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A Bit Of Chinois On West 53rd

October 11, 1987|RUTH REICHL

NEW YORK — China Grill, 60 West 53rd St., New York City. Open for dinner daily (lunch after Nov. 1). Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, about $70.

The look in this city's newest restaurant is pure N.Y. The taste, however, is decidedly L.A.

The space inside New York's elegant "Black Rock" (home of CBS), soars upward towards great banks of hand-made lamps which hover just beneath the ceiling like clouds that have somehow been pulled indoors. The walls, hand-painted in many layers, shimmer with dark and subtle colors. The floors, sanded to a bare paleness, have inscrutable messages inlaid in straight lines which shoot through the space like arrows. Look carefully and you discover that they are words from the notebooks of Marco Polo, and they lead you through the long restaurant on your own voyage of exploration.

The room is large, and at first it looks quite plain. This is deceptive, for there is much to be discovered here. Don't miss the restrooms, each done by a different artist. Notice the glass-enclosed spiral staircase. And take a look at the bar. But when you get the menu (another little work of art), you make a discovery of quite a different sort: you have seen this food before. Much of it is straight from Santa Monica's Chinois on Main.

So, for that matter, are many of the faces. Manager and part-owner Kenji Seki, the explosively energetic former maitre d' of Chinois (and a person who makes the most ordinary occasion seem like an all-out party) is getting by with a little help from his friends: cooks Makoto Tanaka and Hajime Kaki, hostess Nancy Robinson--even a few of the waiters have moved east and joined him at the restaurant. The setting may be different, but it all feels very familiar.

So how's the food? The restaurant has barely been open two weeks (and they purposely have not announced the opening so that they could start slowly). But I was there on their third night, and if that is any indication, New York has a treat in store.

To begin there was the sauteed foie gras on slices of pineapple that has become one of the signature dishes at Chinois. It was as surprising and delicious as it always is. Sushi tempura is another Chinois invention. Here the bluefin tuna was rolled in sheets of seaweed, battered and barely fried so that the outside was crisp but the fish still raw; it was served in pinwheel slices in an unctuous sea urchin sauce. Crispy calamari salad came in a lime and sesame dressing, the flavors crackling and snapping together in a pleasing manner. The only appetizer that didn't thrill me was quail with fried noodle pancakes in a raspberry vinegar sauce that was, to my taste, slightly cloying.

Among the main courses there were both familiar and original dishes. In addition to the lobster in a coconut Thai curry sauce served with crispy leaves of lightly fried spinach (one of my favorite Chinois dishes), we had black-and-red fish, a slightly Frenchified version of the Cajun classic in a rich sauce laden with cream. Lamb chops were tender and flavorful in a mint sauce that recalled Thailand more than England. And the China Grill version of Sichuan beef brought a whole steak, thickly sliced and topped with a spicy sauce filled with herbs.

"We started conservatively," said Seki, "but we have many new dishes that we are working on." Casually he starts dropping names like Peking duck fajitas. But while some of the main courses may seem familiar, desserts are a definite departure. The pastry chef is Andy Rolleri, formerly of Los Angeles' Seventh Street Bistro. His sweets are fresh, original, and absolutely wonderful. A vanilla souffle came with blueberries and tarragon, a brilliant match. Cream cheese mousse wrapped in a tuille came surrounded by the purees of five different fruits, each set separately and glistening like jewels. Rolleri has adopted my favorite Japanese dessert, coffee jelly, a sort of Jell-O made of espresso served with cream. And there is a fabulous fan made out of chocolate that no chocolate lover will be able to resist.

"You know," says Seki, hastening to add that he and Wolfgang Puck are still friends, "we really didn't intend the restaurant to be a clone of Chinois. At first it was going to be a fish restaurant. But then the planning stages took so long that Le Bernardin had opened down the street. And by the time we were really ready to start many of my friends from Los Angeles had decided that they wanted to come to New York. It was a coincidence, but I was glad to have them work here." He laughs delightedly.

Many people in New York, I expect, will be equally delighted.

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