March 2010

Memories Taste Like This

Eateries may come and go, but Chasen’s and its signature dishes live on in more than just our imagination
by LORA ZARUBIN

Chasen’s was more than a restaurant: It was a Los Angeles institution. The culinary bonhomie former vaudeville comedian Dave Chasen cultivated for his eponymous eatery was born of hard work, attention to detail and optimism. When New Yorker editor Harold Ross told him 97 percent of those who start restaurants go bankrupt, Chasen went dead serious: “I know it, Harold. But 3 percent don’t.”

Chasen’s belief in exception went a long way. Launched in 1936 in a bean field at Doheny Drive and Beverly Boulevard, Chasen’s Southern Pit (later known just as Chasen’s) would remain for nearly 60 years. But despite being one of Hollywood’s greatest and most glamorous restaurants, Chasen’s eventually bowed to changing times and closed its doors. Unlike fellow golden-age eateries like Perino’s and Scandia, however, its patrons would not let it go.

Of course, it isn’t only the food that gives a restaurant lasting power—it’s the service. It was people like Orhan Arli who knew to always serve Howard Hughes his customary tomato juice and Orson Welles a double order of anything he ordered.

A native of Turkey, Arli studied hotel management in Switzerland. He was the youngest tableside chef at the Istanbul Hilton. But in 1975, bigger dreams brought him to Los Angeles. Married with one child, Arli applied for a job at the Beverly Hilton. When they offered him $7 an hour, he knew he’d have to do better.

A friend helped him get an interview with Chasen’s manager Ronnie Clint, and Arli was hired for private parties and catering. Eventually, he became full-time banquet manager—and another Los Angeles dream was made good.

When Chasen’s closed in April 1995, Arli began receiving calls to see if he was available for catering. With more than two decades under his belt at Chasen’s, Arli knew a thing or two about the restaurant’s most renowned dishes—and his own company, Arli’s Exclusive Catering, was born.

As I sat down for lunch with Arli and his chef, Bernard Klerlein, we discussed Chasen’s legacy and sampled some of the restaurant’s memorable dishes. Klerlein, who worked at Chasen’s 14 years, wistfully recalled the day the place was shuttered. “Nobody believed it was closing.”

Though Chasen’s was known for many types of dishes, Arli explained the typical order of a Chasen’s regular. Most started with chilled seafood, a towering pyramid of ice studded with chunks of lobster, Dungeness crab and jumbo shrimp. They followed that with a bowl of Chasen’s chili and its side of onions and cheddar. Then came the signature hobo steak, finished à la minute at the table, with ample butter, over very high heat.

For dessert, most ordered the coconut-encrusted Coupe Snowball—President Reagan’s favorite—or the banana shortcake. Other iconic dishes were Maude’s salad (named after Maude Chasen, David’s wife), chicken potpie, boiled beef Belmont, sole Hitchcock, carrot soufflé, pommes soufflé, cheese toast and deviled beef bones.

For our luncheon, we started with Maude’s salad: three kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, eggs, chives and Roquefort dressing. Then came the fabulous sole Hitchcock, a breaded piece of fish named for the legendary director. Arli’s recipe calls for buttermilk, Parmesan, cracked saltines, tomatoes and Chasen’s dugléré—a light hollandaise.

The carrot soufflé was very good as well, if a bit sweet for me. It took me back in time to a style of cooking you just don’t see anymore—when things were liberally doused in butter or cream. Surely a contrast to today’s skinless chicken Cobbs.

Arli then served the pommes soufflé—the only other place I’ve had it is at La Tour d’Argent in Paris. Pommes soufflé is hard to find because it requires potatoes to be sliced perfectly thin and fried twice in hot oil so the slices puff into pillows. Another delightful old-school dish.

For dessert, Arli served the Coupe Snowball—a scoop of vanilla ice cream, sprinkled with shredded coconut and drizzled with chocolate sauce. While tasting it, I could imagine making a modern version with ice cream from my favorite ice cream shop, Scoops, on Heliotrope.

During his years at Chasen’s, Arli became friendly with the regulars because many of them threw their parties at the restaurant. At its peak, Chasen’s served 300 dinners an evening—with banquets a huge part of their business. Of course, the dining luminaries were endless. Just a few of the boldest of boldfaced frequenters: Lew Wasserman, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Reagan, Aaron Spelling, Johnny and Joanne Carson, Frank Mancuso, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. Arli knew their likes and dislikes to a T. While everyone had their favorite dishes, Arli always knew he’d better have the deviled beef bones at hand, or there’d be hell to pay.

I asked Klerlein about the dish, and he explained how the deviled beef bones originated from the leftover bones of the restaurant’s vaunted prime rib and that they were served as an occasional special on the menu. These bones were robust—brushed with mustard, dipped in a Parmesan-and-breadcrumb mixture and then baked. “We couldn’t keep up with the demand, they were so popular.” Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to sample the dish on this visit, but a girl can dream.

Arli’s Exclusive Catering is alive and well—he has even branched out into the frozen food business with Arli’s Signature Gourmet Foods, featuring several of Chasen’s recipes (sold at Vicente Foods in Brentwood). He still caters to many of Chasen’s former regulars—some of whom have even made him sign a letter of confidentiality to protect their privacy. And there are still requests for specific dishes, like the carrot soufflé or seafood on ice. But the most popular of all the old standbys is the chili, hands down.

Arli runs his business more like a movable restaurant, with a Wolf range on wheels and portable fryers and tables. He is meticulous about everything he does, and his whole business exudes an old-school charm that is quickly fading in L.A.

Sure, there are still some Chasen’s contemporaries around, such as Dan Tana’s and Musso & Frank Grill. They’re busy not because diners can get grass-fed beef or a little gem salad but because people come in search of an authentic experience.

There’s no bigger flattery than imitation, when restaurants like the Waverly Inn in New York pay homage with their own version of a salt-encrusted steak that’s very similar to the hobo steak. And really, how often does New York copy L.A.? Though restaurants have changed in Los Angeles since Chasen’s heyday, it’s reassuring to know the old guard is still up and running.