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Tom Colicchio Judges L.A.’s Nightlife

How good are Los Angeles’s new night spots? When writer Joel Stein goes bar-hopping with Tom Colicchio, the star chef and Top Chef head judge, he finds out—the hard way.

Of the many things I’m not cool enough to do, one of the most exciting always seemed like going out after work with chefs. I’d heard they go to weird, secret late-night restaurants and tiny, dark bars filled with strippers, rock bands, con men, longshoremen and blacksmiths. The idea seemed to have all the Charles Bukowski–meets–Herman Melville manliness my life lacks.

I figured the perfect person to take me out after work in L.A. was Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef who presides over the empire of Craft restaurants, which includes the spin-offs Craftsteak, Craftbar and ’Wichcraft and has branches in Manhattan, Las Vegas, Dallas and L.A. Colicchio was one of F&W’s Best New Chefs in 1991, when he ran the kitchen at now-defunct Mondrian in New York City; then he went on to earn even bigger fame at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern before launching Craft. Not only does Colicchio have that shaved-head, New Jersey–born, boxing-fan, self-trained-chef toughness, but he knows L.A.: As head judge of Bravo’s Top Chef, he shot season two of the show here and opened one of his newest Craft outposts in town just last year.

With L.A.’s bar scene moving from cheesy, Cosmo-centric, agent-assistant-filled spots like Skybar to darker, more alluring spaces serving intriguing cocktails made with fresh ingredients, the idea of going out on a Saturday night in the city seemed like fun again—and I knew Colicchio and his friends could lead to me to the kinds of spots where I could get into trouble, or at least watch him do it.

On the designated night, Colicchio brings along a posse of chefs: Craft Los Angeles chef de cuisine Matthew Accarrino; Damon Wise, the executive chef for all the Craft restaurants; Sang Yoon, the owner of the two L.A.-area Father’s Office gastropubs; and Jon Shook, co-chef at L.A.’s soon-to-open Animal and star of the Food Network show 2 Dudes Catering. We gather at BondSt, the swank new sushi bar imported from New York and dropped on Wilshire Boulevard, down the street from the Endeavor talent agency near Rodeo Drive. Our Saturday evening begins at 8:30, which at first seems far too early for the kind of late-night carousing I was anticipating. It’s also a little disappointing that when I ask Colicchio if he had met Yoon and Shook working on a sweaty kitchen line or early one morning at a fish market, he informs me that the three of them know the same agent at CAA.

BondSt, which is being overseen by the New York City branch’s former chef, Hiroshi Nakahara—who loves dissonant fusion rolls like tuna-and-blue-cheese—is candlelit, dark and oddly filled with tables of very young women in strappy dresses who look like they’re auditioning to be extras on The Hills. Almost as soon as we sit down, everyone in our group starts talking about cooking, which I didn’t expect. Apparently, all the Craft locations have a meat saw to do some major in-house butchering, which greatly impresses Yoon and Shook. “That’s cool,” says Yoon wistfully. “I’d like a saw.” When the model-y waitress gives us a cocktail menu, Yoon takes a quick look at it and says, “Do you have a men’s menu?” which makes me like him instantly. But the rest of us play along, and a few even enjoy the Gin Basil: Hendrick’s gin, sweetened aloe, basil and Bacardi Cóco. Nakahara and his staff start sending out courses and courses of sushi, including micro-dishes of halibut topped with caviar and gold flecks that seem like they are trying hard to pretend there isn’t a recession. We drink a couple bottles of a clean, dry sake called Shim, made especially for the restaurant, and order some giant cans of Sapporo.

At one point, Shook briefly disappears from the table and returns with a smiley, dark-haired woman draped over his arm, but he explains that she’s here with her boyfriend and can’t stay long. Cooking, I realize, is much more useful for meeting women than writing for magazines. “You can make them any breakfast they want,” says Shook. “Eggs Benedict? No problem. Toad-in-the-hole? I can do it.” But they explain that there’s an art to the slow tease; you can’t cook breakfast for a woman too early in the relationship. “She’ll say, ‘But I just slept with you.’ Sure, but cooking is personal. You have to hold something back,” says Yoon.

As we head east down Hollywood Boulevard toward Vine Street, Colicchio looks at the stilettoed women and plaster-haired men lined up to get into clubs and admits that he doesn’t go out much anymore. (“I’m old,” he says. “For some reason now, I pop up out of bed at 7:30 a.m. It doesn’t matter if I go to sleep at 2:30.”). But he has done it for enough years that he knows what he likes, and S Bar, the new cocktail bar attached to an ultrahip outpost of the Katsuya sushi chain, is not it. Designed by Philippe Starck, it looks like the Moulin Rouge reimagined by Lewis Carroll, with candelabras, upside-down lamps, TVs on the ceiling and portraits of European aristocracy. It is loud and crowded and filled with people much dorkier-looking than I expected. As soon as we sit on our reserved chesterfield sofa and our very pretty cocktail waitress starts telling us about mixologist Ryan Magarian’s famous vegetable-juice-heavy cocktails, Shook interrupts her and asks for a round of tequila shots, which we quickly do. “I like a good drinking bar. I don’t like places where you have to shout to be heard,” Colicchio says, shouting to be heard. He wants to leave, but when I see the cocktail cart wheeled out to make drinks in front of people like a Caesar salad in 1988, I force everyone to stay for a round. I really like the Pepper Delirious, made with Aviation gin, lime juice, yellow bell pepper juice and mint, but I am way alone on this one. “I like a drink with three ingredients: liquor, ice and a twist,” Colicchio says.

Next we’re supposed to go the newly hipsterized downtown area. Our destination: the Edison, a retro bar with an absinthe fountain and a line around the block. But Colicchio hasn’t been there, and he isn’t taking chances with any more hipsterness. Instead, we go down Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, near the Melrose shopping district, to year-and-a-half-old Bar Lubitsch. It’s co-owned by Sean MacPherson, who also owns Jones, Colicchio’s favorite, no-nonsense L.A. bar: dark, with brick walls, red booths, pizzas and basic drinks—no newfangled cocktails.

Lubitsch, a Russian-themed bistro-looking bar, is crowded but not too loud, and, unlike everywhere else we’ve been, the crowd isn’t trying too hard. Plus, the cocktails are really good. Accarrino’s Molotov cocktail (apple juice and bison-grass vodka, whatever that is) arrives on fire, thanks to a lemon rind squirted with some Bacardi 151. It’s appley but not sweet. A mojito-like drink is limey and light on the sugar. Right after we taste them, Colicchio and Yoon climb behind the bar, amid the red-tank-topped female bartenders, and start making drinks. Yoon gets cocky about his cocktail-making abilities. He whips up a Manhattan, but none of us can choke it down. Still, it’s impressive how seriously he keeps smelling the ingredients as he makes the drink, and on his next attempt—a cucumber, mint and lime concoction—he does much better, upping the sweetness while maintaining the cucumber’s subtle coolness. Colicchio, instead of smelling the drink he’s making, keeps tasting it. It’s amazing—gingery and sour, without too much sweetness. When I ask him what it is, he pauses. “I have no idea what I put in there,” he says. At that, we cut a swath through the bar to the exit, leaving as mysterious bar heroes, drinks scattered along the bar for anyone who wants them.

It’s past 1 a.m. when we enter El Carmen, a bar a couple of miles away, where Colicchio’s wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, has told him to come. She was right. There are cool pictures of Mexican wrestlers along the wall, an empty booth in the corner and music we don’t have yell over. “This is the kind of bar where you can sit for a while,” Colicchios says. “Anywhere you go, there’s this bar in town. We were in a town outside Barcelona, at a place called Bar Havana: a guy playing guitar, a woman working at the bar who was sexy as hell. And everyone who came into the bar loved to talk.” After Colicchio got to know the couple who owned the place, they invited him to watch Franco propaganda films in their screening room until five in the morning. “That couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had a conversation in the bar.” We order snifters of Tonala Reposado, a white-oak-aged tequila from a list Colicchio finds impressive. And we down cans of Tecate with the warm chips, chunky salsa and fresh guacamole set in front of us. Even Shook seems happy with the mellowness and the crowd, including the funky, bespectacled woman dancing with herself in front of us. “The women here aren’t as hot as at Bar Lubitsch, but that’s kind of nice,” he says. “After 12 hours of competing at work, it’s nice not to compete at a bar.” We stay until last call at two.

We head east, to the slightly seedier, tiny web of streets called Thai Town, where we pull into a strip mall and walk into Ruen Pair. It’s 2:30 in the morning. I have not eaten this late since college, but these guys are unfazed, ordering the raw beef, the duck’s-feet salad, the deep-fried pork fat and about 10 other dishes. “If you’ve been tasting all night in the kitchen, it’s like one big appetizer. You go out to eat or you go home and make eggs,” says Wise. Accarrino says this late-night fat feast is totally normal: “I eat like this every day. I don’t eat until I get home. This is how I keep my girlish figure. It’s the worst health regime in the world.” Shook says that usually he eats his first meal at 5 p.m. and his last one at 2 a.m. “I never eat anything until four in the afternoon,” adds Yoon. “Today I had Del Taco at four.” Colicchio says, “I have prescription heartburn stuff, Protonix. Without it, I couldn’t do this.”

But when the food arrives minutes later (“How did it come out so fast?” a shocked Colicchio asks), I eat it anyway, since it’s delicious—even the tender, rich, slightly slippery braised duck’s feet. I down most of the thick, wide noodles with pork cooked three ways. But unfortunately, Ruen Pair doesn’t serve beer, and we haven’t brought any. So our buzz is running out, and everyone starts to realize that it’s 3 a.m., time to be in bed. Which means that instead of heading down the street, as planned, to Jumbo’s Clown Room, a run-down, hipster pseudo–strip bar, we just kind of get quiet under the bright lights and decide to go home. But even though there were no strippers, I feel like I now know what it’s like to go out after work in L.A. with a bunch of chefs. And I know that I can’t handle it.

Joel Stein writes for the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine.

Published July 2008
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