By Richard Foss
The last time hotels housed most fine dining establishments, patrons arrived by horse and buggy. In the 19th century restaurants were mainly for travelers rather than locals, and even after recreational dining became popular, the best eateries were still located where outsiders spent the night. The advent of the automobile and onset of Prohibition combined to change the way we ate, and stand-alone restaurants became ascendant.
Nowadays hotel restaurants have a reputation for offering meals that are unlikely to either offend or delight diners. It’s somewhat remarkable when one does anything bold, but it does happen. My most recent experience in which one bucked the trend was a visit to Paparazzi, an Italian restaurant inside the Sheraton Gateway near Los Angeles International Airport in Westchester.
My first clue that something unusual was going on was when the person who greeted us said, “You must try the scallop appetizer” in a conspiratorial tone. I thought, ‘who doesn’t like grilled scallops? That’s a safe bet.’ Then I got a look at the menu item – roasted scallops and cuttlefish in sweet and sour vegetable compote with baby squid.
Given most Americans’ reluctance to even try cuttlefish, this was not playing it safe. Despite the restaurant’s description of its offerings as “simple Italian food,” this dish and several other dishes sounded ornate – not always a good thing, since sometimes the result is a muddle. My wife ordered eggplant Parmesan, her benchmark dish, as a starter, and we sat back to see what happened.
The eggplant arrived in a small iron pan and was excellent, having a flavorful herbed tomato sauce with cheese that was true to traditional flavors. My scallops might have come from a different restaurant, or even a different universe; the presentation was modern and symmetrical – half moons of cuttlefish on either side of baby greens flanked by scallops and squid.
The flavors of the cuttlefish and squid were delightful and distinctive – all elements were in balance with the lightly sweet sauce with roasted bell peppers, olives and other vegetables. I had wondered if some of the ingredients were for show, but every item was perfectly integrated.
Our server, Lorena, was helpful with wine recommendations and brought a taste of one I wasn’t familiar with, an Italian wine from the Arneis grape. This suited my dish elegantly, as did my wife’s New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
After sipping wine and getting the last drop of sauce on our plates with bread, dinner arrived. My wife selected lobster over fresh squid ink pasta with puttanesca sauce, while I decided on an organic pork porterhouse brined with anise, then grilled and topped with apple balsamic reduction and served with gigante beans. (It was a tough decision – my wife wavered toward pan-seared seabass with blood orange vinaigrette, while I was almost persuaded to try short rib lasagna).
The lobster was simply cooked and arranged over the tagliolini in tangy tomato sauce for a very pretty presentation, and the flavor was just as impressive. The squid ink in the pasta gives it a subtle flavor of the sea that can be overwhelmed by spicy sauces, but that wasn’t a problem here – the puttanesca had just a touch of pepper rather than the burn of an arrabiatta sauce.
I was conflicted about the pork – it was very tender and the anise in the brine lent a hint of spiciness and licorice, but the apple balsamic reduction was a bit sweet for my tastes. I’d prefer it on the side so I could use it sparingly and focus on that perfectly tender pork flavor. This was more than made up for by the delicious gigante beans with olives in a zesty tomato-garlic sauce with rosemary. It’s a simple peasant dish that is a marvel when properly made, and it certainly was here.
Both portions were large enough that we took some home and were too full for dessert, preferring to sit over the last of our wines for a few moments (a Washington State Cabernet and a delicious Montepulciano). Around us we heard conversations in Italian, German and Japanese – most diners were evidently staying at the hotel. Some locals evidently do dine here, as I saw a couple welcomed with the warmth given to regulars, but this place deserves to be better known.
It’s pricey – our meals ran around $90, with the wines another $40, but the quality of the experience was remarkable. The hotel location may keep it off of some people’s radar out of sheer snobbery, but that means the rest of us will be able to get a reservation when we feel like a great night out.
Paparazzi is on the ground floor of the Sheraton Gateway hotel at 6101 W. Century Blvd. in Westchester. Open for dinner only daily, except Sunday. Valet parking, full bar, wheelchair access good. 310-642-4820.