Review: The Royce at The Langham, Pasadena

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Sous chef Alex Ageneau and chef de cuisine David Féau (Photo by Peden + Munk)

First impressions are critical. So when the first morsel to arrive is an amuse-bouche of calf liver, I suspect this could go either way. But I’m in luck. It’s a tiny cube of liver, caramelized and glistening, speared onto a bamboo pick with a miniature grape. I slide both onto my tongue and gently bite down. They burst with equal intensity. The mineral tang of liver. The sweet, purple juiciness of grape. I reach for my Champagne, and when I take a sip, the flavors snap all over again. Exotic. Familiar. Brilliant.

Those same thought bubbles pop into my head again when I’m served a gorgeous slow-poached lobster with contrasting temperatures of pomegranate. There’s a warm, exotic, deep-red sauce of pomegranate butter cloaking the lobster. On top sits a frozen pink cloud, which I’m guessing was made with liquid nitrogen. 

The chef is David Féau (pronounced FAY’-o), and he is one of the best chefs working in L.A. today. He comes to The Langham from The Patina Group, where he served as corporate executive chef. He also filled in for a while as the menu maker at Patina’s flagship when that restaurant was between chefs. It was during that brief tenure that Patina was the best it’s ever been.

The Royce is the newly minted and renamed dining room at The Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena (which some people still think of as the old Ritz-Carlton). The restaurant’s splashy new entrance is flanked on both sides by glassed-in wine cellars. As I enter, I look to the left and see a young sommelier climbing a ladder to retrieve a bottle of Bordeaux. I look over at the other cellar and notice a few guests sipping Champagne around a tall table, toasting what appears to be a special occasion. Just beyond the entrance is a living-room-like dining area configured with white sofas, loveseats and tall, leatherette chairs. It’s a charming space except for the fluorescent light that beams too brightly from a massive bespoke fixture overhead. On the edge of this area is a semipartitioned chef’s table—a tall butcher-block counter surrounded by white leather  and chrome stools—divided from the kitchen by a frosted-glass screen, behind which I can make out the silhouetted ballet of chefs hard at work. 

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A few more steps into the dining room, and the restaurant switches personalities. Like Sybil. It suddenly looks unfinished and awkward. Many of the chairs in this section are scrawny vinyl dinette-style chairs, the sort I would imagine finding in a trailer home. I notice a good-sized man (not obese; merely medium-large) balancing atop one of these pencil-legged chairs, and it looks as if he’s trying to sit on the head of a pin. I glance toward the back of the room, and my eyes are instantly drawn to a strange doorway leading to another part of the hotel, and through this portal I see bright lights and several columns of banquet chairs stacked 10 feet high—a disconcerting image at which to be staring all night while trying to enjoy the chef’s tasting menu.

It becomes clear very quickly that something went terribly amok with the interior revamp. The Royce looks as if it were designed by committee—in which no one could agree on the flooring, the seating, the lighting or the art. Bland hardwood floors don’t complement the vibrant blue carpet, they clash with it. A faux Roman wall mural plastered in bas-relief doesn’t accentuate the room, it cheapens it. Those skinny vinyl chairs don’t blend in, they simply look strange. And the finger paintings on the glass dividers in the center of the room? Incomprehensibly amateurish.

Thus I find myself looking around, scratching my head, asking, “Is a design catastrophe enough to bring down a great chef?” Over and over, the answer I keep coming up with is, no.

No, not when foie gras is seared as perfectly as this, bathed so lovingly with melted huckleberries and bitter (not a lot; just enough) chocolate. 

No, not when Féau’s day boat Chatham cod is so ethereal. The fish arrives in a crystal-clear dashi broth (poured tableside) with two little black squares of squid-ink pasta and a quenelle of butternut squash. With every dip of my spoon into the bowl, the broth turns progressively orange, moving toward opaque, until the squash has completely liquefied.

If design can’t bring down a chef, there’s still one other thing that can: inept service. Sadly, that’s something I’m confronted with again and again.

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Maître d’ Eric Espuny (photo by Peden + Munk)

To be fair, some of the staff are seasoned pros. The maître d’ is Eric Espuny, the former sommelier at Patina. Espuny is one of the city’s most elegant and charismatic figures. I think I recognize a couple of waiters as also being from Patina, and they’re great. Why, then, are so many of the other staff so profoundly unqualified to be working in fine dining? One night, just as I have finished a fabulous loin of venison, I’m enjoying myself immensely—sipping my wine, thinking back on the wonderful meal that has just transpired—when a server comes along and wipes my table with pure, undiluted janitorial vinegar. The odor and fumes are so shockingly to
xic that I cannot catch my breath. My eyes water. I cough. I stand up to escape, but my clothes have already absorbed the fumes. Try as I might, I cannot outrun the putrid stench of vinegar. The mood is destroyed. The lovely memory of venison completely erased and forgotten. My wine, undrinkable. And when dessert arrives, I’m told it’s a sampling of four chocolates, but all I can taste or smell is four different shades of industrial-strength floor cleaner. The sommelier pours a dessert wine—some sort of vinegar.

I can’t help but notice one hapless waiter who sulks around with his head and shoulders stooped and his shirttail half-untucked. He greets every one of his tables with, “Hi, my name is [redacted], I’ll be your waiter tonight,” as if he’s reading it from a script for the first time.

Yet another server, my captain on a repeat visit, is well-groomed but  gruff and tactless. He moves with brute force through the dining room. Every word that comes out of his mouth is barked, not spoken. “Evra thin OK over here?” he asks. He jolts off to another table before I can answer. And when delivering a stunning presentation of pan-seared Brandt beef with spiny lobster, he announces the dish with, “This is the steak. It’s served with a little au poivre, and some turnips and some lobster.” It’s as if he were plucked from a pizza parlor or IHOP earlier in the day to fill an emergency opening.

So what the heck is going on here? Why is it amateur hour at The Langham? It’s not as if Espuny isn’t leading by example. He’s the perfect study in grace and poise. Is this a union issue? Is it a geography problem?

This restaurant had (still has?) the opportunity to become the hottest destination in California. Los Angeles doesn’t have many chefs like Féau who are clearly aiming for five stars. I came into this dining room so full of hope. And I’ve eaten very, very well. But I’ve left so full of disappointment. Oh, those hideous chairs. Such horrible art. Abominable service. Vinegar. “How you doin’?” My head is spinning.

First impressions are critical. But last impressions are everything.

Rating: 2 stars

The Royce
The Langham Huntington Hotel 
1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., 
Pasadena, 626.568.6218

Hours: Tues.–Sat., 6pm–9:30pm

Who’s there: Old money from the ’hood and foodies from all over

Where to sit: Ask for a table in the front—the closer to the kitchen, the better.

About the name: The Royce gets its name from Steven W. Royce, the hotel’s legendary owner/manager from the 1920s through the 1960s.

About the chef’s table: The semiprivate room seats up to eight people and requires a minimum check of $1,000.

What it costs: Appetizers, $16–$24; entrées, $28–$39; desserts, $9–$15; five-course tasting menu, $85; corkage, $35. Complimentary valet parking.

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.

 

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