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RESTAURANT NOTEBOOK

St. Estephe Changes Its Menu And Appearance

September 20, 1987|COLMAN ANDREWS

You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind and you don't go to St. Estephe for tacos and enchiladas. At least you didn't used to.

The highly acclaimed Manhattan Beach establishment started out as a very good California-French sort of place and then evolved (with admirable timing, trend-wise) into a purveyor--some would say the purveyor--of "Modern Southwest Cuisine."

St. Estephe has made its reputation lately with inventive New Mexican-inspired contemporary cooking served in little jewel-like portions and arranged with lapidary precision. A heap of refried beans or a pool of dark brown enchilada sauce has never darkened a tablescape here.

But things are changing at St. Estephe. As recent visitors to the place are well aware, the restaurant is in the final stages of an ambitious remodeling program that will leave it with a newly designed Southwestern-style dining room, complete with a 200-year-old New Mexican antique front door, as well as a new patio and a new small bar (still beer and wine only for now).

More significant, and certainly more unexpected, though, is the inauguration of a new menu, to be served at lunchtime Monday through Friday and for dinner Sunday. Included thereon will be, yes, tacos and enchiladas in the traditional New Mexican style, as well as other old-fashioned dishes of that sort--even, says St. Estephe chef and co-owner John Sedlar, a combination plate. "I call it 'premodern Southwestern cuisine,' " he adds. "It's like what you would have found in New Mexico 20 years ago, but well-made."

He has been moved to begin presenting such a menu, Sedlar said, "because I think we have to re-evaluate some of what's going on today in the name of Southwestern food. I get a little distressed at some of the things I hear about. I mean, I certainly experiment and try to be creative myself but within the limits of what tastes good and makes sense. I just don't understand things like pinto bean ice cream or frogs' legs with margarita sauce, both of which are things I've heard people are serving lately."

Sedlar stresses that he will continue to present his usual contemporary Southwestern fare Monday through Saturday evenings--and he promises to offer a few of what he calls "St. Estephe classics," including chicken with jalapenos and salmon "Painted Desert," on Sunday evenings to satisfy customers who might arrive expecting that sort of food.

GET BLACK: Blackened fish and meat has practically disappeared from American tables in the past year or so. Am I daft? you ask. How can I make that statement, when every second restaurant in the country offers blackened something-or-other on their bill of fare? Easily. I didn't say the stuff had vanished from menus--just from tables. What I mean is this: In its original incarnation, as popularized by Paul Prudhomme at his K-Paul's restaurant in New Orleans, the dish consisted of redfish, coated in pungent Cajun-style spices and then seared in butter in a white-hot pan until a crisp black crust had been formed around the fish. The result was probably terrible for you, but as anyone who has ever had the dish properly prepared will certainly attest, it was absolutely delicious--the fish moist, the coating bold and satisfying.

Subsequently, Prudhomme and other chefs developed a method of achieving more or less the same effect by grilling the fish on a high flame instead of soaking it in all that butter--but it still came out black. The vast majority of so-called blackened items in non-Prudhomme restaurants today, though, aren't black at all. They're faintly beige or, at the most, a sort of cafe au lait . In any case, the effect is lost. The seal is broken and the crunch is non-existent. Whether in pan or on grill, blackened food has to be cooked hot, hot, hot. If you're using the traditional skillet method, in fact, you ought to be able to hear your dinner cooking from 30 feet away. And food that isn't blackened shouldn't bear that name.

NEXT STOP, WOLFGANG-LAND: A seafood restaurant in which guests would have the illusion of eating underwater; a diner with an Old Hollywood theme, complete with sound-stage decor; an indoor hotel dining room in which the ceiling would seem to be a perfectly three-dimensional nighttime sky; a steakhouse in a boat that appears to be teetering on the edge of a waterfall; a nightclub hosted by animated (and/or holographic) images of celebrities of the past. . . .

What is this? The Restaurant Row at the End of the Universe? Nope. It's all part of a proposed Walt Disney Co. hotel/shopping/restaurant/studio tour complex the studio hopes to build within the next three or four years on an unused 40-acre plot of land they own in Burbank. Johnny Carson's writers are reportedly already at work on their wisecracks.

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