I admit that I'm a somewhat jaded older guy who has been reviewing restaurants for some 50+ years, starting in New York in the '50s. It takes a lot these days to set me back on my heels.....but a new restaurant in midtown has done it. When I leave it, I'm already planning when I can return. And when I walk in the door, I smile with anticipation. It's called BARTON G and it's on the west (ocean) side of the avenue at 861 North La Cienega Blvd. (310-388-1888), a block or so below Santa Monica Blvd., next door to Nobu's and directly across the street from the best pizza place in the city, Vito's. But there's no savory pizza here, just fun delicious food presented in such an imaginative way that I expect a wizard to appear with each dish. Actually the wizard is the madly-nice genius behind the restaurant, a charming somewhat shy Miami guy named Barton G. Weiss. I try to get to Miami Beach about once a year to see the action there, and on a recent visit I stopped in to the Villa by Barton G, the luxurious former Versace mansion where the famed designer lived and tragically died. Weiss and partners took it over four years ago and transformed it into a hot social mecca, much as he has done with his various Miami restaurants. He is a celebrated event planner who is now creating a dining empire on both coasts. I asked him why he wanted to bring Barton G to the West Coast and how it would differ from his Florida locations, and he explained: "After 20 years of being in Miami, who could think of a better location next than L.A.? This is a town that is all about 'theatrics' and we do for food what the TV and film industry here does for entertainment. L.A. and the Barton G concept of fun and interactive, celebratory dining is a perfect match. We are bringing something to L.A. that has not been done before."
What he was talking about is a 3,200 sq. ft. multi-sensory concept, evident when you enter the new restaurant. He took an old place, Rose Restaurant, and completely gutted it, building a modern, sleek structure with a front patio and one large inside room, seating 97 inside and 40 outside, it is not huge...but with the smart interior design, with voluminous sheer cascading gold floor-to-ceiling drapes separating parts of the room, it appears comfortably open and yet private. On two walls are a live orchid display, hundreds of them behind a glass façade set in tiny test tubes. (Reminded me a bit of the butterflies-behind-glass in the defunct Chi Lin eatery.) The front of the room is centered around a 15-foot pink onyx bar where experienced bartenders prepare a raft of new cocktails, while nitrogen-infused drinks and slush pops are circulated around the room. Barton G is a whimsical eatery with over-the-top culinary theatrics. Incidentally, he took into consideration the problem of sound, adding felt wall tiles to absorb ambient noise and velvet accents on the underside of the dining tables to also absorb noise.
..nd ravioli are toasted in this toaster at your table.
I sat with Weiss one evening and he elaborated: "Everything at the restaurant is calculated to inspire, tickling one's intellect and appealing to all of the senses. We are bringing out the spirited side of fine dining....color, sound, texture, aroma, and the stimulation of feeing, as if you are transported far from anywhere you have ever been. We want to create an awe-inspiring style of eating and drinking unlike any other. Certainly it's unlike anything L.A. has seen"
Funny thing is, he has somewhat succeeded in this fantasy ambition for his new restaurant. Surprise and, yes, merriment, are in store. As always, it all comes down the food....and here is where his genius really comes into play. Incorporating world-class ingredients and culinary techniques, it is set against a milieu which doesn't take itself too seriously; we see plate presentation pushing the boundaries of the imagination. You may see a 4-foot high fork on your table, served with the New York steak. The napkins are shaped like little chef's coats, the 2-foot high popcorn machine may appear, 3 feet of cotton candy is seen swirling around the head of a figure, Marie Antoinette, the voodoo shrimp skewers are served in a foot-high glass filled with real blades of grass, the silver platters on the table are awaiting your dish.
The food is neo-classic American served in an innovative yet sophisticated way. There's a sense of whimsy in every step which reminds guests that eating out is a form of entertainment too often forgotten in many fine dining places. Barton told me that the menu is ever-evolving and he illustrated this with a few signature eye-catching creations. I mentioned that I am a rib fanatic, and he ordered their Bucket of Bones ($25), barbequed Korean-style short ribs, 12-hour baby back ribs, grilled lamb lollipops, chicken drumettes, all served with house-made pickles, BBQ kettle chips, and a honey-gorgonzola dipping sauce, in a big metal bucket. Now that is a welcome bucket indeed, enough food for a table of several diners. Last night at dinner with my faithful dining team of Penny McTaggart and David Rapoport (the latter celebrating his 77th birthday), we ordered the Mouse Trap Mac 'n Cheese ($18), pasta in a home-made cheddar cheese sauce served in an oversized wooden 'mouse trap.' The other such dish is the Lobster Trap Truffle Mac 'n Cheese ($32), and brought to the table is a one-pound Maine lobster filled with pasta spirals in a three cheese lobster sauce...how deliciously decadend can you get.
Our skilled waiter, Christopher, brought the Voodoo Shrimp Rolls ($21), sesame-crusted crispy crab-stuffed jumbo Gulf shrimp served over a smoking brew of Cajun remoulade and a hot pepper sauce. One night my date wanted to try the Samurai Tuna ($36), rice cracker-crusted Hawaiian ahi tuna, spicy peanut soba noodles, sizzling long beans with fermented black beans, seared shishito peppers, in a pomegranate miso sauce. Oh, my, so spicy good. The birthday boy, David, ordered the South Side Short Ribs ($38), 12-hour braised volcano short ribs, forest mushrooms, Dutch marble potatoes, some local market veggies, crispy haystack onions, in a smoked bourbon Dijon sauce. Yet to be tried: The Great American Steak, a bone-in New York for $52 served with that long fork. At a neighboring table last night, a diner and his date were enjoying the Say Ahhh Surf 'n Turf for Two ($125), which was a char-broiled bone-in Angus filet and giant prawns, with roasted marrow, roots, veggies and potato puree, in a béarnaise black pepper bordelaise. Looked scrumptous. I once started a meal with the Barton's Chopped Salad ($18), which our server explained were locally-grown organic greens, along with an array of farmer's market vegetables, avocado, chopped egg, Spanish manchego cheese, Maytag blue cheese, toasted sunflower seeds, brioche cubes, in a honey-mustard seed shallot vinaigrette. I would be remiss if I didn't tell you about the Laughing Bird Popcorn Shrimp ($19), crispy shrimp, Old Bay spiced popcorn, Sriracha aioli, in a sweet chili dipping sauce. As I mentioned, there's a real popcorn machine somewhere in the background which they occasionally bring to the table. Or Lobster Pop Tarts ($26), Maine lobster with gruyere and Pernod mornay sauce baked in flaky phyllo pastry...in a real old-fashioned toaster, also brought to the table!
Desserts are not neglected in this fantasyland restaurant. I saw (but didn't order) a Marshmallow S'Mores Pizza ($25), with its piped meringue 'crust', strawberry jelly sauce, agar onion rings, and white chocolate 'cheese.' Moe to my taste were the Sweet Flower Pots ($19) filled with key lime pie and lemon meringue pie. My first visit saw me having a warm Mercadito Churros ($24), those Mexican crullers, to be dipped into a chocolate sauce. The experienced General Manager Horst Ringler, an Austrian veteran of Spago, celebrated our birthday boy's night with the Wild Bird ($23), two giant chocolate eggs filled with chocolate ganache, accompanied by a beautiful bird figure shaking its head. Awesome fun.
Scattered around the bar were copies of Barton's new cookbook, The Big Dish: Recipes to Dazzle and Amaze from America's Most Spectacular Restaurant. ($30). Mr Weiss saw me leafing through it and gave me a copy. I found it to be one of the most spectacular, exciting cookbooks in memory, up there with Salvador Dali's and Daniel Boulud's cookbooks. It certainly capture's the restaurateur's unrivaled sense of style and innovation.
As I said this restaurant is a true sensory experience in its appearance and in its food. I think you will respond to it as I do...anxious to return to see what else he has cooked up.
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