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Fenix Restaurant, Chef Ken Frank, and
the Historic Argyle Hotel

by Nick Anis

In 1976, at the ripe old age of 21, Ken Frank made quite a name for himself at the La Guillotine on Sunset Boulevard in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, as a grand master of French-California cuisine. Chief Ken Frank - Click to Enlarge At 41, the gangly Frank still has an innocent, almost boyish look about him. He is much thinner and younger looking than one might expect of a superstar chef risen to the rank of Executive Chef for a worldwide restaurant syndicate, the Lancaster Hotels and Resort Group.

Frank was born and raised in Southern California. He left for France at age 16 with his parents and fell in love with French cuisine. When his parents returned, Frank stayed behind and apprenticed there. Two trips and two years later, with a considerable amount of scullery duty behind him and a keen understanding of culinary arts, he returned to California as an already quite accomplished chef.

By most accounts his subsequent rapid rise to culinary stardom – he achieved international recognition by age 21 – did not change his good nature. Twenty years later he remains polite, modest, and dedicated to his trade. This culinary artist is also known for his charity work, including supporting Love Is Feeding Everyone (LIFE), along with Dennis Weaver; Share Our Strength (SOS), Project Angel and several others.

Frank credits his inclination toward community service to an experience he had at 23, when, having bought the highly successful La Guillotine and renamed it La Toque, he was unexpectedly beset by fire, illness and, at the end, bankruptcy. Frank describes that low point in his life as a humbling experience.

Whatever the catalyst may have been, Ken Frank is quite a guy, and a magnificently accomplished chef.

Frank now works his magic at the Fenix (pronounced like that big desert metropolis in Arizona, Phoenix), most days of the week, excepting only the few days a month he sets aside to visit the other restaurants he oversees as Corporate Executive Chef for the Lancaster Group.

The Fenix, is actually part of the spectacular Argyle Hotel, one of the Lancaster Group’s star properties. Argyle Hotel, which is located in West Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard two blocks East of La Cienaga, was built in 1927. The property, formerly the Sunset Tower and St. James Club, was once frequented by the likes of Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, and Marilyn Monroe.

It has earned its status as an historic landmark. A $40 million restoration that began in 1989, plus continuing care by a full-time, resident craftsman, have given the hotel some of the most stunning art deco decor anywhere on the planet.

Exterior, Argyle Hotel and Fenix Restaurant - Click to Enlarge Fenix Dining Room, Business Lunches - Click to Enlarge Fenix, Patio Dining - Click to Enlarge   The Fenix restaurant, connected directly to the Argyle hotel building, is every bit as stunning. During the day, four rows of skylights delicately brighten the uncluttered dining room and the lounge with warm inviting sunlight. The dining room and patio are on different levels. The patio with its poolside dining area overlooks one of the best views in Southern California. On clear days you can see the LA skyline, with the sun reflecting off windshields as motorists wend their way through Los Angeles; the panorama extends all the way to the mountains, the airport, and the Pacific Ocean. At night, the city's glittering lights below offer a sweeping vista for truly romantic dining.

The Fenix seats about 120, depending upon the mixes of deuces and sixes. Lunch is served 11:30 to 2:00 six days a week. The lunch crowd consists mostly of business people eating light and relatively quickly – 1.5 to 2 hours for a full meal. Dinners also are served six days a week, with reservations available from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. Dinner patrons tend to stay anywhere from 2 hours to all night – an arrangement the management clearly doesn’t mind. An average meal is about $125 for two people, including wine.

The Fenix is the kind of restaurant to savor, not just visit. Frank points out that regulars often call ahead for assistance in menu planning and wine recommendations. Frank remarked: "It's the best way to come here, actually."

The full-sized black enamel tables are complemented by conformable upholstered armchairs and fresh floral arrangements, often tulips in art-deco vases. Place settings consist of fine silver, crystal, linen, and Venice china, by Mikasa. The china’s simple, elegant Venice pattern of delicate black and gray detailing with an eggshell colored center greatly enhances the presentation of the food. It is the type of subtle touch you will find throughout this restaurant. If you have sometimes found art deco to be mostly just garish, you will be in for a surprise and a fine visual treat at the Fenix.

Tahitian Ice Cream  a la Frank - Click to Enlarge Frank uses an assortment of other china for specific dishes like the scrumptious desserts. All pastries and other desserts, including crème faiche and Tahitian ice cream, are made on the premises.

If you’re a traveler trying to decide where to stay, take note that the Fenix also does all cooking for the Argyle's room service – it even provides the treats left on the pillows for evening turndowns. Guests of the Argyle also have the privilege of being served Fenix meals on Sundays – something mere mortals like envious food writers must do without.

The Fenix is one of the few eateries on this continent where you can order an outstanding white wine, La Doucette from Pouilly sur Loire in the Loire Valley, by the glass ($9). It is similar to California’s Sauvignon Blanc but not quite as dry. It also is more floral, due to the cooler weather and to the regional soil of Pouilly sur Loire, which has higher gravel content than does the Napa Valley. (France does not allow blending of the additive Semillon that would also make it less dry.) La Doucette and La Fleur De Gay - Click to Enlarge If you prefer an outstanding red "food wine," as I do, and have the budget for it, one of the Fenix’s best offerings is a full-bodied Bordeaux. A model of balance and distinct in body, the 1990 La Fleur De Gay wine from a small (1,500 cases a year, 40 acres) winery in the Pomerol District, owned by the elderly Marie Robin. The Bordeaux is $180 a bottle, but worth every penny.

When at the Fenix you would do well to try something "French-Californian," dishes that fans of Ken Frank like to call "Frankly French." These include appetizers like seared foie gras on white asparagus and endive with Sauternes ($19.00), chestnut bisque with smoked duck ($8.50), soft-shell crabs with mushroom-garlic sauce ($12.50), and porcini crusted scallops with lobster crusted potatoes and saffron ($17.00) (see recipe, below). Notable entrées include Texas black antelope grilled with cabernet foie gras sauce ($32.00), rack of lamb roasted with whole grain mustard and garlic ($28.00), and Atlantic salmon broiled with zucchini scales on a cannelini bean ragout ($26.00).

We found the service to be very good. Unlike some upscale restaurants where you get ignored if your waiter isn’t available, it seems routine at the Fenix for waiters to cheerfully help keep watch over each other’s tables. Besides our helpful and friendly server, Jaime, we enjoyed visits from the Fenix’s very French, and charming, day manager, Guillaume Reynet, and another server, Ursula. Each of them was not only charming, but had an impressive depth of knowledge about the menu and the wine list. Very French Fenix Day Manager, Guillaume Reynet - Click to Enlarge Ursla - Click to Enlarge
On advice from Jaime, we sampled the Texas black antelope. It was remarkably good. Between the absence of any trace of gaminess and the positively delicious seared foie gras sauce (a red wine chalet sauce finished with foie gras instead of butter) we were left wondering if it was Antelope or filet mignon – which turned out to be our next course. Texas Black Antelope - Click to Enlarge
Filet Mignon When the filet mignon came, it was a rich cut of dry aged choice beef that was delicious but slightly overcooked; a subtle difference between slightly pink and slightly gray, probably due to this particular cut being a little thicker on one end than the other. Between the delicious sauce, the tender meat with light marbling, and our eagerness to compare the beef with the antelope, we devoured it just the same. But on this occasion the antelope was definitely the ticket.

One of the elements that turns these and other Fenix dishes into masterpieces is the sauces. Ken Frank is not only a gifted chef, he’s a renown saucier who makes delicious fine sauces. Laments Frank, who makes all his sauces the traditional way with butter, wine, stock and herbs, and simmers them into a magical glazed blend of color and flavor: "Unfortunately, sauce is becoming a lost art."

Eureka! Mr. Frank, I have found it. It’s at the Fenix.

Dessert was much more of a contest. My companion had the most popular dessert in the house, Frank’s trademark chocolate Concorde cake, layers of chocolate meringue and chocolate mouse – sinfully rich and deceptively light. Huge Chocolate Concorde Cake - Click to Enlarge I opted for the heavenly cherry tart with crème fraice ice cream made with a brown butter filling instead of the traditional pastry cream. Heavenly Cherry Tart with Crème Fraice Ice Cream - Click to Enlarge

In addition to making extraordinary deserts, entrées, and sauces, Frank also has a flair for blending a variety of luxury ingredients like foie gras, lobster, caviar, and truffles, into signature dishes and sauces that delight and astound the palate. He has gained wide recognition for his highly original French-Japanese blended creations and for his always-elegant presentations. Frank has mastered the delicate balance between presentation and flavor. Presentation is always important, of course, but far too many places use beautiful visual arrangements to mask a lackluster flavor or poor presentation. This simply does not happen at the Fenix.

According to Frank: "The trick is for it to always taste as good as it looks." It is a trick Chef Ken Frank has thoroughly mastered.

Fenix at The Argyle
8358 Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA
 
213-848-6677
  • Valet parking
  • Mon-Sat 11:30am – 2:00pm, 4:00pm to 10:00pm

Nick Anis is a computer and technology writer and the author of 24 books who also writes about travel, food & wine, entertainment, skiing and family recreation. He writes for Ziff-Davis, Microtimes, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Travel Watch, TravelGram, and Restaurant-Row. He is responsible for the Restaurant Row Ethnic Dining Guide, co-published by the Long Beach Press Telegram. Nick is a member of the Computer Press Association, The International Food Wine, and Travel Writers Association (IFW&TWA), and the North American Ski Journalists Assn. (NASJA).

Nick can be reached at NickAnis@travel-watch.com, Phone: 909-860-6914, Fax: 909-396-0014.

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Recipe

Porcini Crusted Scallops with Lobster Crushed Potatoes

Four medium sized portions

Ingredients:

Porcini Crusted Scallops with Lobster Crushed Potatoes
  • 12 large fresh sea scallops (unclipped 10-20's)
  • 3 tablespoons porcini powder
  • 2 baked russet potatoes
  • 3 tablespoons lobster butter (see recipe)
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • Saffron threads
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1 finely diced chalet
  • salt
  • white pepper
  • cooking oil

Garnish:

  • wild mushrooms sautéed with finely chopped garlic
  • chervil

To make the lobster butter:

  • Chop the head of a cooked lobster into small chunks with a cleaver.
  • Place in a small sauce pan and just cover with cold water.
  • Add 2 sticks unsalted butter and simmer all together until water has evaporated.
  • Carefully strain off the lobster butter.
  • Keep refrigerated until reedy to use. (keeps a long time, nice to have on hand!)

To make the saffron sauce:

  • Reduce the white wine, a few saffron threads and d diced shallots in a saucepan until almost dry.
  • Whisk in the stick of soft unsalted butter to make the sauce season with salt and fresh ground white pepper and keep warm until ready to serve.

To make the lobster crushed potatoes:

  • Slice the baked potatoes, open and scoop out the flesh with a fork.
  • Crush with the fork mixing in the lobster butter, If you add a little chopped lobster meat it's even better.
  • Verify seasoning and keep warm.

To sauté the scallops:

  • Pull off the small crescent shaped muscle from the side of the scallop, season with salt and pepper and dredge what will be the top side of the scallop in the porcini power.
  • Sauté in a hot pan with a little cooking oil, crusted side down until it is nicely seared.
  • Turn over and finish cooking on other side until done.

Presentation:

  • Make a ring of crushed potato in the center of each plate.
  • Top with scallops and pour saffron sauce around.
  • Garnish with some sautéed wild mushrooms and a spring of chervil.
  • Serve at once.
 

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