Jeffrey Chodorow, the New York restaurateur who locked horns with Rocco DiSpirito in the infamous reality series "The Restaurant," may be a hardheaded businessman, but he's also something of a romantic.
Others have gazed upon the legendary 1923 Hollywood Athletic Club in all its glorious decrepitude and dreamed of reviving it. The Sunset Boulevard Mission Revival building was built as a private men's club by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and Cecil B. DeMille. Johnny Weissmuller got in shape for his "Tarzan" role in the club pool. And Errol Flynn, John Barrymore and Clark Gable bent their elbows at the bar. The very first Emmys were held here in 1949.
When Chodorow saw the building, he wasn't looking to do another restaurant in L.A. (He already has Asia de Cuba in the Mondrian hotel and various projects, including China Grill, all over the world.) And it was clearly a money pit. But instead of turning tail, however regretfully, on the sprawling, much-abused space, he decided on the spot he had to do a restaurant here. He couldn't walk away from this beautiful building and its history and stories.
In early May, the Hollywood Athletic Club debuted in a new role, under the moniker Social Hollywood. A smiling gentleman opens the doors into a dramatic high-ceilinged foyer where hosts and hostesses check reservations. The restaurant dining room (the Moroccan Room) and the bar are on either side of the foyer. Up the grand staircase, past souvenirs from the glory days, is the private Velvet Room with its own bevy of waiters, a screening room, a billiards room and assorted other rooms for private events.
Junior managers in suits and pearly gray ties lead you to your table past a recumbent marble panther and cabinets filled with antique Moroccan silver. In the dining room, lanterns cast lacy patterns on the walls and the high, vaulted ceiling. Tables — some antique mosaic in burgundy and burnt sienna — are sheltered by wings of canvas edged with black fringe; carved wooden panels divvy up the room into cozy alcoves.
Designed by Mark Zeff of Zeff Design, it's very evocative of Hollywood's romance with the exotic. You can almost picture a tuxedoed Chaplin leaning back in an armchair or Barrymore prowling the hallways.
And though young Hollywood in pretty summer dresses and casual guy wear now populates the room, I fully expect Ingrid Bergman — no, make that Scarlett Johansson — to walk into this reincarnation of Rick's Place from "Casablanca" as we look over the menus in the candlelight.
The white-jacketed captain introduces our waiter, who introduces us to what's underneath the trio of miniature tagines at the center of the table — sea salt, pepper and smoky paprika. As I dip my bread into a gutsy chickpea purée perfumed with garlic and lemon, a woman sitting under an extravagant tasseled chandelier turns her head and unconsciously strikes a starlet's pose from a black-and-white still.
Morocco and more
Though the studied décor is Moroccan, the menu from Joseph Ojeda, former chef at Asia de Cuba, and consulting chef Michelle Bernstein of Michy's in Miami, takes a more global viewpoint. They've put together a mix of the familiar with some slight twists along with some more inventive dishes.
First courses are the most fun, with Turks and Caicos conch leading the pack. Served "in the style of escargots," i.e., stewed and tucked inside another creature's shell (in this case baby conch shells set on square porcelain plates) the conch is pretty as a picture, a touch chewy, and tasting like a milder, sweeter clam.
Napoleon of smoked salmon wins on both looks and taste. It's a lovely stack of rectangular slices of crisp, translucent gold potato layered with satiny smoked salmon and a punchy horseradish cream. The plump crab cakes are almost all crab, paired with an aioli that spells Morocco in its intricate weave of spices. It's fun too that it comes with a light gazpacho "shooter."
Crispy sweetbreads with black-eyed peas and smoky bacon play delicate against earthy to terrific effect. Seared diver scallops shine with braised oxtail and a dab of garlicky mojo de ajo. But seared foie gras with braised Hawaiian pineapple and crumbled peanut brittle is not only too sweet, it's a surefire wine killer.
That may not be an issue, though, because the wine list doesn't offer much to tempt anybody who really cares about wine. The choices are boring at best, especially for the wines by the glass, which include a Pinot Noir from Burgundy that's an embarrassment to the appellation. Fortunately, the bar turns out well-made cocktails. Consider the Champagne cocktail or an evocative old-fashioned drink such as a Rusty Nail or Brandy Alexander.
The two best main courses are Moroccan-inspired. Short rib tagine is served with a flourish from a traditional terra cotta pot with a tall conical lid. What makes this tagine unusual is the use of an intricate Oaxacan mole with its gentle spices and smoldering chile to flavor the slow-simmered stew.
The chef revisits the idea of bestila, the traditional Moroccan chicken and almond pie too. He serves chicken breast stuffed with sausage alongside the leg wrapped in filo dough and covered with a drift of sugar. It's a provocative dish.
Pomegranate glazed lamb rack and stewed lamb shank over creamy polenta is fine, but just another piece of lamb. Santa Barbara spot prawns are such a delicacy, it's easy to be seduced by the idea of spot prawn risotto. Don't be: You'll end up picking the curls of rosy prawn out of the gummy rice.
Loup de mer is cooked whole, wrapped in grape leaves and comes to the table with the leaves unfurled around it like a petticoat of green. A stuffing of fennel and leek adds some interest to the mild fish, but the best thing on the plate is the slaw of shaved fennel and lemon.