“Is this the lovely Nina? It’s Greg from the Century Plaza, I have my super-VIP of the evening.”
I sink a little in my chair as Concierge Greg works his magic. I will wonder later how much of this show is genuine schmoozing of Nina and how much of it is for my benefit, but for now I just want it to be over.
“I know … I understand. Yes but if you could fit him in. He’s the food editor of Restaurant News. I told him about Lucques and he’s very interested in visiting.”
That was only partly true. I already knew of Lucques, although it wasn’t top-of-mind. I’d really wanted to check out Craft, but it’s not serving dinner on Sundays yet.
But I’d enjoyed hearing chef-restaurateur Suzanne Goin speak in Aspen. I’d be happy to check out one of her Sunday dinners. But “very interested” in visiting? Greg was taking poetic license. Then again the language of a concierge is poetic in a way, and whether Greg was actually sweet-talking Nina or merely nursing my ego while managing my expectations — setting me up for a long wait before being seated — it was effective.
“He’ll wait at the bar and have a Sidecar until you can fit him in,” Greg continued, mapping out my next steps of the evening.
I don’t like pulling strings to get restaurant reservations. It’s unjournalistic and, frankly, undignified.
But to ask the concierge of your hotel with help for reservations is perfectly reasonable. To give him your business card so he can remember your name — well, okay, if it’s a business card from the Daily Variety of restaurant trade magazines, and if that magazine happens to be hosting a conference at the concierge’s hotel, at which hundreds of attendees have booked rooms, that’s pulling strings.
I wasn’t even planning on going out to dinner last night. Our Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference, MUFSO, had started that evening with Taste of Los Angeles, a reception at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza’s reflecting pools at which a bunch of local restaurants were dishing up their specialties. As food editor I had to attend.
In fact, the Culinary R&D conference had ended the night before, on Saturday. I and our two executive editors, Richard Martin and Robin Lee Allen, had spent the morning meeting with a dozen-and-a-half restaurant operators from the United Kingdom who were interested in learning about foodservice trends in the United States. We were joined by Jeff Sinelli, the young CEO of Which Wich, a sandwich chain based in Dallas who had just won a Hot Concepts award from us and who was providing a restaurant operator’s perspective for our British visitors.
Jeff had also won a Hot Concepts award several years ago for his Genghis Grill, which he then flipped and started Which Wich. I’m pretty sure he’s not yet 40 years old.
He’s also 6'5", which might be irrelevant, but I, being 5'3.5", find it fascinating.
But my point is that if I weren’t going to attend Taste of LA, I could have flown out that afternoon; I wasn’t assigned to cover anything at MUFSO.
If I’m going to attend, I’m going to try as much of the food as is reasonable, and possibly more.
But publicist Ellen Hartman had no dinner plans and she wanted some, and we did have legitimate things to discuss about many of her clients. Besides, I was feeling bad that during my four days in LA I had only managed to visit Grace, Pinkberry (which we have in New York anyway), Pink Taco and In-and-Out Burger. I had not been a very intrepid trend-spotter.
But I’d had duties to perform at Culinary R&D, which is a full-on day-and-a-half of relentless activity.
Rehearsal started later than I thought it would on Friday, however, so my boss Pam Parseghian and I hopped into a taxi to go to In-and-Out Burger, because I’d never been. I had one of those secret off-the-menu items — the one with sautéed onions. But that night, after Nancy Kruse’s keynote State of the Plate speech and a cooking demonstration by Japonais executive chef Gene Kato, we had a reception at which the conference’s 15 sponsors all were serving food made from their products. I had to go, and I had to try as many items as I could manage (I managed 14).
So I was full, and besides it seemed important to stay in the hotel and bond with my colleagues based in places other than New York.
“X Bar,” said Jesse Parziale, who’s on our event planning staff and who had been working hard while following the progress back in Tampa of his daughter’s pinkeye.
I met our new ad-sales guy, Kevin McKay, recently of another restaurant trade magazine. He’s a gallant fellow, the type with the presence of mind to remove his suit jacket to drape it around the shoulders of a woman shivering in the early autumn air of Los Angeles at twilight. He did just that during the Saturday closing reception of Culinary R&D.
He showed me pictures of his kids, the (fraternal) twin boys Jack and Michael (Jack’s the jock, Michael’s more of an intellectual), age 5, 4-year-old Tess, and Ryan, who’s pushing 3.
Lunch the next day was the same format as dinner the night before. Then came the presentations on Japanese food, which included the tasting of four types of miso followed by the sampling of four miso preparations, assiduously supervised by presenter Elizabeth Andoh, who instructed the attending chefs on some basic principles of Japanese cuisine (five colors, five tastes, five methods of preparation).
Then there was a cooking demonstration with accompanying tastings by “iron chef” Masaharu Morimoto. Next was that reception in which Kevin the new ad salesman displayed his gallantry and I ate cheese and drank Tennessee whisky.
I switched to scotch for the pre-Hot-Concepts-awards cocktail party — I think because the bartender, Vichai, was Thai, and Chivas Regal, the favorite drink of Bangkok’s Sino-Thai middle class, was in plain view.
By the way, the bartender on the previous night, Boonsong, also was Thai.
Of course I dialed back to wine for dinner and then repaired to X Bar again, which Richard and I think some others managed to close down at 2.
My point is that there’s a reason I hadn’t been able to check out more Los Angeles restaurants.
Richard and I checked out Pink Taco the next day after our meeting with the British restaurateurs (I had the signature pink tacos, He had a salad and pork tacos), and then I checked e-mail and lay down for half an hour before going to visit my old college friend Matt Shapo (scroll down to the previous blog entry if you want a refresher on Matt), his wife Jenn and their two-year-old son Evan, who enjoyed giving me his version of high fives.
Matt took me back to the hotel, I put on a tie and sport coat and headed downstairs to the Taste of LA, where I finally met our new Tampa correspondent, Catherine Russo Cobb. She was a bit shy and tentative, but that’s fair enough, really. She’s also bright, dismissive of shallowness and an avid runner.
Good old Jamie Peters, who worked at NRN before moving to Memphis to work at a publication at the university there, now lives in Los Angeles, and editor-in-chief Ellen Koteff brought him to our party. He has an MBA now and is doing PR or marketing or something for Mattel. He seems the same — baby-faced, quick-witted, funny and just a bit aloof.
I made a reference to C&C Music Factory — I think I said “I got the power” or something like that — and he wondered if perhaps the band performing at Taste of LA could do a slow-jazz rendition of that song. I said I’d prefer that they try “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”
So my evening was full, my day complete, when Ellen Hartman asked me to dinner, but I realized I had not yet eaten enough from the trough that is LA.
And so we went to the Concierge Greg.
I was just settling into my Sidecar and Ellen into her Lucques Gimlet, when our table was ready.
“I want to eat out with you more often,” Ellen said.
(Fade out to a C&C Music Factory song of your choice).
What I ate at Lucques:
last-of-the-season figs with burrata, James’ arugula and crushed pistachios
duck leg braised in red wine with kabocha squash, toasted pepitas and grilled bacon (I also sampled Ellen’s Alaskan halibut and clam stew with artichokes, potato, sherry and almond aioli)
Concord grape and walnut buckle with vanilla ice cream and crème fraîche
I drank a glass of 2004 Château Perray Jouannet from Anjou in France’s Loire Valley.