If you look closely enough at a boa constrictor, you can see two small bumps where its hind legs used to be. Birds that can’t fly still have wings, and humans still have tailbones, even though it’s been a very long time since anything resembling a human had anything resembling a tail. These are vestigial structures - at one point they served a purpose, but now, they all just sort of exist.
It’s something we’ve thought a lot about after our recent dinners at Chinois On Main, Wolfgang Puck’s vestigial Santa Monica restaurant. Opened shortly after Spago in 1983, this place helped make the chef a celebrity - famous enough to appear as himself on The Simpsons. But now, all Chinois does is leave us with questions: Why does this place still exist? How do they get away with calling this Chinese food? And how in the world is the dining room fully-booked on a random Wednesday night?
Walking into Chinois, one thing is clear: This place has not been updated in decades. Or maybe ever. The space feels like it was decorated by raiding an Old Hollywood prop house’s “China” section. There’s bamboo paneling, crane and Buddha sculptures scattered throughout the dining room, and an entire wall filled with (fake) orchids. While Spago - which is also gaudy and excessive, like the rest of 1980s Beverly Hills - feels charming in its kitschiness, Chinois is the opposite. The restaurant feels at best extremely outdated, and at worst, kind of offensive.
And that carries through to the food. The menu includes items named Szechuan beef, Cantonese duck, and Shanghai lobster - but finding any connection to the cooking of those particular regions is a massive stretch. There’s also a dish that’s inexplicably called “Oriental Rice,” which is basically just brown rice with vegetables. It’s a good illustration of all of the food at Chinois: glaringly out of step with the times, and generally pretty bad.
Their namesake dish - and one that’s on every table - is the Chinois Chicken Salad. It tastes like it’s left over from the previous weekend. The cabbage is wilted, the fried wontons are soggy, and we were three-quarters of the way through it before we realized there was chicken in it. The Szechuan duck pancakes with mushrooms and corn have just a bit more flavor than cardboard. The sizzling calamari and rock shrimp is served at room temperature, and don’t get your hopes up for any additional kick from the saccharine chili sauce. After a while, the adjectives used to describe the dishes - “sizzling,” “spicy,” “crispy” - start to feel like jokes.
By the time the main courses arrive, the food feels less like a joke and more like a scam. The Szechuan beef is overcooked and dry, and no amount of bland sauce can help you chew it. That problematically-named rice dish doesn’t even compete with the frozen fried rice available at Trader Joe’s. Their Shanghai lobster is market-priced at around $60, drowned in a flavorless curry sauce and oily fried spinach, and is about as close to Shanghainese cuisine as the Guinness on tap at Jameson’s Pub across the street.
And yet, the dining room at Chinois is always packed. Maybe people are coming out of habit, or perhaps they’re nostalgic for a time when this was the buzziest restaurant in town. But times change, and things evolve for the better. We’re not walking around with tails anymore, because they were useless. Maybe Chinois can learn a lesson there.
You might be tricked into thinking this is a safe bet, since it’s on every table in this place - but we’re here to tell you otherwise. The cabbage is bitter and wilted, the crispy wontons are soggy, and the chicken is nonexistent.
This is the only thing we’d recommend here. The calamari and rock shrimp taste fresh, though we’re not sure where the “sizzling” part comes in - it’s lukewarm, with too-sweet chili sauce and less kick than a bell pepper.
Don’t let the “Szechuan” label fool you into thinking you’re about to get something spicy - it’s a trap. These are flavorless.
The lobster is good, because lobster is good. Unfortunately, the decent hunks of lobster meat are overpowered by the way-too-oily fried spinach and a curry sauce that tastes like straight heavy cream.
Hoping this will help get that oily spinach taste out of your mouth? It will not. The spicy shallot sauce is OK, but again, lacks any discernible spice, and the beef is cooked until there isn’t a hint of pink in it.