IT WAS WHILE working as a medic in a prisoner-of-war hospital in Vietnam that Dale Payne, the young chef at Bistango, acquired his taste for fine French food.
But it was starving-student poverty--while studying photography with Ansel Adams and others in Monterey on the GI bill--that pushed him into cooking.
From then on, Payne abandoned photography in favor of flavor. He beat a steady path from one fine French--or near-French-- restaurant to another (Michael's and Spago in Los Angeles, with slight detours to Petaluma and Batons in New York) before landing, several years later, at Bistango on La Cienega Boulevard, a California version of a French bistro in Los Angeles.
Payne was born in Alaska but grew up "all over California." Now that he's back in Los Angeles, he thinks he's in the right place.
"Ultimately, though, wherever I am, my cooking will have a bistro flavor, because I like the celebration of food and life that a good French bistro personifies," Payne says.
But he goes for bistro spirit rather than the strict translation.
"I give my cooking a much more eclectic, personal touch rather than the straightforward bistro approach you find in France."
To escargot , a typical bistro menu item, he adds Pernod, fresh julienne of vegetables and puff paste.
He puts a twist on the bistro staple of duck rillettes by adding ginger and getting rid of most of the fat so that it is much lighter than rillettes prepared in a French kitchen.
However, Payne believes that wines of the region ultimately influence any food eaten. "Our California wines make us punch up our cooking flavors, giving them a lot of gusto and verve. Actually, California cuisine is a vigorous cuisine," Payne says.
At Bistango, Payne often will create a dish around a certain wine's character. "I did a smoked-fish terrine to complement a William Hill Chardonnay, which has a high acid base and a smoky characteristic. The smokiness of the fish segued into the wine so that it became almost fugue-like. I'm not Amadeus and don't pretend to dream up fugues when I cook, but there are certain things that do recur throughout a dinner that have fugue-like patterns."
It's punched-up flavors--those with verve and vigor characteristic of California wines--that bring out the bistro spirit in Payne's cooking, as the grilled turkey (or occasionally duck) breast made with shiitake and enoki mushrooms and balsamic vinegar will attest.
The dish is ideal summer fare that anyone can prepare on the outdoor grill or the indoor broiler. It's a simple dish with a simple presentation, which, as Payne puts it, "lets it be what it is, and nothing more."
The turkey is served with wonderfully crispy parsnip-and-carrot cakes--vegetables mixed with batter and fried like patties in a buttered pan. You can have the batter ready to fry the cakes at the last moment, or they may be fried ahead of time and re-crisped in the oven just before you serve them as a pillow for the turkey breast. The mushroom ragout is spooned over the breast, allowing the juices to spill onto the cakes.
Dale Payne's wine suggestion? "You know what would be great picnic fare with this dish? A 1984 Joseph Phelps Zinfandel. It's made in a Beaujolais style, so you'll want to chill it slightly. Or you can try a Bonny Doon Vin Gris," he says.
DALE PAYNE'S ROSEMARY-GRILLED TURKEY BREAST WITH MUSHROOMS
cup olive oil
1 tablespoon rosemary or 1 sprig rosemary
1 1/2- to 2-pound turkey breast
cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
cup reduced chicken or turkey stock
pound shiitake mushrooms
pound enoki mushrooms
Combine olive oil and rosemary in shallow pan. Add turkey breast and turn to coat well. Cover and marinate several hours. When ready to grill, place on grill over high heat and sear on both sides. Cover and cook with open vents, basting with the vinegar and honey until medium rare, or done as desired, from 20 to 30 minutes for a 1 1/2- to 2-pound turkey breast. If broiling, place on broiler rack 3 inches from heat source and broil until done as desired, turning once.
Remove turkey breast from heat and keep it warm. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in skillet. Add shiitake and enoki mushrooms and saute until they glisten. Add stock, salt, pepper and 2 teaspoons butter. Cook 1 minute longer or until butter melts.
Slice turkey breast on bias and overlap or fan out slices on platter over Parsnip-Carrot Cakes. Spoon mushroom ragout over breast. Makes 6 servings.
1 parsnip, peeled
1 carrot, peeled
12 finely julienned snow peas
1/8 of red onion, grated
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup half-and-half
Finely julienne parsnips and carrots and add to julienned snow peas. Combine onion, egg, flour, half-and-half, salt and pepper to taste. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in small non-stick skillet. Dredge parsnip-carrot mixture in batter and spoon about 3 tablespoons into pan. Cook, patting them down with plastic spatula as soon as batter has bound together. (It will take about 45 seconds in a hot pan). Flip over and cook 15 seconds on other side. Place on moistened towel until ready to serve. Makes 12 to 18 cakes.