Finally, Chinois.

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris April 01, 2023 10:35 in Dining Diary

There was a very short list of restaurants I really wanted to visit on this last trip to California. As mentioned, we still haven’t made it to Dan Tana’s but were thrilled with the Smokehouse in Burbank instead. The other one was Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, an early Wolfgang Puck favorite.

I’m almost never in Santa Monica. I hate it. But my curiosity had gotten the best of me. I was warned about parking, which was no surprise, but that part turned out to be the most interesting element of this adventure. 

We arrived to see that not only was the front of the restaurant a drop-off-only spot, but the restaurant’s valet was even down the street. This required a walk too, so absolutely the only way to get Tom right to the door was for me to drop him off and pick him up. I did this, and the very hospitable host told me he’d look out for him while I parked. Bella, Wolfgang’s business partner and part-owner of Chinois affirmed that and told me about public parking across the street as she asked us where to seat Tom. Instinctively I said by the window but the really good seating here is closer to the open kitchen, which is where everything happens.

I nervously ran across the street to what was a small and full lot. A couple slowly meandered to their car and I was about to ask where they were parked as a hovered behind them when the woman turned to wave to a group of people calling to her. It was Gwyneth Paltrow. She was very gracious to the group of fans, but still meandered through the parking lot. I soon saw two other cars leaving and grabbed a spot. 

I went to the pay station and two people stood behind me as I exclaimed that an hour of parking in Santa Monica was $1.50!!! A male voice behind me said, “You want to pay more?” 

I didn’t turn around until I said,  “Well no, but you never pay less!” We all laughed and I turned around to see a young famous face, but I had no idea who it was. Jude explained fame to me once. There’s name recognition, and there is face recognition, but if you have both, that’s really famous.

No time for stalking stars, even inadvertently. I ran back across the street to get back to Tom. I hadn’t been in my seat two minutes before Adrian Grenier strolled past the window alone. So, forget the open-air vans into the hills of Bel Air. Friday night in Santa Monica is a place to almost literally collide with the stars.

Chinois on Main was a surprise in every way. It is unassuming from the outside, almost weird-looking. There is a private event space next door and I wound up in there by mistake. A door connects the two by the kitchen, and at one point in the evening people came in from there. One was dressed funny and I wasn’t sure if he was a homeless guy wandering off the street, or entertainment from the party next door.

The restaurant is a work of art. Tile murals are stunning. The bar is ornate and looks more Polynesian-Thai than Chinese, but I feel pretty sure it’s all authentic and my impressions are pure stereotype. But what Chinois seems to be more than anything else is a neighborhood restaurant. Regulars poured in all night and the staff knew them all.

The style of service is interesting. There is the waiter, and what they call expediters, who then serve you at the table. I've never known expediters to leave the kitchen for a table. These "expediters" were the sons of our son's nanny. I was delighted to meet them. Wonderful kids and I would have expected nothing less.

We ordered two types of pot stickers, one with chicken and the other with pork. We love dumplings, though I wish I had picked something different from the other appetizer choices. Each of these dumplings was different, the flavors were mainly determined by the sauce. The pork dumplings were not as spicy as the chicken, because the sauce was milder. I found the dumplings themselves a little too firm for my taste.

It was with these two appetizers that I noticed an unusually attentive service style. The expediters served each diner from the communal dish, in this case, placing one of both dumplings with the accompanying sauce on each of our plates.

I can never resist crispy duck in a Chinese restaurant, and I didn’t this time. It was a large portion of duck, beautifully presented, with the standard plum sauce as a lake underneath. We also ordered the crowd-favorite vegetable fried rice and some noodles.

When this was brought to the table it was nicely portioned out with some duck and a vegetable-wrapped pancake with some fried rice as a side. We liked this all very well but I certainly wasn’t dazzled as I expected to be. The duck was tender, and it was crispy outside, with a nice duck flavor, but the plum sauce was looser than I imagined. It had a fine fruity flavor, but again, those expectations!

The fried rice had far less of an Asian taste than I wanted. It was very nice, loaded with vegetables, but I expected more of the ethnic flavor I came for. The noodles had more of that and were sort of glazed with a dense Asian sauce.

Before we left for Chinois, we had a bite or two with the family at a local chain called Chin-Chin. The kids and I discovered Chin-Chin on Jude’s very first college scouting trip to L.A. and have liked it ever since. For the difference in price, a commensurate difference in goodness seems right. There wasn’t, though the difference in ambiance between these two is where the price differential comes in. There is no comparison. Chinois is quietly elegant, though very friendly. The other is chaotic chain.

As we sat at Chinois I had a terrible case of plate envy. An adjacent table got ribs which looked fantastic, and a re-read of the menu made me want to return. Spago is an all-time fave of mine, so Chinois deserves another look.

Besides, I have to get another hour of parking in Santa Monica for $1.50, and who knows who I might see while I am paying?