Peking duck at WP24 (Photo by Peden + Munk)
I’m watching the night unfold from the 24th floor of the Ritz-Carlton—and Los Angeles looks remarkably like something out of Marvel Comics. Klieg lights search the sky, punching through low-hanging fog, bouncing off downtown skyscrapers. A parade of helicopters—some piloted by the police; others presumed to be private, launched from a helipad atop the U.S. Bank Tower—repeatedly whoosh past the windows in pursuit of who knows what, carrying who knows whom. Thousands of taillights on the freeways below create swirls that look like rivers of hot lava flowing through Metropolis.
A waiter arrives carrying a ceramic platter topped with a whole Peking-style duck, its head and neck curling off the edge of the tray. The duck’s tongue is poking out of its beak, as if it were licking its lips while being roasted. The server presents the duck just briefly enough that I catch a whiff of the glistening fatty flesh, cooked to a golden crisp. I feel my throat getting wetter. But he’s not letting me have it just yet. He whisks the platter away to a carving station halfway across the dining room, where—by no more than the dim shimmer of candlelight—another waiter begins to carve the meat from the carcass. I’m trying to watch the disassembly, but the restaurant is very dark and the server is dressed in black like a cat burglar, so I can’t actually see what’s happening to my duck. My hunger has just increased tenfold in 30 seconds.
Suddenly, I’m distracted by what sounds like a laser gun. I turn to see that a trio of loud, wildly flamboyant tranny hookers—in their tightest, hip-hugging miniskirts and red-soled Louboutins—has just been seated at the next table, and one of their cell phones has gone off. The loudest of the three picks up the device and taps a message then presses send with a long pink fingernail, firing another laser beam across the dining room. A nearby group of stiff-lipped women in dark suits quietly hiss “Shush!” and shift uncomfortably. The laser gun fires again.
Cell phones in fancy restaurants usually piss me off. But in this instance, I catch myself smiling. It feels like a perfectly produced scene. WP24 is the latest restaurant from Wolfgang Puck, in partnership with the Ritz-Carlton —and for the most part, I’m loving it. But as is the case at Puck’s other fine dining spots like Spago or Cut, the décor isn’t the highlight. He could have done better. The chair fabrics are downright hideous. The lighting is atrocious. Thankfully, the oversized spectacle of Metropolis takes over.
Meals here are prix fixe only (minimum three courses) and begin with a flurry of amuse-bouche, including shrimp toast made with Santa Barbara spot prawns. The flavor is sweet and decadent, awakened by the toasty char of black sesame seeds. Next up might be a quivering cube of pork belly—a crispy top giving way to a silken ooze underneath. Some nights a fluffy bao (spongy white bun) is folded around a pinch of Peking duck or, on one encounter, sautéed foie gras.
I’ve been wanting to peek inside the kitchen to see who’s making the dumplings. The chef de cuisine is David McIntyre, a Spago alum. And I’ve seen Puck’s managing partner, chef Lee Hefter, making his rounds in the dining room. But I take a bite of the exquisite dan dan dumplings and imagine an army of Chinese grandmothers gathered around an ancient wooden table, chattering away in Cantonese, stuffing freshly made dough with morsels of organic chicken cooked in a spicy chile garlic sauce. Flat, wide, slippery sheets of chow fueng noodles are stuffed with braised wagyu beef cheeks. The sauce is studded with sliced fresh chiles that sting my lips. The impression of those grandmas returns as I sample other dumplings stuffed with Alaskan king crab, Kurobuta pork belly and Maine lobster. But I now picture those women wearing pearls as they cook.
There is not a single appetizer on the menu that isn’t fantastic. I can almost say the same thing about the mains. Santa Barbara prawns are alive one moment; the next, they’re splayed in half on a large white plate with a fragrant, mouth-numbing chile oil.
There are so many wonderful things to try here. The Peking duck is sublime, as is the “angry” two-pound lobster drenched in Sichuan chiles, lime and fried garlic. A hot pot of slow-cooked beef cheeks delivers a surprise chunk or two of braised tongue.
The lamb chops are perhaps the best lamb chops I’ve ever eaten, or if not the best, a close second or third. I assume the lamb is American, given the chops’ heft and musk. They’re marinated in Korean gochujang chile sauce, then grilled. Whatever else is on the plate just disappears into nothingness because all I can focus on is how amazing the meat is and how wonderfully it pairs with a Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir. I’ve looked back at the menu and read about the accompanying pickled ginger sauce and wild arugula salad, but I don’t remember those in the slightest.
The biggest, and perhaps only real disappointment comes from the “Singapore style” soft-shell chile crabs. I’m upset not because this is a bad dish. It’s actually quite good—but it bears no relation to real Singapore-style chile crabs, which are a messy, spicy, sexy, frolicky, finger-licking romp not to be forgotten or taken lightly. WP24’s version is just a high-quality crab drizzled with sauce. Calling it Singapore-style creates a certain expectation that sets the diner up for a huge letdown.
The desserts are outstanding—pistachio cherry crumble with toffee yogurt sorbet; green tea cake with rice streusel; a candy bar made from layers of dark chocolate, white espresso mousse and cashew nougat. Pastry chef Sally Camacho previously worked at the Four Seasons Los Angeles and at Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas, and her dramatic, highly detailed style reminds me of what Adrian Vasquez does at Providence.
The food is all so good that it really upsets me when the service falls apart. WP24 opened in mid-April, and here we are at the end of summer and the kitchen still can’t get its timing right. From the beginning and consistently ever since (five visits over four months), I have endured unbearable 30-minute lags between the clearing of one course and the serving of the next. A simple three-course dinner routinely exceeds two and a half hours—sometimes well over three, closing in on four. When I sample the six-course menu, dinner lasts more than four hours. I shudder to imagine how many days it would take for the 10-course tasting.
And while I do love the formal, tableside spectacle of the Peking duck and the whole, salt-baked fish, I think we’d be better off if the side dishes weren’t fussed over with the same pomp and circumstance, creating more unnecessary delays. Is it really necessary for the waiter to transfer my rice from a warm bowl to a cold bowl when the warm bowl sufficed in the first place?
I’ve repeatedly gone on record saying that Los Angeles needs a truly luxurious Chinese restaurant, something on par with Jade in Singapore or Lung King Heen in Hong Kong. I believe Chinese cuisine deserves to be exalted and revered the same way French and American cuisine have been—with luxurious china and stemware, formal service, reservations, fine wines and a sommelier. WP24 comes closer than any other to fulfilling this dream. All the pieces are in place. So I’m hoping they can figure out a way to shorten those excruciating delays between courses. In the meantime, I’ll settle for being entertained by Wonder Woman with a laser gun.
The Ritz-Carlton, 900 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A., 213.743.8824,
Rating: 4 stars
What to wear Tailored suits, ties, diamonds, Louboutins, beauty-shop hair, strong reading glasses.
When not to go This is NOT a good choice for pre-theater dining.
Where to sit Avoid the Blair Witch effect by making sure the hostess doesn’t seat you directly beneath one of the cruel, misdirected spotlights.
About the noise Mostly conversation-friendly and romantic.
About the parking The hotel has done away with its abusive valet parking fees ($35! Seriously?) and recently instated a new $10 flat rate.
What it costs Three courses, $70; four courses, $100; six courses, $130 (with wine, $185); 10 courses, $160 (with wine, $230). Corkage, $35. Valet parking, $10 with validation.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1= fair, some noteworthy qualities
2= good, above average
3= very good, well above norm
4= excellent, among the area’s best
5= world-class, extraordinary in every detail.
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.