John Curtas is …

CHINOIS R.I.P.

The first time I ever ate at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois was in the summer of 1984. It was at the original on Main Street in Santa Monica, and I recall driving past the front door, looking for the address, and seeing a telephone pole right in front of it with its street light off.

On closer examination, that telephone pole turned out to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar waiting for his car. Food Gal Number One was pregnant at the time with what would grow up to be Son Of Food Man Number Two, and we had driven down from Vegas to check out what was then about the hottest, most written about, and most cutting edge restaurant in the country.

Another thing I recall was all the teal — remember how big the color teal was back in the eighties? – and the splendid, informal, and informative service. One thing that still stands out about the service twenty-five years on, is how the server didn’t stand up…..he knelt at the table so as to be at eye level with all of us.

When you consider how fine dining was still very much under the influence of haughty maitre ‘d’s and imperious waiters at the time, this eyeball-to-eyeball familiarity was revolutionary indeed — as was the food.

Fusion food was as cutting edge as it got in the early eighties, and seeing and tasting a piece of salmon glazed with hoisin sauce was a revelation – as were wontons stuffed with crabmeat and raw fish flecked with French sauces.

By 1994 – Chinois on Main had firmly established itself as one the country’s most pioneering restaurants – right up there with the original Spago, Chez Panisse, and the Union Square Café – and Puck was ready to bring the concept to Las Vegas. Expensively (and some might say over-) designed, and tucked into a less-traveled part of the Forum Shops, it struggled almost from the get go. But to these taste buds, the food was as absolutely fabulous as what we remembered from ten years earlier. I can still recall pasta with black bean sauce, a curry aioli with a bouillabaisse and a five-spice roasted duck that brought me to my knees.

Then and now, it mattered not to me that Puck’s incorporation of Asian ingredients into French technique had been copied and bastardized to the nth degree, but I suppose it mattered to the dining out public because the main restaurant survived (in Las Vegas) only a couple of years. Over the past decade or so, Chinois has existed in our town as a casual café and sushi bar – both of which were more than decent – but hardly the world-beaters that first launched the concept.

Now, our Chinois has closed for good, and it’s a sad moment for me, not because I ate there all that often, but because just strolling past reminded me of days gone by, when my eyes were still wide, and innocent and fascinated at what wonders a great chef could do by blending and bending the world’s cuisines.

The late Twentieth Century was the time, and Chinois was the world’s petri dish for doing just that, and I doubt we shall ever see its like again.

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4 Responses to CHINOIS R.I.P.

  • Yeah, those were the days. Wolfgang Puck was a real pioneer then, as he was jumping head-first into the world of fusion cuisine. It’s just too bad that Chinois didn’t try to remain on the cutting edge.

    Hopefully as the 21st century goes on, we’ll see Vegas continue to progress and finally make it to that cutting edge of amazing, forward-thinking food.

  • I have to say I am not surprised to hear this. My daughter and her boyfriend (both with Birthdays in May) chose Chinois for their birthday dinner this past May. We had a party of 12 people with 8 of them being in from out of town for this party. The service was so bad that the Manager ended up comping a $400 dinner tab. We paid the $250 drink tab as the wine was wonderful. We were the only party in the restaurant at the time (it was mid-week) and there was absolutely no excuse. Dinners were coming out 10 to 15 minutes apart. We had two parties leave after waiting 20 minutes for food after the rest of us had finally received ours. I won’t miss it. If it was still around, I would never have recommended it.

  • Sad to hear. My experiences have always been excellent while dining there. I guess it just lost steam along the way. One of my favorite dishes was the whole catfish, served tableside. Ugly to look at, magnificent to eat.

    I wonder, could the nightclub that shared space with Chinois have had anything to do with the downturn of its popularity?

  • Eric-

    I don’t know if Poetry made Chinois less popular, but it certainly did make it more “controversial”. There were always whispers of it being a “black” club, and Caesars & Simon (the mall management company that manages The Forum Shops) bizarrely closed the main entrance to the casino while the nightclub was still open. If there’s any real tragedy here, it’s that Poetry may have been forced out (simultaneously closing Chinois as well) just because of the corporate higher-ups’ racial fears. Sad…

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