“You’re not writing about this, are you?” asks a friend who has just agreed to take me to the Soho House for dinner, my treat. He’s a member of the exclusive private club. I’m not.
“Well, actually, yes,” I say.
“Oh, man,” he says. “Are you going to take them down?” The backtracking begins. “I…, um, uh…yeah… I can’t do it,” he says.
I’ve dined at the Soho House a half dozen times before now. I never loved the food, but I haven’t admitted that to the members who invited me. Their overly protective reactions to my mission now, though, suggest that they, too, harbor similarly unspoken thoughts about the food.
I reach out to someone else. We set a date. My phone rings en route to meet her at the club. “You’re not already in the car, are you?” she asks. Strike two.
I keep dialing and eventually find three different members willing to go along. On the first of these trips, I’m feeling somewhat guilty. But then the food starts arriving.
My host takes a bite of octopus, and I see what looks like relief flush across his face. I take a bite of the same. I blush. The octopus is extraordinary— big, fat tentacles sliced lengthwise and grilled until fully engulfed in an armor of char, yet still delicate and tender underneath.
I reach for the salmon, served crudo-style with sea beans and some sort of sprouts that look like sperm under a microscope. The fish is pure and clean, like top-grade sashimi.
“Here, try this,” urges my host, eagerly pushing his venison carpaccio in my direction. For the first time since we sat down to dinner, he suddenly looks at ease.
The venison, too, is superb, so thin it’s almost translucent yet fully loaded with meaty flavor and that thrilling, ironlike taste of fresh blood. Scallops are perfectly seared and piled atop kimchi — delicious. The beef short-rib sandwich? Ridiculously good.
A new chef joined the club in April. He’s Johnny Keenan, a nine-year veteran of various Craft restaurants, run by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. I’ve always viewed Colicchio not as an artist but rather a perfectionist. His skill in the kitchen is masterful, the way he coaxes the perfect char out of a piece of octopus, the way steaks caramelize on the grill under his supervision, his almost maniacal obsession with quality when it comes to something as simple as a tomato. Clearly, much of that passion has rubbed off on this protégé.
Case in point: A plate of sliced tomatoes, merely sprinkled with breadcrumbs. The tomatoes are stark in their simplicity yet powerful in their message, which says as much about the integrity of the chef as it does about the brilliance of summer in California.
On a subsequent visit, my host takes a bite of the burger, and instead of setting it down right away she raises it back toward her face and takes a bigger bite. “I always get the burger,” she says. “But I don’t remember it being this good.” She dabs her pink lips with a napkin. The double-meat-patty seems of higher quality, more expertly cooked than what I remember, as well. The dijonaisse, more mustardy. The brioche bun, more pillowy. When the server returns, my host asks,“Has the burger changed?”
The waitress smiles and replies, almost too coyly, “No. I don’t think so.”
But something has changed, a point driven home again when I return and try the ravioli. My newest host is floored. “I am honestly surprised,” he says. On one visit, the pasta is stuffed with kale and goat cheese. On the next, they ooze with a filling of creamed corn and a whisper of cumin. They disappear in an instant.
Not all has changed, though. The french fries still taste like they come from the freezer. And the pizzas are still just okay, but the threshold for pizza in this town has always been fairly low. Far less impressive are the shrimp tacos, which feel as out of place here as a Beverly Hills Housewife walking the streets of Tijuana. Alas, this isn’t a taco truck. It’s a gorgeous Sunset Strip penthouse with a wraparound view.
Fortunately, it’s not just the kitchen that’s changed. Two of my hosts are shocked by the service. “They’ve spotted you,” insists one. “The service is never this charming or attentive,” says another.
I remain supremely confident that I have not been spotted. I think it’s something else. The club hired a new manager this year as well, another longtime veteran from Craft, who probably had a hand in hiring the new chef.
When we file out of the dining room at the end of an extravagantly long lunch, our waiter, our busboy and the manager all rush to meet us at the exit to bid us adieu. But it’s not me they’re focused on charming. It’s the member.
“I’m so glad you made me do this,” says my relieved friend as we pile into the elevator. “I hadn’t felt inspired to dine here in a while. Please tell me it’s not just me.”
“It’s not just you,” I say.
9200 Sunset Boulevard
(310) 432 9200
This review was written for The Hollywood Reporter. The new chef abruptly quit Soho House two days before this article was supposed to go to print.
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