NEVER underestimate Wolfgang Puck. He's such a familiar face, beaming from the covers of his cookbooks or exhorting viewers of the Food Network to "live, love, eat " that we tend to forget he's not just chef to the Oscars and a celebrity in his own right, but also the real deal. And just when you thought he'd stopped spawning new restaurants, with the exception of an occasional Spago or two, he's back with Cut, his new steakhouse in the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel.
The timing, admittedly, could have been better. L.A. is awash in steakhouses, the no-brainer restaurant concept of the last couple of years. Puck and Spago executive chef Lee Hefter had been thinking about opening a steakhouse for awhile but the right location hadn't presented itself. So when the landmark luxury hotel a stone's throw from Spago came calling, it seemed like a natural.
The clincher was Puck's friend Richard Meier agreeing to design it. The Getty Center architect doesn't normally take on such piddling projects. Cut is Meier's first restaurant and it's a beaut. A study in airy volumes and subtle curves, it's a sleek, thoroughly contemporary contrast to the hotel's otherwise traditional hauteur. The crowd at Cut's entrance at the back of the hotel, just across from the adjacent Sidebar lounge, may drip Pucci prints and old-fashioned bling, dress up or down, wear their own tresses or somebody else's, but inside the mood is cool, casual elegance.
For The Record
Restaurant review: The review of Cut in Wednesday's Foodsection said it was the first restaurant designed by architectRichard Meier. Meier previously designed Restaurant 66 in Manhattan.
Kobe beef: A restaurant review of Cut steakhouse in the Aug.9 Food section said Kobe beef was being imported from variousprefectures in Japan. Kobe beef comes from only one prefecture,Hyogo.
Hollywood A-listers and the assorted famous and infamous are seated at honey-colored wood tables, leaning back in slender mesh-covered Eames chairs that swivel at the slightest touch, the better to see who's sitting where, who's looking suddenly radiant, who's showing off the latest wife. It's the Spago crowd, come to see what Mr. Puck is up to with this new restaurant.
One night I sit back in one of those oh-so-comfortable $600 chairs, taking in the scene. There's enough going on to fit in the frame of a modern Brueghel painting.
In the exhibition kitchen, Hefter faces off with chef de cuisine Ari Rosenson. At one table, the sommelier decants red wine, a flotilla of shimmering crystal wineglasses lined up beside her. One guest feels so at home she's slipped out of her shoes and wiggles her toes happily as she looks over the menu. A man wearing an impressive watch and soft, faded jeans is sprawled half in, half out of the chair. Everyone at a festive long table in the middle of the room leans toward an older gentleman -- a music industry honcho -- to catch every soft-spoken word.
And yet Cut, which manages to refer to both Hollywood and prime red meat in its name, is a very serious restaurant. Everywhere you look, here a server, there a server, everywhere servers attired in severe black suits move purposefully through the room. Here's one with a sheaf of skinny Parmesan-laced bread sticks. Another sets down an amuse bouche -- a basket of gougeres, flaky gold cheese puffs. After that, it could be tomato-y risotto balls, or more likely, miniature potato knishes that are so heavenly you can't help devouring every one. (They're all from the adjoining Sidebar lounge menu.) And now a server leans toward you, offering four or five different breads fit onto a square tray like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Proceed slowly: There's much much more to come.
STARTERS include a lobster and crab "Louis" cocktail set down on a shivery cushion of horseradish panna cotta, which melts into a fiery cream on the tongue. It's wonderful. There's also warm veal tongue with braised artichokes and white beans with a pert salsa verde. And a very pretty plate of heirloom tomatoes of all sizes and colors topped with slices of chalky goat cheese and sharp vinegary white anchovies.
Warm asparagus stacked like logs is crowned with a fried egg and bathed in a delicious smoky bacon vinaigrette. Or go ahead and order that maple-glazed pork belly or the foie gras pave, a sumptuous foie gras mousse sandwiched between ultra-thin Moroccan-spiced tuiles -- but I wouldn't. Not if you want to make it to the second course.
The star of the steak lineup is genuine Kobe beef from Japan, which is just now being imported from various prefectures there. Cut has secured its supply with a standing order for the highly prized beef, and at some point before you order, a server will come around to show off the two kinds of Kobe, Japanese and American. The Japanese cuts are so heavily marbled they look more like fat marbled with lean than the reverse, while the American Kobe from Snake River Farms in Idaho is quite a bit leaner. At Cut, Japanese Kobe steaks are $160 for 8 ounces, $40 more for every additional two ounces.
The beef equivalent of foie gras, the astonishing rich steak is worth trying at least once, just to see what it can be. Puck never ever stints on the quality of his ingredients, so this is top-notch stuff. Tender as butter, a bite holds a world of flavor and the taste isn't in a hurry to go away. But a bite or two and you're sated. Sharing an 8-ounce sirloin, say, with the table so everyone gets a taste might be the way to go. I personally can't conceive of eating an entire Kobe beef steak all by myself.
Not that the other steaks are shabby. Rosenson, a veteran of Spago's kitchen, first sears them in the 1,200-degree broiler to seal in the juices, then cooks them slow over a hardwood and charcoal grill to infuse the meat with that ineffable smoky edge that sends hard-core carnivores over the top of the moon.
If you crave a traditional steak, prime and corn-fed, Cut has plenty on offer. I watch a friend open his eyes wide with astonished pleasure when he takes a first bite of his filet mignon. It's not my favorite cut, but this one -- Illinois corn-fed beef, bone-in, wet-aged 21 days -- is superb, with more texture than you usually get with a filet, and a subtle flavor that seems the essence of beefly goodness.
For my money, the best steak in the house is the 14-ounce prime Nebraska corn-fed New York sirloin, dry-aged for 35 days. Heavily charred, the meat is a deep rose at the center, and despite the dry-aging that gives it so much complex flavor, it's still juicy and utterly satisfying.
Each cut of beef comes naked, served on a plain white plate, the better to appreciate its handsome form. You can add any of a handful of sauces for $2, including an indecently good house steak sauce or a fine chimichurri. If you're given to gilding the lily, the kitchen will top your beef with a fried organic egg, foie gras (Rossini style) or some slices of bone marrow.
Sides, while on the hefty side, are brilliant, especially the creamed spinach with a fried organic egg on top, the yolk still molten enough to flow out in a saffron-colored stream when you cut into it. Roasted fingerling potatoes "lyonnaise" is a must too. The halved fingerlings are crunchy and earthy, tossed with fat cubes of pancetta and spring onions. There's also a potato tarte Tatin, a flat potato cake cooked until it's crusted gold and filled with a ragout of leeks and onions. Last week they were serving Chino Farms corn too, cut off the cob and caramelized in a little butter. Outstanding.
The menu isn't all steaks, though. For one thing, there's a gorgeous rotisserie duckling for two that's really more than enough to feed three or four, one of the real bargains on an otherwise expensive menu. The crackling skin is reminiscent of Peking duck, perfumed with a lavender- and thyme-honey gastrique.
Roasted wild French turbot for two is presented with all due ceremony in a diamond-shaped copper pot, then taken away to be deboned. Ours tastes marvelous the first few bites, then loses its interest, maybe because it was slightly overcooked.
Those who are steaked-out should try the Kobe beef short ribs slow-cooked for eight hours in Indian spices, so tender and caramelized, they almost taste like beef candy.
But for all of Cut's strengths, there are, inexplicably, some disappointments, such as an insipid dried-out organic rotisserie poussin and, of all things given Puck's Middle European roots, a schnitzel drowning in butter on two occasions. At $42, it has to be impeccable. This is so far from that, it's inedible. One night, when Mr. Puck is in house, the Austrian oxtail bouillon strewn with chive blossoms, a dish I remember fondly from Spago, is beautiful: a rich clear broth with bone marrow dumplings and shredded oxtail. On another occasion, the broth is dark and concentrated, and also very salty -- as if someone has accidentally dumped in some demi-glace.
THE menu is so thrilling at first, because each dish sounds so individually interesting, it takes a couple of meals to acknowledge how heavy most dishes are. And why so many guests are leaving carrying one of those pretty Four Seasons shopping bags: They've got what they couldn't eat tucked inside.
The menu is curiously out of balance. Among the first courses, you'll search in vain for something light and refreshing, which is exactly what's needed if you're going to be indulging in a blockbuster steak. But the butter lettuce salad is really the sole candidate. It's not small, plus it's embellished with blue cheese. Sides, as enticing as they are, don't offer much relief. Buckwheat polenta with Parmesan? Yukon gold potato puree with an extravagant dose of butter? However, if you ask, you can get some spinach, sauteed or steamed.
Recently, when I checked the menu for new dishes, the only addition was a slow-braised beef oxtail and veal sweetbread pot pie -- in summer, in the middle of a heat wave!
Desserts, though, sail in on gossamer wings. Share the mille feuille, paperback book-sized sheaves of feather-light pastry layered with a silken pastry cream and served alongside ravishing McGrath strawberries. Working with Spago's Sherry Yard, pastry chef Darren McGraw turns out a flawless flourless chocolate souffle, another candidate for sharing, baked in a silver saucepan. Another chocolate hit comes from the deep dark Black Forest chocolate pudding cake, lighter than it sounds, and garnished with delicate Rainier cherries.
Service is assiduous and correct, but also relaxed, from servers who do everything in their power to please. But if you sit at one of the handsome booths with black leather banquettes, the repeated refrain of "excuse my reach" is almost laughable. The tables are too long for anyone without 5-foot arms to serve anyone on the inner side, so servers have to ask you to hand them plates or glasses. It's intrusive.
The new sommelier in town is Cut's Dana Farner, who Puck hired from Bluewater Grill in New York. She's a warm, knowledgeable presence on the floor, not given to wine cant and certainly without a whiff of pomposity. The wine list she's put together ranges wide and far, encompassing both famous names and cutting-edge producers from up-and-coming wine regions. Unlike the lists at many high-end hotel restaurants, this one doesn't gouge. If you have a special bottle you'd like to bring, corkage is $25, and she'll serve it with as much respect as something from her own cellar.
With Cut, Wolfgang Puck is showing all the trendy steakhouses how it's done. It's thrilling to have such a beautiful restaurant in town, and with a little tweaking, Cut stands to become the definitive contemporary steakhouse -- high-spirited and fun, understated and sophisticated. It is, above all, a refreshingly grown-up restaurant.
Location: The Regent Beverly Wilshire, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 276-8500; wolfgangpuck.com
Ambience: Elegant Richard Meier-designed contemporary steakhouse with an A-list crowd and a very urban energy. Though prime steaks -- and true Kobe beef from Japan -- star at this Wolfgang Puck restaurant, it offers a broader, and more interesting menu, than most steakhouses, along with stellar sides and desserts.
Service: Deft and professional, attentive but not intrusive.
Price: Salads and starters, $14 to $24; steaks, $34 to $160; other main courses, $32 to $80; sides, $10; desserts, $14.
Best dishes: Kobe steak sashimi, foie gras pave, lobster and crab "Louis" cocktail, dry-aged New York sirloin, Japanese Kobe beef, rotisserie duckling, creamed spinach with fried egg, potatoes "lyonnaise," chocolate souffle, mille feuille with strawberries.
Wine list: Eclectic, wide-ranging wine list with reasonable markups for a hotel restaurant. Wine service is impeccable. Corkage, $25.
Best table: One of the round tables near the window.
Details: Open 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Sidebar is open 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday. Full bar. Validated valet parking, $10.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.