I've lived in the Los Angeles area on and off for several decades, so I remember when Chinois opened in 1983. It was nearly impossible to get a reservation, and everyone who was lucky enough to get a seat raved about the food. I have fond memories of the Shanghai lobster with curry sauce, and I know some people who worked with Wolfgang Puck and they were so grateful to be part of the food revolution he created in Los Angeles.
Sustaining quality for over 30 years is a Herculean task, but it should be noted that Hercules is a mythical man. As talented, smart, and good hearted as Wolfgang Puck is, he is human, and with such a global brand and so many operations, it is impossible to maintain excellence on all levels at all times.
On a recent visit to Chinois with two friends who also enjoyed the place in its heyday, we were sorely disappointed. With only two tables of three occupied during the entire lunch service, we thought that it was a bit odd, but we looked forward to having a semi private dining experience. We all had our favorites (still on the menu) so we split everything, starting with the famous Chinese chicken salad. A very generous portion, but it was surprisingly bland. There was no zing from rice wine vinegar nor any other flavor that stood out.
The catalyst for coming was one friend who craved the warm curried oysters with cucumber sauce and salmon pearls. Normally the portion is 4 but because there were 3 of us we opted for 2 more so we could each eat 2 apiece. The beautiful presentation was mouthwatering, but the oysters were lukewarm, barely crisp and as much as I like oysters, this was not tempting enough for me to eat more than one. Sadly the bed of plain watercress was my favorite part of this dish because at least it had a peppery flavor.
I chose the whole catfish with ginger and ponzu, looking forward to a skillful preparation. The large fish was deep fried for so long and on such a high heat that it was dry, and unfortunately the ponzu sauce could not save the flesh. At least it was crispy unlike the oysters.
I appreciated sharing nostalgic memories with friends, but sometimes it is better not to try to relive experiences. We will continue to eat at Puck's other restaurants, but we won't be returning to this one.
Service was professional and my friends made sure they knew it was a birthday celebration, so the meal ended on a sweet note as I made a wish :)