I couldn't help but feel that surge of excitement that comes when a kitchen has taken the freshest of ingredients and cooked them so skillfully you can't imagine them any other way.
Well that's how it happens at Bel-Air Bar & Grill - a restaurant all about style. Stylish people, stylish interior and stylishly prepared California eclectic cuisine that incorporates a medley of French, Italian and Asian influences.
Located at the western-most edge of the prestigious Bel Air neighborhood, at the base of the Getty Museum, this relative newcomer is an ideal refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city - lending itself beautifully as a romantic hideaway. Of course, that may be difficult to imagine with the adjacent San Diego freeway so nearby. But once inside the wrought iron gate of this charming restaurant, the freeway becomes just a faded memory.
You enter the restaurant through a pretty outdoor patio - walk into the handsome bar area - a living room-type setting where people sit in conversational clusters on oversized club chairs and cushy sofas, drinking deftly prepared cocktails poured to perfection and sipping fine wines.
A quiet laughter fills the room, an indication that the neighboring clientele, a sophisticated bunch, is definitely enjoying themselves. The bar, stocked with the finest spirits, has an equally savvy wine list. I was most impressed by the 20 or so wines that were offered by the glass.
Beyond the lounge is the blissfully serene dining room. Elegantly decorated with a backdrop of warm earth tones, it is furnished with comfortable banquettes that hug the wall and dark mahogany chairs designed for comfort, with museum-worthy contemporary art sculpture throughout. Subdued lighting emanates from the beautiful imported lighting fixtures that hang from the domed ceiling. Artsy cone-shaped lighting fixtures, made from art paper and formed into cylindrical shapes, are placed over the elements-a key design in the restaurant.
Most certainly there has been an artist's eye and designer's talent here to have blended traditional warmth and contemporary style so successfully. And this designer hasn't missed a step, even down to the walls that are decoratively covered with acoustic fabric panels serving to temper the sound-so that quiet conversation becomes more than a mere phenomenon. Romantic, candlelit tables topped with crisp white linen are well spaced, allowing plenty of elbowroom. A brick fireplace adds that extra degree of warmth. The result is a dining room with immense appeal.
But it's the food that makes the real difference, isn't it? Executive Chef Robert Lia's flawless preparation and presentation is brilliant. Schooled under the tutelage of renowned chef/owner Roland Gilbert of 72 Market St., all of Lia's plates are wonderful. They will first seduce you by their look, then captivate you with their deep resonant flavors- without having any of that show-off quality. Lia is adept at building an ensemble of ingredients that have logic and not just a mishmash of flavors.
I remember with pleasure the Alaskan white king salmon- what a splendid fish it was! It was the most sublime chunk of salmon imaginable, crusted with horseradish and enhanced with a light, sweet shallot beurre blanc sauce. Lia continues to bring artistry to each dish with his signature filet, which is as pretty as a picture. It arrives caged between Chinese long beans and accented by Marsala wine and morels. The filet is tender as butter and comparable to the finest steak houses in town.
If it's rack of lamb you crave, try this one with a blackberry almond crust and lemon thyme basmatic rice, or the roast pork tenderloin stuffed with proscuitto, sun-dried tomatoes and Pinot Noir essence.
I'm told the sautéed breast of chicken, stuffed with sweet shrimp and tarragon mousse, is a must as well. There's a host of pastas, delicious salads and interesting sandwich platters-like the smoked salmon sandwich with whole grain mustard remoulade and red leaf on homemade country bread.
If you love chili, Lia will certainly get your taste buds kicking. In fact, his version made with single malt scotch is so good it could take the infamous Chasen's chili right off the map.
All of the scrumptious breads, including foccacia and olive, are baked in-house, as are the pastries. I had to stop myself from eating the entire basket.
Trust me, you won't yawn through dessert either. There are sorbets, tarts, strudels, and creme brulee. Be sure to order the chocolate soufflé with a side of whipped cream. As befitting a restaurant like this, the service is charmingly unpretentious and friendly, and you can count on one of the three delightful owners to be found at the front welcoming their customers.
Bel-Air Bar & Grill is a restaurant cozy enough to be a neighborhood place yet important enough to function as a destination for a big night. I've seen many try to emulate that blend of big league food and big-hearted warmth, but few have succeeded as brilliantly as this neighborhood establishment.
Tel: (310) 440-5544.
Open for lunch and dinner.
Dinner for two $60-90.
Carole Valentine, December 1999