Imagine yourself in the middle of the vast landscapes of Burgundy where rows and rows of lush green grape vines in the middle of summer extend far beyond your visual field, interrupted only by quaint farm houses and rolling hills. You pop open a 1971 Romanée-Conti, swirl it around in your glass, and savor it in your mouth as you bask in the warm sunlight. You make love to every molecule of this elegant vintage wine with your palate and appreciate life for getting you to this moment. Now imagine dumping that same bottle of wine into a styrofoam cup and drinking it at a rowdy state fair where screaming kids in overdrive terrorize their parents. Does it still taste as good?
High quality ingredients, excellent seasoning, exciting flavor combinations and proper preparation define good food, but ambiance and atmosphere can make or break it. Oceanfront views, romantic candlelight, crackling fireplaces, water fountains, perfectly dressed servers and gorgeous interior decor attract diners who want a relaxing and pleasant dining experience. Patrons are more likely to revisit a restaurant with mediocre food but beautiful atmosphere and professional service, than one with the opposite combination. When your sense of sound, sight and smell are pleasantly stimulated, your food will naturally taste that much better.
Chef Marcel Vigneron is no newcomer to the culinary scene- we know and lovingly hate him from his notorious Top Chef days when he shined on screen as the nation’s new villain with knives. He seemed to have found the perfect home in The Bazaar where his molecular gastronomy skills were given an extra coat of polish. His solo venture at the Hatchi Breadbar dinner sold out to satisfied diners who swooned over his adventurous and delicious creations. This classically trained chef’s latest gig comes as a surprise to me, a rowdy and pretentious bar called Bar 210 in the former Trader Vic’s space in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The 7,000 square foot space also houses Plush lounge where young party-goers can dance the night away in stilettos and boots. Hanging gold chains against a background of more gold add extra bling to the dimly lit Bar 210 space where the scantily clad (but beautiful) waitresses in one shoulder minis try their best to hear your order over the loud music. It’s a sexy establishment, but hardly the right venue for Vigneron’s innovative culinary art.
Marcel, as always, was a gracious host, welcoming us to his new crib and coming out to present each plate to us. But even this bigger-than-life chef seemed painfully out of place at Bar 210 where the other patrons in flashy garb and here-to-be-seen attitude were more interested in the overpriced cocktails. The Global Tastings concept that we saw in his Hatchi dinner back in December 2009 where he married international spices with modern interpretations is continued in the small bites menu at the bar. We settled into our uncomfortable bar stools for our tasting dinner that kicked off with a momochan amuse with mint and saffron yogurt powder.
The Ahi tuna tartare plate was a breathtaking bouquet of vibrant colors and sensational flavors. Tender chunks of meaty tuna over crunchy biscuits topped with an artistic palette of ponzu gel, pineapple, jicama, nasturtium flowers, avocado cream and wasabi tobiko excited my palate with each successive bite that introduced a new medley of textures and flavors. As I desperately tried to block out the annoying music from my aching head, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better the tartare would have tasted in a proper restaurant environment.
Compact but meaty Kusshi oysters were served on a salt bed with grains of paradise seasoning and citrus dashi air. As always, Chef Marcel’s presentation demonstrated elegant beauty with a touch of playfulness- these pearls of the sea looked like they had been swept up by the ocean breeze and miraculously washed up onto a white sandy beach.
Speared tails of plump succulent shrimp with Thai tom kha flavoring were curled up over a carpet of white coconut milk powder and covered with a blanket of basil seeds, crispy ginger and Thai herbs. It was a wonderful dish of tantalizing textures and fragrant aromas, but I much preferred the more intricate version of langoustine ravioli with tom kha foam and avocado wrapped mango that he presented at the Hatchi dinner- but the theme at Bar 210 wasn’t elegant cuisine, it was simplified bar food.
Yogurt, caramelized walnuts, celery and microgreens stayed afloat in Wally boats of purple endive while a walnut shipmate shouted ahoy from an apple raft nearby.
Leave it to Vigneron to interpret and twist classic concepts, like the Cobb 2010 which offered a modern presentation on a traditional salad dish. Cobb salad ingredients were mixed together in bite-sized rolls and topped with small portions of the individual ingredients- bacon bits, avocado cream, tomato caviar, quail egg and blue cheese. Just picturing the mischievous look on his face as he invented this dish made me smile, and it left me longing to see how far he could stretch the potential of this concept.
A familiar face from The Bazaar came by to say hello- boneless chicken wings brined for 24 hours, then confited, deboned, breaded and fried. Only this time, instead of a green olive purée, they got a face lift with micro celery and a butt job with blue cheese injection. Although the cheese was a bit overpowering, the incredibly tender chicken, barely able to contain its savory and rich juices, was electrifying. Knowing the unbelievable amount of painstaking preparation and thought that went into this chicken, it bothered me even more to see it underappreciated in this bar environment.
Tuscan style potato cubes were deep fried to a perfect crisp exterior and steamy moist interior, going well with the creamy chlorophyll mayo.
In an unexpected potato stand-off, I preferred the velvety wrinkled skin of the Canary island potatoes with chlorophyll mayo, a joyous encore dish from The Bazaar.
Yogurt seems to be his thing right now, as it appeared in numerous dishes including the gravlax on toasted bread with kalamata olive dust, pickled ramps and dill. The fatty and luscious cut of salmon practically melted in my mouth, but a boost of acidity or salt to counteract the mellow yogurt would have perfected this dish.
Modernized banh mi sandwiches came in the form of pork belly sliders with red onion, shaved carrots, green beans and daikon slivers. This was the perfect bar food that made you want to reach for a glass of ice cold beer.
There were too many salty components in the short rib sliders with tomato confit, arugula, black olive aioli, brie cheese and caramelized onion purée but the meat was juicy and tender, making for a satisfying bite.
I was ecstatic to see another encore from his fantastic Hatchi dinner which also happened to be my favorite dish from that event, Vadouvan lamb with tzatziki, lavosh, za’atar, mint, cucumbers and preserved lemon. It’s obvious that sliced meat would never taste as good as meat served on the bone, but given that the original lamb chop made such an impression on me, I was even more saddened to see this less inspiring rendition at Bar 210.
The chef finished our tasting with a dessert plate of liquid brownie sticks, chocolate covered strawberries, blueberry tarts and macaroons. The cold ice cream brownie sticks with crunchy rice puffs made me feel like a kid again.
Although I appreciated the beauty of each dish and how much preparation went into them, it was difficult to live in the moment and savor each bite with the loud music and atmosphere obstructing my dinner. It also bothered me that no matter how good the food was, the crowd that this bar attracted would never fully appreciate it, as they were less likely to be interested in his work and more likely to be keen on their waitress’ hourglass figure. But it’s a bar, after all, and people don’t come here for the food- they come here for the scene and the scenery. Considering that Chef Vigneron had to simplify his dishes from fine cuisine to finger food in order to cater to this younger bar crowd, he maintained his style and flair as best as he could. Still, the usual explosion of creativity and vivacity that I’m used to seeing in this chef’s work was regretfully muffled. Just like a good bottle of wine deserves to fall upon the lips of an appreciative gourmand, Chef Vigneron’s food deserves an environment which is more fitting and worthy. It’s a good thing that he’s pursuing his passion in his upcoming SyFy network show, as his personality and stage presence is too perfect for TV, but the real next step is to open his own restaurant where we can see, smell and taste the true soul of this outstanding chef.
9876 Wilshire Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Random trivia: Did you know that chlorophyll, a green pigment found in plants that aids in photosynthesis, acts as a deodorizer that eliminates bad odor, and is therefore routinely added to chewing gum?