left at the table more than makes up for the gaffe.
Though the culinary aspect of our meal is overwhelmingly positive, there are two things I find unique to the Chateau experience. First, parking is horrendous on the Sunset Strip, which is to be expected. After parking at the stand at the bottom of the hill, we learn that it is not validated by the restaurant, unlike the garage up the drive. No one not the valet or our server can explain why. The price, standard for evening parking in this neighborhood, is absurd for lunch. Second, a 15 percent gratuity is tacked on to the bill. While I have no problem tipping well above this standard, the lack of incentive manifests itself in less-than-friendly service. Sure, this is a hotel hosting many who may not be knowledgeable of American tipping customs, but it is the regular shmoe getting the short end of the stick.
Like a movie star from Hollywood’s golden era, the Chateau Marmont is somewhat of a throwback: dripping with glamour, possessing the mysterious quality that beckons to us with a promise never quite sated. Thankfully, this star not only has presence, but the chops to keep them coming back with its well-crafted, eclectic cuisine. One visit and you will be left with a sense of wonderment at the magic and history of these storied walls. And these walls, they aren’t talking.
Where: 8221 W. Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, 90046. Cross Street: Marmont Lane
When: 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Sunday; Lunch from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
What to Try: Black truffle risotto arancini, radish and cucumber salad, king salmon Nicoise
Noise Level: Moderate
Meeting Room: No
Parking: Valet, $18
Price Range: Appetizers, $12-$17; entrees, $14-$27
Reservations: (323) 656-1010
Reviewer Lindsey Styrwoll can be reached at L_Styrwoll@yahoo.com.