Not even Wolfgang Puck dared to toy with the newly reopened Hotel Bel-Air’s tortilla soup. The Los Angeles luxury inn, renowned for decades of cosseting visiting dignitaries and show business luminaries (yes, Oprah’s bespoke suite remains), survived its two-year closing for badly needed renovations and quietly opened its doors for business again a couple of months ago.
But one of the biggest questions in the minds of visitors and invested locals alike was what would happen to its famed restaurant overlooking the even more famed Swan Lake and its clutch of photogenic denizens. And one could clearly discern the gaps of wonder (or was the dismay?) from Beverly Hills to London when none other than Wolfgang Puck would not only take over the restaurant but the hotel’s entire food and beverage service.
Owners and managers depart and new owners and managers arrive, but the restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air endures. Those who love the place and consider it their own would have it no other way, so mucking with it, including the menu, carries a heavy risk. That includes the tortilla soup, beloved for no discernible reason and which has inhabited the menu for as long as anyone can remember. Nonetheless, the impossible came to pass.
Yes, the tortilla soup is intact, more or less. But the super-secret renovation has given the restaurant a significant new look courtesy of New York restaurant designer David Rockwell, he of the dangerously hip vibe. What resulted is a greatly truncated indoor dining space, an expanded but still familiar terrace (where pretty much everybody wants to eat anyway), a suspiciously sparkly new bar replacing the clubby previous one (the fireplace and piano remain, though in a reduced space, but will Sumner Redstone still want to sneak in for to take a meeting?) and most of all, a vapors-inducing (at least to some long-time habitués) new menu.
Perhaps the most gasp-worthy development of all is that the restaurant now has an actual name with a Hollywood touch—the star’s name over the title: Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air. Puck,
of course, is the Austrian-born eminence grise of Los Angeles cuisine, godfather of goat cheese and smoked salmon pizza, wizard of multiple grand eateries in multiple cities (if he hasn’t opened a new restaurant today, I count this one as number 28…wait one just opened in London), doyen of sensible upscale food, prominent TV foodie, guiding elf of all eats fusion in the western world.
His Spago set the stage for grand cuisine arriving in L.A. His Chinois on Main in Santa Monica brought inspired French-Chinese to the privileged. Yes, even Puck treated the tortilla soup as radioactive. Yet he also has several other restaurants in Los Angeles, including the nearby Spago and most interestingly Cut in the Bel-Air’s archrival Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire within a few minutes cruise in the Bentley. Kind of remarkable, really. But the Puck name, reputation and steady but creative hand on the tiller clearly appealed to the Bel-Air’s ownership, which stretches back to the island oil kingdom of Brunei and the sultan who there resides. So there it is, but what about the food. A recent visit found the menu resplendent in its simplicity, impeccable in its preparation and presentation, about as expensive as you would imagine (Dover sole, $56 now, actually was more expensive on the pre-closing menu) and just plain old yummy.
Among the raves is the house-made agnolotti celery root and Fuji apple, melt-in-your-mouth light and magnificently flavorful, though $60 is a lot to pay for any pasta. At lunch the big eye tuna burger was the best an ahi burger lover had ever tasted. As for the tortilla soup, well, that will wait until next time.