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.