Jazz. My passion. Forever. When I was young, a jazz-playing piano player from Boston named George Wein called me one morning in 1954 and asked if I wanted to do publicity for a new jazz festival he was organizing in Newport, Rhode Island. I said yes, of course, then looked at a map to see where Newport was. I drove up in my dusty finned-Chevy to a farm owned by Elaine and Louis Lorillard (of the cigarette-family Lorillards) outside of that seaside city, and we planned the first event. A huge success, for seven years, 'til it exploded in fan riots in '61 and was cancelled for awhile. I went on to promote some Brubeck concerts in Carnegie Hall, then publicized many musical clients (Peter, Paul & Mary, Newport Folk Festival, Paul Anka, etc) and later produced a movie about Billie Holiday, whom I had met backstage in Newport, when she told me (in that inimitable, husky, fuzzy voice) that a guy named William Dufty (who was living at the time with Gloria Swanson) had written a fanciful story about her life. She suggested that I should get a copy from her agent, Joe Glaser, and read it. I did, optioned the film rights, and after struggling mightily for 13 years, finally made the hugely successful jazz movie. (The story of the making of that film is in my archive at The Huffington Post LA.)
Herb Alpert playing trumpet at his club, Vibrato. Photo by Henry Unger
All of this flashed through my mind last night when I had dinner at the wonderful jazz grill/nightclub, Vibrato (2930 Beverly Glen Circle, Bel Air (310) 474-9400, at the top of Bevery Glen Blvd. at Mulholland Drive, valet and lot parking) owned by Herb Alpert and wife Lani Hall partnered with Herb's eldest daughter, Eden). They seemed to appreciate my recent Huffington Post article about the new Herb Alpert Educational Village being built in Santa Monica, so one evening recently invited me to have dinner and hear/see their performance of songs from their new CD/album, I Feel You. After two hours of glorious music by the two, supported by one of the best jazz trios I have ever heard (Bill Cantos, Michael Shapiro, Hussain Jiffry), I went home to collect my thoughts in preparation for writing this Huffington Post story. Yes, told you about their wonderful music and recommend you go to your favorite music store or internet site and buy a copy of the CD. It's worth it just to hear Lani (Brasil 66) sing "Fever," the song by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport which Peggy Lee first introduced in the late '50s at Birdland East when I was her press agent. Or to hear Herb, the first male to sing the song "Something Cool," a cut which Lani produced; it brings back the 1950s night clubs of my youth. Pat Senatore (the bass player on Tijuana Brass) is artistic director of the club. (I asked him, when will he have Monica Mancini, my other favorite singer, appear here with drummer Gregg Field? The answer was soon.)
Eden Alpert is a partner in Vibrato and oversees the club.
Exec Chef Wilks Medley looks young but has vast experience and is a winner!
But my prime function as a restaurant critic of some reported acumen kicked in, and knew that I first must mention that Vibrato has a new Exec Chef, Wilks Medley, who can cook up a storm. He trained with the celebrity (hound) Boston chef Todd English at Olives. (Chef's name is appropriate, since last night my reviewing duo of Penny McTaggart and Davd Rapoport and I had a medley of menu dishes from Mr Medley... and they were excellent. How rare it is to find a jazz club anywhere (in the world) which actually has really good food. (Ever eaten at the Catalina Bar & Grill? Then you will know what I mean.) I had last reviewed the restaurant some seven years ago, just after Herb had acquired it in partnership with Gregg and Bob Smith of Pasadena, and even then it was quite good. Back then I asked Herb about his concept, and he told me: "The musicians play at a certain noise level, so jazz creeps into guests while dining; this is background jazz, not fusion jazz."
I noted the incredible acoustics of the room, and he told me that he had used the A&M recording studio designer to make sure the acoustics were perfect. The mushroom-like globes act as acoustic clouds. Vibrato has a hundred seats around the stage, a bar designed like a piano (with a bronze bust of Louis "Satchmo" Amstrong hanging above it), and I found I liked to sit on the balcony looking down at the club. At first the concept was to have a great jazz club with good food. Now it is is a really great restaurant with exciting jazz. I usually never order a Filet Mignon ($42), since it is my feeling that a plain hunk of beef like that is boring, always going instead for a bone-in Ribeye, but somehow I had a grilled filet here at the concert last month which was so tender and beefily enticing that I ate the whole damn thing. It came with a really delicious mashed root vegetable cake, brussels sprouts pedals, and crawfish-thyme brown butter sauce. I know that the New York Strip ($44) is Black Angus American Kobe, and it is also a fabulous choice. (Somehow, hot jazz and sizzling steaks go together, with a beaker of bourbon whisky on the side.)
The luscious lamb chops from Australia were a hit of the evening, rare and juicy.
The legendary Vibrato hamburger would win any burger competition in town.
David had the Double-Cut Australian Lamb Chops ($48) and I was impressed that they were cooked just this side of rare, to perfection. Herb's beautiful daughter, Eden, who oversees the restaurant, told me that another favorite is the Kobe Burger ($18), an eight-ounce round of coarsely-ground beefsteak served with Gruyere cheese, herbed mayo, grilled red onion, then topped with braised short ribs. Oh, my, yes....that sounds like a sure winner in any burger competition. Virtuous Penny ordered the Ocean Trout ($34), looking like salmon but better, served with sweet potatoes, apples, dried cranberries and a maple glaze. Those aforementioned Short Ribs are an entree here ($34), slow-braised 'til the meat falls off the bone, served with roasted new potatoes, pearl onions, baby white turnips, chives. There is a Shelton Farm's Free Range Chicken Breast ($29). Fabulous veal chop, stunning crab cakes. Apart from the Toasted Quinoa Risotto ($22) a plethora of other sides will satisfy the most demanding vegan.
The Ocean Trout is not often seen hereabouts, but I like it better than any salmon dish.
The knish appetizer is a potato dumping served with smoked salmon and garnishes.
When is the last time you saw a Crispy Fingerling Potato Knish ($17) on an appetizer menu? Never, I would surmise. Yet I ordered it as one of my starters, and it was surprising in the best way... coming with a slice of smoked salmon, Champagne-toasted mustard seeds, and whole-grain mustard crème fraiche. (Yonna Schimmel never was this good. That's an inside New Yorker joke about a famous Coney Island knish place.) Passed on the crispy Calamari Rings ($16) but tasted the Tuna Tartare ($18), of which I am self-proclaimed expert, and pronounced it exciting... a touch of roasted garlic avocado, preserved lemon, shallot, chives, parsley croutons. (I would add a dollop of mayo, but then I would add a dollop of mayo to almost everything.) There are five interesting salads, and the desserts -- all home-made -- are exemplary. Rich chocolate, fresh fruit, yes. Service is low-key but highly professional.
Herb and Lani always seem to be having such fun when they perform together. Photo by Dailey Pike.
"Cool Jazz and hot food... a formula for a fabulous, memorable evening. Now you know what makes me happy. I told you, my dear... it doesn't take much... just a lifetime of experiences."
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), emailhim at email@example.com