Urban chic at Blue Velvet
Perched on a hill with stunning city views, the newest downtown spot takes you to an L.A. you've yet to meet.
By S. Irene Virbila, Times Staff Writer
The back dining room at Blue Velvet, a new restaurant and lounge tucked downtown just west of the 110 Freeway, is dimly lighted and romantic, with red glass walls and dark wood tables. In the concrete fireplace, a line of gas flames dances a conga, picking out diamonds on the major bling worn by a guy at the table next to me.
His watch has a face the size of a teacup encrusted with sparkly bits, which I surmise are not rhinestones, and the firelight catches reflections from his diamond stud earrings.
Happily eating, he's discussing business with his woman companion, letting drop figures in the hundreds of thousands. Whether it's real or it's show, I haven't a clue. More interesting is the fact that the woman is not eating a bite. It's not that she's just picking at her food: She doesn't even have a plate in front of her. Nothing.
Maybe she already ate. Or maybe she's been to so many trendy restaurants where the overpriced, overly ambitious food is mediocre that she figures she'll just say no, not having any.
If that's the case, she would be very wrong. Because the food at this 3-month-old spot lives up to its stylish good looks. Executive chef Kris Morningstar, whose resume includes stints at A.O.C., MÃ©son G and Patina, is turning out polished contemporary cooking with a deft and light hand.
Even more unusual, the place is lighthearted and fun. It's versatile too. You can come for a drink and a bite in the sleek lounge with low-slung sofas and a sunken, blue granite communal table with space carved out below for dangling feet. Or just as easily reserve for dinner in one of the two very different dining rooms, one with a view that skims over a turquoise pool to the noirish cityscape beyond.
Located at the residential complex called the Flat, Blue Velvet was designed by Tag Front, the downtown architectural and design firm that has consistently created some of the most intriguing restaurant spaces in L.A., including Boa, Nacional, Geisha House and Katana. The designers have given the former Holiday Inn a sharp, contemporary edge and chalked up planet-friendly points with the use of environmentally sound materials.
The wall that divides the lounge from the dining room is made of several layers of pale MDF (medium density fiberboard) cut with oval holes, the holes and layers overlapping so it resembles a slice of Swiss cheese on legs. Another wall covered in dark gray pebbles exudes calm. At the entrance, an egg shape cut into a frosted-glass panel offers a look into the main dining room. Walking into that room â€” already set with sparkling stemware â€” gives a sense of occasion, especially with that view of city lights and, off in the distance, the sizzling neon of Staples Center and Figueroa Hotel.
One night, just as we take a first sip of cool, steely Sauvignon Blanc (cult winemaker Didier Dagueneau's Pur Sang) from the savvy wine list, the glassy surface of the pool outside the window is broken by two dark heads gliding through the water like seals: residents from the adjoining apartment taking a late night swim. It feels like a dreamscape.
A modern focus
Early on, Blue Velvet's menu seemed too similar to every other trendy restaurant's to telegraph a clear identity. But in recent weeks, Morningstar has risen to the occasion. He's worked hard to bring his distinctly modern style into focus. And as the kitchen has evolved into a coherent team, the execution has stepped up a notch too.
A meal at Blue Velvet might begin with a delightful amuse such as a "bacon chip," so flat it looks as if it's been ironed, on a coin of sticky rice, and garnished with a puddle of pineapple purÃ©e and a frothy coconut emulsion. And two peas.
Then comes a parade of intriguing first courses. There's a fabulous salad of tender, barely cooked squid rings with sweet, slightly nutty salsify cut to mimic fettuccine noodles and punctuated with fresh mint and a chili sauce dotted with luscious kumquats that are both tart and sweet. The flavors work some magic to create a squid salad utterly unlike anything else in town.
Crispy yogurt sounds so odd, somebody has to order it and that somebody is me. The yogurt is thick, something like labneh, the Lebanese yogurt with the texture and weight of ricotta, fried gold on the outside and served with a spinach-almond purÃ©e, pine nuts and golden raisins. A lashing of blackstrap molasses on the side of the plate injects a startling contrast to the rest of the flavors.
Lobster cassoulet is deconstructed to a pile of beans in a rich lobster sauce dotted with lobster meat, flanked by some of the same beans, purÃ©ed, and rich, inky boudin noir (blood sausage) topped with slices of the tender lobster tail. The sweet, intricately laced flavors of the black sausage against the lobster works beautifully.
Sushi fanciers will, of course, zero in on the hamachi. The yellowtail is sushi quality, served raw with sumptuous, marinated Japanese eggplant, shimeji mushrooms and blood orange segments, another wonderful combination of tastes.
Squab crÃ©pinette is another terrific dish. Pigeon breast is sandwiched with a forcemeat of the liver, leg and mushroom duxelles, the whole package wrapped in lacy caul fat (which almost melts away in the cooking), sliced and served rosy rare with fried shallots.
There's only one dud in the group of appetizers: rock shrimp and sweet potato agnolotti tossed in a sweet, intense cherry sauce that coats the pasta and covers the delicate flavors of the stuffing.
I've brought a diverse group of friends with me on every visit, and Blue Velvet appeals to each of them in a different way. The hipster loves the look and the action. The aesthete enjoys the design and the fairly subdued noise level. The wine aficionado is quite taken with the wide-ranging wine list. And everybody enjoys the food.
Service is personable and brisk, but not intrusive, other than the usual bus person attempting to fill up your water glass every time you take a sip. The sommelier, who just moved here from Atlanta, is charming and unpretentious, helpful in selecting something unusual and interesting from the list.
In a town where hype is rampant, we often have the sense that we're discovering something. This is not a restaurant anybody would find by driving by. It's tucked away in the historic Westlake neighborhood, which is in transition, with refurbished buildings like this one popping up here and there. It offers a unique view of the city, with a crowd that draws on downtown loft dwellers, Koreatown and Little Tokyo, Silver Lake and Echo Park. The result is understated and intriguing, something that higher profile Westside hot spots could never emulate.
As is the case on many menus, main courses have trouble competing with the more obvious attractions of the first courses. Still, they're very good. Loup de mer comes with an enticing dice of potatoes and fresh clams and a thatch of fried leeks on top. There's a nice free-range chicken dish dressed up with fava beans, hedgehog mushrooms and excellent potatoes sautÃ©ed in duck fat.
Colorado rack of lamb really tastes like lamb. At $32, it's the most expensive item â€” and worth it. Monkfish in a miso cider reduction, though, is boring and oversalted, outshone by the ribbons of cabbage, baby carrots and glazed chestnuts that come with it.
I liked the venison loin, however, and its smart accompaniments of gnocchi, red chard with apples, and bacon onion purÃ©e. The chef really spends time considering each plate as a whole. None of the vegetables or accompaniments ever feels like an afterthought.
Just before 10 p.m., the management starts cranking up the music as the lounge crowd filters in. Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" segues into AC/DC, and then I lose track as the conversation carries us somewhere else and we're distracted by the prospect of desserts. These, too, are a cut above.
White chocolate bombe resembles a light, fluffy cheesecake brought into relief by lime curd and candied pistachios. "Almost a sundae" features a smear of brÃ»lÃ©ed marshmallow "fondue" highlighting a bar of milk chocolate parfait, with a tall glass of frothy bitter-almond foam, and espresso ice cream alongside.
Beet financier cake, though, served with a tangy, goat cheese ice cream and candied beets is an oddity. Maybe it's just outside most people's comfort zone, but however well executed, I can't imagine ordering it again. The flavors are too jarring. No worries. Pastry chef Randall Perez (MÃ©son G, Patina, and Bouchon in Napa Valley) seems to come up with new items every week.
A work in progress
In all, this last meal is the best of several, and because each time I've been to Blue Velvet the food has been better than the time before, it's encouraging.
I have to note, however, that even on a weekend night, the restaurant has never been extremely busy. Whether the kitchen can perform at the same level when both dining rooms are packed is yet to be determined.
As we leave, we pass a video monitor mounted outside that displays the stream of car lights on the intersecting freeways. In the lobby, I notice a sign with arrows indicating "Rent" this way, "Eat" that way. Could this be the new urban paradigm? Eat and sleep in the same building?
A resident is happily ensconced on a sofa suspended from the ceiling like a porch swing, cooing into his cellphone, waiting for his date to arrive for dinner.
A glance at the traffic streaming on the monitor, and the message is clear: Why brave the freeway when you can eat so well so close to home?
Location: 750 S. Garland Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 239-0061; www.bluevelvetrestaurant.com.
Ambience: Downtown restaurant with city views and a smart, edgy look. The lounge features a sunken granite table and giant parchment lampshades. The crowd is urban and young, ready to eat, drink and party.
Service: Warm and personable, but also professional.
Price: Dinner appetizers, $10 to $16; main courses, $24 to $32; desserts, $8; chef's tasting menu, $75 per person.
Best dishes: Lobster cassoulet, hamachi with eggplant and blood oranges, warm squid salad with salsify noodles, crispy yogurt, loup de mer with clams and potatoes, squab crÃ©pinette, crispy pork short rib, Colorado lamb rack, blood-orange sundae.
Wine list: Wide-ranging and eclectic; corkage fee, $20
Best table: One in the corner of the back dining room.
Details: Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The lounge is open daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.