The moment diners set foot in the Bazaar by Jose Andres at the impossibly hip SLS Hotel in West Hollywood, an ordinary evening becomes surreal. The taste of liquefied olives mingles with an Alice in Wonderland-esque décor of mismatched chairs and vibrant colors, exuding a too-cool-for-you vibe created by a dream team that no other swanky West Hollywood bar and club can compete with: the three headed behemoth of celebrity chef Jose Andres, modern design king Philippe Starck, and SBE, one of L.A.’s leading nightlife empresarios. The two tapas rooms, the bar, and the patisserie are beautiful. The futuristic tapas are even more beautiful, and the diners—who dress for the Bazaar as if it were the most exclusive club on the Sunset Strip—are the most beautiful of all. The total experience is unique, even sublime. Yet the success of the Bazaar and the fact that Mr. Andres has turned his attention to newer projects showed: on a recent visit, it seemed that things may be slipping. Yes, I’m no Brad Pitt, which may account for some of the problems. At a restaurant owned by a chef and businessman the caliber of Mr. Andres, however, that shouldn’t matter.
Andres has certainly found success over the past two years with his first project outside of Washington, D.C. The 41-year-old chef and PBS television show host is the toast of the capital’s dining scene—his five restaurants are filled nightly and count Michelle Obama as one of their most dedicated fans. A native of Spain and former chef under legendary creator of “molecular gastronomy” Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Rosas, Spain, Andres is the nation’s pioneer in bringing Spain’s bold, vibrant cuisine across the Atlantic, and he has also become arguably the most important ambassador of El Bulli’s molecular gastronomy style in the U.S. Thanks to El Bulli and Mr. Andres, foams, gels, and liquid nitrogen are getting as much plate time in American restaurants as they do at Harvey Mudd labs.
As riveting and (excuse the pun) bizarre as Andres and chef de cuisine Joshua Whigham’s cooking is, the cuisine is almost overshadowed by the concept and design of the restaurant. The Bazaar is truly a bazaar, an experience for all senses everywhere diners stroll and gaze. In fact, 5C students can think of the Bazaar as a sort of restaurant version of the colleges (minus one, you choose which) with four distinct rooms within one engrossing restaurant venture. The Bar Centro in the middle invites diners to sip $16 cocktails—often considered L.A.’s best—such as the extraordinary “New Way” martini topped with olive brine air, or sweet “Magic” mojitos strained over cotton candy. On one side of this are the dining areas, split into two tapas room bars. The white couches of the plush, “traditional” tapas room “Blanco” seem to be the destination for the ordinary people such as yours truly, while the sleek, exclusive “Rojo” in red and black hues feels more like Mr. Starck’s L.A. sushi bar designs. On the other side of the bar resides the Patisserie, with a long communal table for sharing black olive dark chocolate lollipops, with chairs and signs that say “Sweet for Sweets” or “Your Mother is Sweet.” It feels like a kindergarten girl’s tea party with dolls—just replace the dolls with drunken hipsters and courting couples beginning to get intimate. There’s no doubt the design is a triumph; it’s fascinating that all of this effort went into a glorified tapas bar. Yet the whole circus (along with uncomfortable chairs and odd angles) can wear on diners, and sometimes is downright distracting.
Yet with a chef of Andres’ talent and vision, one should ultimately come here for the food. The menu is split in two just like the dining rooms, with modern tapas and traditional tapas. I could eat Andres’ “philly cheesesteak sandwich” every day. It resembles nothing of what you’d get at Pat’s or Geno’s, but tastes surprisingly similar. Andres’ interpretation drapes razor thin, perfectly rare slices of wagyu beef over air bread (very similar to a slice of French baguette) with cheddar cheese piped into the bread, creating a masterpiece of taste sensation. Foie gras goes to the carnival here, wrapped in cotton candy. The lobes of foie gras are studded with corn nuts and served on sticks for individual bites that create a creamy, sweet utopia. I’ve never been a cotton candy fan, but with foie gras, it’s a whole different story.
Andres’ “tacos” sub ginger for tortilla to wrap eel, cucumber, and chicharron for a refreshing few bites, though the ginger flavor was too subdued. “Just shrimp cocktail” trumps every shrimp cocktail ever served at a steakhouse, with the spicy cocktail sauce served in test tubes that are squeezed by diners while eating the shrimp. It’s truly fascinating and downright fun. “Not your everyday caprésé” tastes the same as your everyday tomato, mozzarella, and basil salad, yet when each liquefied cherry tomato, orb of creamy mozzarella, and cube of air bread are combined with a fleck of basil in your spoon, euphoria ensues. The same goes for the liquefied olives, where olives are dissolved in sodium gluconate and chemically joined together in a bath of alginate to form an “olive” the consistency of gelatin. These “modern” olives come with the more subdued and honestly boring “traditional” green olives that, stuffed with a thin slice of anchovy and piquillo pepper, are overpowered by the anchovy. On the traditional side, a dish of salted, wrinkly “pee wee” fingerling potatoes is served “Canary Islands style” with an addicting mojo verdé sauce strong on the cilantro. I could drink the mojo verde as a cocktail easily. Having just been to the Canary Islands, I never saw this dish but would have loved to sample it in Las Palmas.
Unfortunately, the traditional tapas side doesn’t always deliver the bold flavors. The Bazaar’s shrimp with garlic, arguably the most famous tapa in all of Spanish cooking, simply tasted like tender shrimp in butter sauce. Nothing special. Meanwhile, chicken is perfectly seared but produces no magic when paired with dates and mustard caviar. On the modern side, the “organized Caesar” is an astonishing composition complete with four packages the size of sushi rolls that, in the end, taste of classic Romaine and anchovy. The only unacceptable dish was a smorgasbord: disorganized couscous with cauliflower puree, harissa, and pomegranate seeds in which the flavors muddle each other and only get occasionally saved by a jolt of lemon zest.
Diners have the choice of staying at their dining room table for dessert, but taking up residence in the patisserie is a wiser choice to fully receive the Bazaar experience. Pastries and grown up, chemically modified candies abound; try the salted caramel bon bons or the chocolate covered pop rocks (these would do just fine with cotton candy wrapped foie gras at my version of a carnival). The prepared desserts hit the spot perfectly: homey with enough bells and whistles to keep with the fun. Hot chocolate mousse is exceptional with a luscious, strongly flavored pear sorbet and excellent kick from a salty hazelnut parfait. A coconut floating island with a liquid nitrogen frozen outer shell is equally as blissful, in a delightful passion fruit sauce.
The downfall for the Bazaar, though, came with the various service glitches that showed all the elements. The host staff seems a bit complacent after so much success, and did not give us attention that more preferred customers receive. The host staff was incredibly understanding when we arrived late due to post-Thanksgiving traffic, even giving us another later reservation in case we were late, and providing directions through the Hollywood Hills for us to avoid a Hollywood Parade’s street closures. It’s the service staff that needs tweaking. The wait between sitting down and asking for orders was far too long, and the food was too swiftly paced. The Bazaar has no excuse for timing malfunctions, since tapas are all about grazing at a slow tempo. Our first waitress was friendly and helpful, but the second waitress who took over partway into the meal seemed to have no interest in being charming.
Do listen to the advice of your server; these portions are small. These are tapas, not even small plates or raciones as they call them in Spain. Four tapas per person will be satisfying but by no means a filling dinner. Yes, wine lists in general are awfully expensive in L.A., but the Bazaar may be the best at making wine affordable only for royalty with one, yes one, bottle under $40.
The Bazaar can provide some of the most delightful culinary moments to be found in L.A. With its success, however, has arrived a bit of laziness and less attention from the master chef; there are too many mistakes now to just look the other way. Then again, it’s hard not to: whether it’s that funky, shell-shaped chair, that celebrity chatting in the corner, or that museum-worthy tapa arriving at the table, this Bazaar can’t help but entertain and enchant.