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The Mortons' Minimalist Style and Maximum Taste : A Brother-Sister Duo Understands and Believes in American Cooking

September 06, 1987|ROSE DOSTI | Rose Dosti is a Times staff writer.

PETER MORTON IS blessed with the uncanny ability to smell the air, size up the place and put his finger on the pulse.

He had it down pat at age 21, while passing through London from travels in the Middle East and North Africa. He discovered an "incredible market vacuum" aching to be filled. "I couldn't believe it. No American food anywhere," he says. So he put up some money, fetched a loan from a bank and for the next 10 years devoted his energies to an incongruous American-style roadside diner complete with jukebox, waitresses in starched white uniforms and good old American hamburgers, smack in the heart of London's posh Mayfair district. It was named the Hard Rock Cafe, and it opened with lines at the front door; it still has lines at the door.

Morton was one of the first to find the pulse of Los Angeles cuisine: Mortons was to be an inexpensive but simple American restaurant to counterbalance the growing rash of fine French restaurants during the late '70s. "I wanted to do something indigenous to Los Angeles--get my feet wet in an American market before opening Hard Rock," he said. He wanted something American, sensing, very early on, its great business potential. "Today I think people are beginning to consolidate into the American idea, after experimenting with other things. I understood and believed in American cooking 15 years ago and believe in it today and will tomorrow," he says.

Using a "minimalistic" business formula designed to maximize profits, he opened Mortons as an upscale grill when the grill concept was yet untapped and Melrose Avenue was a lonely stretch of shops. He used economical materials with flair and designed a menu that cut labor costs to the quick: a limited kitchen crew and no fancy executive chef. Pamela, Peter's twin sister, first joined the restaurant as an investor, then as manager. The Morton twins grew up in a three-generation family restaurant business (their parents owned Morton's on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive). Hard Rock Cafe arrived several years later as one of the first restaurants in the newly built Beverly Center complex, followed in the last three years with Hard Rock Cafes in Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, New Orleans, San Diego, Sydney and Rio--and still more to come. Now Morton is returning to London to introduce yet another American restaurant.

The Mortons' restaurant philosophy, based on the founding principles of simple, straightforward American food, remains very much intact. "We still believe in keeping it simple, clean and healthy," says Morton.

Like this salad.

MORTONS' SPICY TUNA SASHIMI SALAD 1/2 cup mayonnaise 1/2 bunch green onions, white part and some green, finely chopped 1 pound raw ahi tuna, sliced thin and chopped into small pieces 1/2 avocado, peeled and sliced 1/2 Maui onion, sliced thin daikon sprouts Rice Vinegar Dressing

Combine mayonnaise, smelt roe, soy sauce, chili oil and green onions in large bowl. Mix well. Add tuna and mix until tuna is coated with sauce. Do not overmix. Adjust seasoning to taste.

To serve, place about 3 to 4 ounces tuna mixture on each plate. Garnish with a few slices avocado, Maui onions and the sprouts. Drizzle with Rice Vinegar Dressing. Chill. Makes 6 servings.

Note: As Chinese chili oil is very hot, it is wise to add it gradually to attain a pleasing amount of spiciness. It and other Oriental ingredients are available in Oriental sections of supermarkets and specialty markets.

Rice Wine Vinegar Dressing 2 tablespoons rice vinegar cup oil 1 teaspoon sugar 2 tablespoons water Salt, pepper

Combine vinegar, oil, sugar, water and salt and pepper to taste. Shake well before using. Makes 1/2 cup.

STYLED BY STEPHANIE PUDDY / FLOWERS BY FLEURIE

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