In my 50+ years of reviewing restaurants around the globe, I can't think of another occasion when the opening of a new restaurant has evoked more controversy than here in Los Angeles with the recent opening of the Mr C Hotel & Restaurant. The "C" of course stands for Cipriani, the Italian family which has been compared (by me, anyway) to the Medicis in power, influence and yes, conflict. You needed only Google Yelp on the Mr C page and a dozen conflicting comments arose about the new eatery. But my companions and I went there last evening with an eager, open mind and we were pleasantly astonished how much we enjoyed the entire dining experience. So I must relegate those unhappy earlier 'Yelpers' to the depths of the internet; "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do."
First, a word about the hotel. The fourth generation, princes of the Cipriani family, Maggio and Ignazio, 21 and 23 respectively, are the up-front 'producers' of the hotel, although I have no doubt that they have a fierce support system of family, friends and professionals behind them to build the new hotel brand. Mr C (1224 Beverwil Drive, LA, (310)277-2800 for the hotel; (310) 226-6245 for the restaurant). Beverwil is the avenue just west of Beverly Drive), at the corner of Pico.) It was the Tower Beverly Hills Hotel in a past life (actually it is 200 feet from the border of Beverly Hills), but has been extensively Italianized to meet the high expectations of the family. The 12-story, 138-room boutique hotel is gorgeous. Beautifully designed, nicely hip, attractive and unique in every respect. The general manager is a charming and extremely experienced British-born fellow, Sam Jagger, who helped Ian Schrager open his London and Miami hotels and then spent some years at the Fairmont Miramar here in Santa Monica. I had been invited to a cocktail party in the lobby and was blown away as I entered the premises... from the smart, fast, parking attendants in the English-California garden to the look of the building. The lobby, in shades of burgundy and gray, is all fine rosewood, hand-blown Murano (Venice) glass chandeliers and black-and-white photos by legendary photo journalist Giuseppe Palmas.
The people working here are unanimously cordial and helpful. Sam tells me that this is the first excursion by the family into the hotel business, and also their first move westward... but certainly not the last. I asked the average room rate and he told me it is about $350-450, a mid-niche which will fill a big need in the hostelry world. Each has private balconies, hardwood floors, marble bathrooms and décor which resembles a luxury yacht. No charge for Internet and wifi connections. (Didn't get a chance to insect a minibar, but I am curious what it contains.) Before my dinner I wandered around the hotel and saw the banquet and party spaces in the lobby lounge, the garden terrace, peeked into a boardroom, saw two private dining rooms and went out to the 4,500-square-foot pool terrace, while a smiling associate told me there was a 12th floor ballroom with a private elevator. Down the line, I am told, an adjacent apartment building will be converted into four-story villas. If I were visiting here from elsewhere, it certainly would be added to the Four Seasons and L'Ermitage choices, while its rates are less. Entertainment, advertising, fashion folk... the Entourage crowd. I asked Sam why the unusual name, rather than use the Cipriani moniker, and he explained that it was meant to be a new concept-brand for the Ciprianai family.
Why my intense interest? Well, it goes back to the late 50s, when I first set foot in Harry's Bar. I was in Venice, Italy on business for Cinerama, the wide-screen movie company. I can still remember the excitement of entering the discreet stone building alongside the canal just steps from the Piazza San Marco. Sitting at the bar, feeling oh, so sophisticated, I ordered their signature Bellini cocktail, crushed peaches and prosecco, supposedly invented here in 1948, and had a plate of their signature carpaccio, thinly-sliced raw beef dressed with a special white sauce, also invented here, while I ogled a famous Italian movie actress dining at a corner table (Gina Lollobrigida, I believe) with the bar's owner, Giuseppe Cipriani. The story of how he opened this bar has been repeated endlessly but is worthy of one abridged repeat: in 1929 Giuseppe was bartender at the Hotel Europa in Venice when a favored client, Harry Pickering, went bust in the crash. Cipriani lent him the munificent sum of 10,000 liras (some $5,000), never expecting to get the money back. A few months later, Harry walked into the hotel and handed him the sum of 40,000 lira, which Harry immediately used to open this bar on the Venice waterfront. Or so the story goes. Over the years I have been back to Harry's Bar many times, once with a lovely (ex) wife, after which we repaired to our room at the Cipriani Hotel on Giudecca, the island across the lagoon where the Cipriani clan had opened an elegant hotel in 1958. (Later that week, we moved to the Hemingway Suite at the Gritti, alongside Harry's Bar, as by then I was researching my long-dreamed-about biofilm on the writer.) Today the Orient-Express Co. owns the hotel. That's my connection to the Ciprianis and one reason why I am writing about Mr. C today.
My guests, Steve and Annabelle Shulman, and I were greeted by the urbane Florian Etienne when we entered the bright, open space of the restaurant, with its dark wood bar, marble floors and leather chairs. I amused my friends (I think) by telling that the 'chairs' in the Harry Cipriani restaurant at the Sherry in New York were deliberately made inches lower than normal. For old times sake I ordered a Bellini ($18.95), which came in the usual small Murano glass tumbler. (I once visited the Murano glass works on a Venetian island, and saw the impressive pieces being turned out by hand. Once a year, at Christmas time, the workers cook a feast in their ovens.) I suggested we have some of the signature Cipriani dishes like the Classic Beef Carpaccio ($25.95), together with the Roasted Veal Chop with butter and sage ($40.95), served with mixed vegetables, and the Baked "Kalmut" Tagliarelli with mushrooms ($25.95). I was told by our very professional waiter, Filippo, a native of Milan, who was discreet but ever-present, knowledgeable about every dish, and a loyal member of the Cipriani retinue from New York, that Executive Chef David Perez wanted to prepare a few other of his favorites, to which we heartily agreed.
As I mentioned, I read all of the critical comments on the internet about the restaurant when it first opened, about the small round tables, the small glasses and the small portions with big prices. All I know is that now we have one of the most exciting restaurants in the world right here in the heart of our city, a worthy match for those of Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse in Vegas. To my L.A. friends Gino, Maureen, Piero and Drago, I love you guys but this is a whole different level of Italian food, a match for the very best in Milan and Venice. We started with three appetizers, the carpaccio thinly layered on a plate and drizzled with sauce, exquisite. Tuna Scottato ($17.95) was small slices of just-seared raw tuna circled on a plate and dressed with braised fennel. And a mound of hand-chopped Steak Tartare ($35.95) was so luscious I could have devoured the entire portion (and almost did.) I'll be back often for this, which I suspect had a touch of homemade mayo in the mix. Annabelle reluctantly shared her Baby Artichoke and Avocado Salad ($21.95), with its shaved parmesan, and it was superb.
Just then three pastas arrived, and we smiled in anticipation, but they looked so appetizing we hated to disrupt the plates until I dug in. Baked "Kamut" Tagliarelle with mushrooms ($25.95) was utterly melt-in-your-mouth delicious, followed by a homemade, lightly baked White Tagiolini with ham ($25.95), and we finished off with a Green Tagliarelle baked with veal ragu ($25.95). Steve, an old restaurant owner, laughingly said, "They're not charging enough for these dishes they are so fabulous," and agreed as I commented on the mundane Spaghetti with basil and oregano for $24.95 at Scott Conant's Scarpetta. We were drinking a medium carafe of red wine (Zonin "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo" for $30) which Florian selected. Annabelle noted that they had a three-course Prix Fixe menu for $42.95 with several of the dishes we were having. I later learned that they have a $24 lunch menu which may be one of the best buys in town for food of this quality.
At this point I picked up my trusty Canon camera and followed Florian into the kitichen to get a photo of the executive chef, the smiling David Perry. I asked his background and he said,"Cipriani, Cipriani, Cipriani. I work for them all the time, the last eight years in New York.
Please go back to your table, you have four more courses coming."
I returned just as a humungous veal chop ($40.95) was set between Steve and me (Annabelle doesn't eat veal), and we quickly divvied it up with me getting the bone. Gleaming with its butter-and-sage coating, it was rapidly consumed, flavorful, somewhat salty but rich with its beefy essence. Meanwhile, Annie was working on a Branzino ($40.95) which had been grilled and then aptly filleted at the table, served with a pile of broccolini. She passed a nice piece to me, knowing that I like my fish on the juicy, rarer side. It was perfectly done, just needing a drizzle of lemon. Another fish was presented, a local Black-Back Sole alla Carlina ($40.95). I understand that Carlina was a Cipriani sister who developed the recipe before they had livornese dishes. It was juicy and tasted of spices, herbs and olive oil. Of course we were stuffed by then but Florian had a final surprise for us: "Chef wanted you to try this Chicken Spezzatino with Artichokes ($35.95), served with rice Pilaf." It was superb, unusual and worthy of another try when we were hungrier. I had passed several cakes sitting atop the bar, and the waiter arrived with a sample of the signature Vanilla Meringue Cake ($12.95), which I somehow managed to demolish as I sipped a strong cup of perfectly-brewed coffee.
In retrospect, MR C is an establishment with a split personality. The hotel itself is hip, fun, youthful and sexy. (like most of my readers, I presume). The restaurant is another world completely, more adult in the most European of sensibilities. It is not expensive relative to the quality of the food received, uniquely different, possibly not for everyone. But if you are sophisticated and world-traveled (like most of my readers I assume), then you will appreciate its subtle charm and amazing food. And if you happen to be an Italophile, like me, then you will also relish its authenticity. So I strongly recommend that you dine at the restaurant and see for yourself where your sensibilities lie. You will be pleasantly surprised. As for me, while I usually don't like to make reservations that far in advance, I did call this morning and booked myself into their New Year's Eve Party, where they will do a five-course dinner with dancing for $120.00, which of course includes a welcome Bellini and house-selected wines, with a champagne toast at midnight. Arriverdeci Roma.
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