05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Culina -- The Wonderful New Four Seasons Restaurant

Four Seasons Hotels are unique in the hospitality industry. True, other hotel chains like Montage, Peninsula, Ritz-Carlton, Hilton and the like do a fine job. But none have the distinctive cosmopolitan ethos and sophisticated elegance which seems to characterize all of the Four Seasons hotels and resorts that I have visited in my lifetime. I distinctly remember my first, when I finished a difficult film production of Lady Sings the Blues here in Los Angeles in 1972 and wanted to get far away for a week or so. A Canadian woman I met in Malibu told me about the charms of Toronto, great restaurants and theatre...and she would be there to guide me. Sold, I immediately booked a suite in the hotel she recommended in the fashionable Yorkshire shopping district.

The Four Seasons was everything she had promised, with beautiful accommodations and a sense of raffish 'adventure.' At dinner she introduced me to a man named Isadore Sharp and his wife, Rosalie, who owned the burgeoning young chain. He told me how he started as a young architect in his father's office, where he designed a motel for a family friend which became successful. Deciding to go out on his own, he bought a parcel of land in a rundown area of Toronto, and designed a hotel for business travelers. The Four Seasons Motor Hotel opened in 1961 and boomed; he then did several others. (Rosalie gave up her dress shop to help him.) Upscale luxury came about when he was asked to build a hotel in London, and he insisted it be competitive with the old-world elite ones there like Claridge's and The Connaught. It opened in 1970 and was immediately successful. (I switched there from my long-time favorite, The Dorchester, in the early eighties.)

Over the years since that Toronto visit I have kept up with the fortunes of Izzy Sharp, bought stock when the company went public in 1986, and applauded when he privatized and sold the chain in 2007 to Microsoft's Bill Gates and a Saudi prince for several billion dollars, with Sharp continuing to run the chain as founder, chairman and CEO to this day. In 1981 Izzy helped found The Terry Fox Run, the most profitable single-day cancer benefit ever, with a half-billion dollars already raised. Toronto friends tell me that he, Rosalie and their three sons are among the nation's most generous philanthropists.

Four Seasons is now mainly a management company, running hotels for its property owners. In the case of Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills (300 S. Doheny Drive, LA), they are Robert and Beverly Cohen, and together they have just invested $33 million in a renovation of the 285 guest rooms and suites, as well as the ballroom, lounges, and spa. (Because Bob Cohen came out of the floral business, there are gorgeous flower arrangements in every nook and hotel cranny, while lush gardens hold outdoor space hostage: think bouganvillea, orange trees, and succulents.) But what has gotten me excited is what they did with the antiquated restaurant in the rear of the lobby.

They threw The Gardens restaurant into the garden and came up with a breathtaking new, insouciant (that means fun-filled) restaurant, CULINA (300 S. Doheny, valet at the hotel and enter the separate entrance, (310) 860-4000), managed by the hotel, which will be - in fact is already - the talk of the town. Think of a neighborhood restaurant if your neighborhood happens to be tony Beverly Hills. (Boy, did the city council of B.H. blow it when they let the hotel get just beyond its border.) Since the restaurant's press opening, I have been back several times, including a wonderful birthday dinner in early March, and each time I shake my head in wonder at the vitality and imagination it took to conceive and execute such a dramatic destination eatery. Culina Modern Italian is, I'm told by its charming General Manager Sandro Coppola (no relation to Francis), the first Four Seasons' domestic culinary portfolio to operate independently, which means that it offers the best of the Four Seasons services while foraging its own fashionable, independent spirit; undoubtedly they will roll out others in the future. Why not, when you have something so different and thrilling.

But I hear you saying, it's just a hotel restaurant. No, not so, it's much more, as I will explain. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Culina (the Latin word for kitchen) is already operating as a real neighborhood eatery, featuring antipasti, handmade pastas, thin-crusted pizzas, meat and a very approachable price point. And here's one more reason to features a 'live action' crudo bar at the entrance...crudo being the Italian version of sushi...with two young women preparing traditional raw seafood specialties from the Mediterranean such as Gamberetti Marinati (marinated shrimp, $11) with lemon, oil, basil, Italian parsley and peperoncino, or Cappesante (Maine scallops, $12) with black truffle and lemon oil. (Yes, they have my passion, sea urchin, $12). Ahi tuna ($9), Yellowtail ($10) Lobster ($13)...with a sampler of any three for $30. Opposite this bar is a lounge area with three communal wine-tasting tables made from a salvaged 200-year old magnolia tree. Designed by EDG Interior Architecture & Design, it utilizes an old-world enoteca theme of a local urban wine shop. Upon entering Culina's vibrant world, servers offer espresso, pastries and paninis as guests relax over daily papers while enjoying small plates of antipasti or full meals from the menu. In the front lounge is a wine room displaying its ample stock through windows etched with hand-written Italian recipes. Imaginative? Just wait.

Vast picture windows in the main dining room welcome the sunshine during the day. A unique glass-enclosed room can seat ten for tasting menus, while a private room accommodates up to 40. The suave Assistant G.M, Matteo Gentile, pointed out the 25-foot light fixture of hand-blown Czechoslovakian glass bubbles traversing the ceiling in the spacious dining area. Containing 3,000 hand-blown bulbs, it took a European technician three full days to install...and, get this, there's even a living wall of succulents (growing herbs). They have gone all-out to make the garden area of the restaurant unusually appealing...with half of the restaurant's 235 seats embracing LA's patio lifestyle...a modern fire-and-water fountain sets the stage for al fresco dining (under heaters). Wonderfully romantic.

I've eaten my way through most of the menu, and the youngish-looking chef, Victor Casanova (really, that's his name!), has outdone himself in a modern approach to rustic Italian food. Victor worked at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Nero's in Caesar's Palace, and Buca Giovanni in San Francisco. While bringing a career-long reverence for ingredients to this kitchen, Chef Victor offers the seasonality vital to authentic Italian cuisine. "I'm blending produce and proteins from California's Central Coast with the artisanal specialties only Italy can deliver, such as Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto, aged balsamic vinegar procured directly from Modena, along with first-press olive oils bottled by Monini of Umbria"...which can also be purchased at the restaurant. Antipasti selections introduce each meal, and include the finest salumi sliced to order, as well as burrata de Stefano ($12) served with peperonata, along with a modern take on Polipo (baby octopus, $14) cooked sous vide style, then grilled and served with frisee, fingerling potatoes, guanciale, egg and rosemary vinaigrette. Vitello Tonnnato ($14), here in a modern incarnation, ahi tuna, caper emulsion, Marshall Farms veal carpaccio, micro watercress. Small, tasty dishes. The chef told me that all pastas are made in-house daily, and he blends some with robust flavors to create new iterations of classics. Standouts which I've eagerly sampled are Spaghetti alla Chittara ($14), (remember how I once explained that it is spaghetti as if squeezed through guitar strings?), here braised in San Marzano tomato sauce with peperoncino, then tossed with fresh basil. Another standout: Pappardelle ($23), prepared with a slow-cooked lamb ragu tossed with fresh mint and pecorini. Brick ovens bake Cucina's paper-thin pizzas to crispy perfection, with some classics along with modern pies. (The Margherita with buffalo mozzarella, basil and tomato sauce is $13!) My favorite is the Tartufo ($28) with its fontina, black truffles, and basciamella, drizzled with great olive oil.) There a dozen simple grilled fish and meat entrees, fine ingredients prepared delicately. The signature Lombatina Capricciosa, ($36) is a pounded bone-in veal chop ciabatta crumbs, lightly crisped, topped with wild arugula, sweet tomatoes and parmigiano reggiano.

On a recent visit, my friend Patty Eisenberg and I shared the Bistecca alla Florentina, 28 ounces of prime T-bone steak alongside Tuscan fries and salsa verde. (Do they serve salsa in Florence? Doubtful.) Last night, dining with beautiful financier Jacqueline Brandwynne, our terrific, enthusiastic and knowledgable server, Michael, offered up the knowledge that several new items were being introduced to the menu in the morning...just in time to make the new edition of my newsletter. So look for Loch Duart Salmon at the Crudo Bar ($8); a sensational Ravioli ($18) filled with sweet corn pockets, mascarpone, and sage brown butter - brought over from the lunch menu by popular demand; a whole wheat Napoletana thin-crust pizza ($16); Bucatini Carbonara ($20), with pancetta, scallions, black pepper and egg; and a Turbot ($26) replacing the endangered Chilean Seabass. Pastry Chef Federico Fernandez does a modern twist on some classic desserts: traditional Tiramisu is topped with a whimsical puff of cocoa snow and crispy coffee bean meringue, and I love the Cannolis filled with olive oil gelato filling and crystallized pistachios.

The carefully-composed wine list has 200 or more wines on their list represent some of Italy's finest labels, most priced under a hundred dollars, with a vast majority available by the carafe, with a rotating menu of 12 offered by the glass each night. Last night the sommelier amazed my multi-lingual guest by suggesting a memorable super Tuscan blend, Solengo; filling the carafe, we finished it to the last drop. Several unique apertifs, dessert wines like Vin Santo paired with cantucci for dipping, an Italian-themed cocktail list I have yet to explore. The Four Seasons is legendary for its weekend brunch, and here they offer a two-room spread laden with tempting delicacies, from impeccably fresh sushi to hot donuts surrounded by dipping sauces. Come hungry and enjoy!

So thank you Isadore Sharp, Robert Cohen, and the entire Four Seasons management team for changing the landscape of hotel dining, bringing us CULINA, a fabulous hotel restaurant at once elegant and yet of-the-moment!

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