I have been friends with Ms. Gael Greene for over forty years, which is about as long as she was the fiery restaurant critic for New York Magazine. I even optioned the film rights to her first novel, Blue Skies, No Candy, an erotic story set against the Cannes Film Festival whicb I still think would make a fabulous movie role for an actress such as Uma Thurman. Gael now writes a popular food blog, Insatiable Critic, and a popular newsletter, Bite. She was in L.A. this week acting as a TV judge for a new food show which she could not tell me about. "I have one evening free, and I would love to go to Wolfgang Puck's new downtown Chinese restaurant, WP 24." Done; and so on a rainy Friday night we headed down to the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel, home of the restaurant (next door to the Staples Center, which, as you can imagine, was a madhouse on NBA All Star weekend.)
Klaus Puck arrives at our table with the golden, burnished Peking Duck, which is then carved tableside.
But once we were safely ensconced in the restaurant (WP 24, 900 West Olympic Blvd. at Georgia, 213-743-8823) with its breathtaking view overlooking the city, we were greeted by Puck's brother Klaus, who oversees the eatery and is sommelier. I was overjoyed to hear that Puck's managing partner and executive chef, Lee Hefter, had returned that very day from Singapore; they had opened a new Cut Steakhouse there. He told me that Singapore has a booming economy and was one of the best food cities on the globe. "I've been there six times in the past few months, and have collected some amazing recipes for new dishes." He introduced me to the new chef de cuisine at the restaurant, 33-year old Sara Johannes, with whom he has worked at various venues in Minneapolis and Dallas for the past six years. And I asked if my pastry chef buddy, Sally Camacho, was still in the kitchen... at which point that young woman came out to greet us and insisted we save some room for her desserts. (As if that's ever been a problem for me.)
Sara Johannes is the 33-year old new Chef de Cuisine at WP 24.
Gael, who is a founder and organizer of the very beneficial Meals on Wheels program in New York, said that Wolf had come to their benefit this past year and cooked an incredible Chinese roast duck. At which point Lee and Klaus smiled and commented, "Say no more." And thus began a dining extravaganza which was possibly the best Chinese meal of my life... or at least since the last time I ate here when it opened a year ago. We each elected for the four course $110 menu, agreeing to select different dishes so we could share and compare. (They have a three course $80 menu, but I suggest you go for it all.)
Shrimp Dumplings with a dipping sauce are among the dozen dim sum available.. all delicious.
To skip right to the chase, I'll cut to the highlight, when Klaus Puck emerged from the kitchen carrying the golden, burnished duck on a large platter. The entire room ooh'd and ahh'd as we snapped our pictures, and the staff then deftly dismembered the fowl. I have written previously of how Wolf, Lee and Sara have perfected the three-day art of preparing the bird in the authentic Chinese manner (drying with a bicycle pump, slashing with hot spiced oil, etc.). Sara later told me that Wolf buys all of his ducks from one source, a farm in upstate Pennsylvania run by Dr. Joe Jurgielewicz. I told Gael about my lunch at Spago last Tuesday with famed retailer Fred Hayman; I ordered rare duck breast (not on the lunch menu) and the chef complied with a juicy, sliced order of heavenly protein dressed with a red wine sauce which enhanced the wonder.
The condiments for the duck range from steamed bao buns to an unbelievable house-made hoisin sauce. Others are daikon pickles, scallions, cucumbers and such.
Tonight, we were each served a plate of crackling thin skin (no fat attached) atop slices of rather dry breast meat. Our waiter suggested we wait a second as the garnishes were being carried to the table: two steamer baskets of pillowy bao buns rather than the usual pancakes, along with daikon pickles, cucumber, scallion, and a dish of homemade hoisin sauce which would put Heinz Ketchup out of business if it were commercially available. We set about making our crispy crunchy duck sandwiches while the staff returned the rest of the duck to the kitchen to prepare the second course of the duck extravaganza. Lee explained that they sliced the meat off the duck leg and then wok-fried it with a spicy sweet chili-garlic sauce and spices. Full as we were, we consumed every morsel of the two courses.
Another wonderful course this evening was the Santa Barbara Chili Prawns Singapore Style. Lee and I laughed as we remembered some remarkable meals in Singapore and Shanghai with an ingredient found there called hairy crab, usually in season for about six week in November. It is illegal to bring them into this country, though we have a mutual Chinese friend named Leo who manages occasionally to "find" some for a celebratory dinner. "We wanted to replicate the taste of this dish, but eating crabs laden with sticky sauce is a messy business, especially in a fine restaurant, so we decided to make the same sauce and serve it with these succulent local crustaceans, which are tender, juicy and delicious. We use a bit of hot chili, fried garlic, scallions, black bean 'dust' and morsels of fresh crab in the sauce," he said. An incredible taste. And I must note that Klaus is a wine maven of the first order, and he will match some exquisite bottlings to the dishes... mainly Austrian and German vintages whose flinty, mineral quality go so well with Asian spicing.
Wolfgang's Managing Partner and Executive Chef Lee Hefter is even madder about Chinese food than me, which is saying a lot. He is one of the great chefs of the world.
Sara has put her own stamp on the menu with a few new appetizers and dim sum, showing a sure hand with Asian ingredients. Gael and I scarfed up the Wild Mushroom & King Crab Hot & Sour Soup with its sweet prawn wontons, chives and fried ginger, a touch of vinegar.. .as we reminisced about having Chinese food every Sunday night when young, she in Detroit and me in Brooklyn and Lee in New Jersey. It was always fried eggrolls, pork fried rice, chicken chow mein, ice cream and fortune cookies. Yes! Who would have dreamed in those days we would be sitting in a restaurant high above Los Angeles and eating an appetizer of bao buns filled with slices of foie gras... or Steamed Diver Scallop and Shrimp Sui Mai Dumplings in a ginger-garlic crab sauce? Think of fried rice with XO sauce, or Angry Lobster? Most Chinese meals end with a bowl of ice cream or some fresh fruit, but not when Sally Camacho is in the pastry kitchen. Think Marjolasian, layers of dark chocolate, white espresso mousse, cashew nougatine, with milk chocolate glace. Followed by some stunning pastry treats ending with a yuzu-lychee and thai long pepper sorbet.
a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/12807090@N08/5458856790/" title="Pastry Chef Sally Camacho by email@example.com, on Flickr">
..and here is the Pastry Chef herself, Sally Camacho.
I know this recounting of such astonishing, unusual food, must be driving some readers crazy with hunger (or envy), so I will conclude with just a few notes about this once-in-a-lifetime restaurant. The beautiful manager of the WP 24 Lounge, Bre Smith, came by to say hello, (asking if I had my usual Hemingway cocktail, named for the writer whose life story I am still trying to film) and we learned from her that many of the people who have purchased condominiums in the RC are beginning to move into their apartments... celebrities, professional athletes, business tycoons. I smiled and thought to myself, "If I lived in this hotel, I would probably be having dinner three or four nights a week in this very restaurant... always carrying home a doggie bag to share with my magical Pyewacket of 'Bell, Book & Candle' fame." (He does love Chinese food, like his obedient servant. Smart cat, that.)
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