The server eases the rectangular plate down on the glass coffee table. Here we go, I think, biting into a tiny pleated dumpling plumped with braised pork belly and slicked with black Chinese vinegar. A trace of chile oil, the melting tender pork, the supple dough: heaven. Between sips of the gin-based cocktail "Lady From Shanghai" we watch the sunset wash over the San Gabriel Mountains and the skyscrapers of downtown L.A. through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Wolfgang Puck's latest restaurant, WP24, is perched on the 24th floor of the sleek black tower that houses the Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles. Getting there isn't intuitive. Outside the elevator, a sandwich board announces the presence of the restaurant inside, down a nondescript hallway that opens onto a vast bar and lounge. Where's the restaurant? Beyond the lounge, a private wine room and a second bar.
Come early to take in the sunset over drinks and very respectable sushi or a handful of Chinese appetizers. It's just the place to take out-of-town guests and a reminder to those of us who live here of the beauty of Los Angeles. And proof too that L.A.'s first superstar chef still has some juice.
The 61-year-old Puck, a star practically since his teens, could have gone with another Postrio or even a Chinois redux. But no. He is by no means done with thinking up new concepts. He and Spago executive chef Lee Hefter have spent a lot of time in Asia in recent years, tasting and exploring various cuisines. And the two very much wanted to do a high-end Asian restaurant at the Ritz.
WP24's menu is mostly Chinese, though a Thai or Malaysian dish pops up now and again. I think of it as the highly sophisticated and well-traveled cousin of Chinois on Main, the one where you can dine on crispy suckling pig, Peking duck for two and fried rice laced with farmers market vegetables 24 floors up.
The dining room seats just 66 and shares the same glorious wraparound view as the lounge. The design by ICrave is strictly contemporary — no chinoiserie or overembellished Asian touches — and very clean in its lines. The only real ornaments are an abstract patterned carpet and razzle-dazzle lights that look like either fat dominoes or dark skyscrapers hung upside down. Tables for two are snug up against the windows; along the other side of the room are generously proportioned semicircular booths with low backs, the better to show off the skyscape. The effect is vibrant and serene at the same time.
Anyone who laments the scarcity of fine dining in L.A. these days will appreciate the amount of space between the tables, the luxurious appointments and the top-notch service. But the place isn't stuffy. Puck's restaurants never are.
Waiters unfurl napkins into your lap, decant and pour wine from a list heavy in the kinds of wines — Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner and Burgundy — that sparkle against the intricate layered flavors of the dishes. An eclectic music track plays at a respectful volume in the background. This is the new fine dining.
Order up some appetizers to share. A swatch of crispy suckling pig dotted with house-made black plum sauce and a dab of sweet bean paste wakes up those sleepy taste buds. I want to eat the whole pig, not just these few bites, but I have to save room. There's so much more I want to try.
Minced shrimp in a vinaigrette sparked with serrano pepper and pickled ginger is piled onto neatly trimmed lettuce leaves, the better to eat with your hands, taco style. But why be shy? Try some more dim sum offerings, especially the bite-sized crispy bundles filled with braised Kobe beef cheeks dosed with chile, garlic, cilantro, scallions. Or sample the spring chive crystal steamed dumplings in a thicker dough filled with a mix of Alaskan king crab, shrimp and Kurobuta pork.
Sometimes the dumplings are astonishing — though, like much of the food, they're richer than a Chinese chef would make them.
It's always a dilemma whether to order a la carte or go with the six- or nine-course tasting menu. My vote is for the a la carte. The tasting menus have either been too much food or too many dishes with a similar level of richness. The kitchen hasn't quite learned to orchestrate a multi-course menu. I think you're better off on your own. And I really feel for the pastry chef. By the time dessert arrives, no one can really appreciate it.
So some suggestions on what to order from the large menu? Definitely the farmers market fried rice, fluffy and laced with beautiful fresh vegetables. If Peking duck is a favorite, order that. It's excellent and enough to feed three, really, especially if you order the bao (steamed buns) filled with seared foie gras — fabulously decadent — as an appetizer. The duck skin is crisp and lacquered, the flesh is moist, and it's served with two different sets of garnishes.
But the tea-smoked Wolfe Ranch quail we had one night as a special was even better than the duck. The birds are practically raised by hand on Brent Wolfe's farm and are not always available. The taste is superb, enhanced by a light tea-smoke that leaves them juicy and moist.
I enjoyed the Singapore-style soft-shell chile crabs made with fresh blue crab piled with slivered chiles, shallots, scallions and soothing pickled ginger but thought it could have used more firepower. Whole sea bass baked under a salt crust leaves the fish beautifully flaky and tender. A little Zhenjiang black vinegar and the by-now familiar refrain of ginger, shallots and scallions make this beautifully simple dish sing.
Consider some vegetables too, such as the stir-fried asparagus with velvety shiitake mushrooms or Hunan spicy eggplant with mild shishito peppers. And maybe some noodles, the best of which are Hong Kong soft rice noodles garnished with spring chives and wild mushrooms.
Oh, and possibly get a soup, especially if they're serving the spring corn and king crab "hot and sour" soup, an inventive twist on the classic, which features sweet prawn wontons and the heady fragrance of Thai basil.
When the desserts come, they feel too fussy for the menu, with too many flavors and too many parts to them. What's needed after a meal like this is something lighter and more refreshing. These sweets are out of sync, and though they incorporate Asian flavors, they're basically French, buttery and rich. Pastry chef Sally Camacho has a deft touch in the execution, she just needs to edit and simplify.
Puck and Hefter, with chef de cuisine David McIntyre, a Spago and Cut alum, are writing a love letter to Asian cuisine. It isn't finished yet. The menu is still evolving as new dishes cycle onto the list. And that's to its credit.
There aren't many restaurants that have both a view and great food. They don't have to. But Puck takes up the challenge with WP24, and by and large he's pulled it off with this sophisticated Asian concept. At long last, downtown has a serious high-end Asian restaurant, and it's even better that it has one of the best views in town.
Rating: Three stars
Location: Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles, 900 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 743-8824; http://www.wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/57129
Price: Appetizers, $13 to $24; shellfish, $34 to $50; fresh fish, $36 to $46; poultry, $36 to $60; beef, lamb and pork, $34 to $80; sides, $10 to $18; desserts, $14. Six-course tasting menu, $95 per person, $140 with wine pairings. Nine-course tasting menu, $125, $195 with wine pairings. Corkage, $35.
Details: Open for dinner Monday to Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. Lounge is nightly from 11 a.m. to midnight. Full bar. Valet parking, $5 for two hours, with validation. Or parking in adjacent L.A. Live lot at $5 per hour.