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FOOD : Lobster Trick : Chinois Chef's Crustacean Magic

February 21, 1988|ROSE DOSTI | Rose Dosti is a Times staff writer.

If Los Angeles has a signature restaurant, it's Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, with its wonderfully spectacular food, a combination of Oriental, California and French nouvelle cuisines rolled into one. Kazuto Matsusaka is the gifted executive chef, under Wolfgang Puck, who helps design and cook the food at Chinois. After stints at the former Pear Garden and Horikawa as tepan chef, Matsusaka decided that he needed the excitement of a new cuisine and joined Michel Blanchet at L'Ermitage. "I have wonderful memories of that place. The place was so organized that it was a great pleasure to work there. It was under Blanchet I learned basic techniques," says Matsusaka, who is a native of Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu. In 1978 he joined the staff at Ma Maison, where he worked with Puck, whom he followed to Spago and on to Chinois. Matsusaka appreciates the freedom to venture into uncharted culinary terrain.

"You know, Wolfgang has more experience and more ideas than I do, so he gives me an idea and I cook," says Matsusaka.

He also designs. Sizzling catfish, for instance, comes to the table whole, looking like a Van Gogh painting instead of a meal. One look and you gain new respect for an otherwise lowly scavenger fish, which today comes to market from fish farms as well as from Mississippi arteries.

What you have is not a true representation of a traditional Chinese dish, but an interpretation. The traditional Chinese sauce for whole catfish, after several experiments, became the Japanese ponzu , made with soy sauce and sake. The fish is served whole on a gorgeous platter with sliced green onions and long strands of lemon grass and chives.

The lobster dish originally was to have had a Chinese-style black-bean sauce, but that, too, after an exchange of ideas with Puck, became something different. The curry powder was added in keeping with the Thai, not Chinese, tradition. Then, when Puck accidentally dropped some spinach leaves into hot oil and found the taste exciting, he said to Matsusaka, "Hey, Kazuto, this is very good. Let's use it with the lobster." And they did. The leaves make a spectacular garnish.

A good accompaniment for this dish would be some rice--or whatever your own imagination might conjure.

LOBSTER WITH SWEET GINGER 1 (1-inch) piece ginger root2 cloves garlic, minced 3/4 cup plum wine or port2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar2 tablespoons peanut oil1 (2-pound) lobster, split lengthwise2 tablespoons unsalted butter4 green onions, cut into 3/8-inch slices1 teaspoon curry powder cup dry white wine 1/2 cup unsalted fish stock 1/2 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegarSalt, pepper 1/2 cup whipping creamFried Baby Spinach Leaves Peel ginger root, reserving peels, and cut flesh into fine julienne strips. Cut peels into coarse julienne strips and set aside.

In small saucepan, cook ginger flesh and garlic in 1/2 cup plum wine and rice wine vinegar until 1 tablespoon of liquid remains. Remove from heat and reserve.

Place heavy, heat-proof 12-inch skillet over high heat until it is very hot. Add oil, and heat almost to smoking point.

Carefully add lobster halves, meat side down. Cook 3 minutes. Turn lobster over and add 1 tablespoon butter. Continue to saute until lobster shells become red and butter is nutty brown. Transfer lobster to oven and bake at 500 degrees 10 minutes, or until lobster is just cooked. Remove from oven. Remove lobster from skillet and keep warm.

Saute green onions, ginger peels and curry powder 10 to 15 seconds over high heat; then whisk in remaining plum wine, white wine, stock, pepper flakes and vinegar. Reduce liquid to 1/2 cup. Add cream and remaining 1 tablespoon butter until thickened and smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Crack lobster claws with back of large chef's knife. Arrange lobster halves on warm oval platter, meat side up. Strain sauce over lobster; then sprinkle sweet ginger on top. Garnish with Fried Baby Spinach Leaves.

Fried Baby Spinach Leaves Using 1 bunch baby spinach, wash largest spinach leaves, cut off stems and dry well. Heat peanut oil to 375 degrees and add spinach leaves. Fry until leaves are crisp and translucent, being careful to avoid splattering. Remove leaves to paper towels to drain. Salt lightly.

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