IF PICNICS HAVE BEEN anything less than a joy up to now, then let these menus inspire you. From three of the top chefs in town, they represent state-of-the-art alfresco dining. They are also masterpieces of concept and design, each with its stamp of style, whether the entree is a humble sandwich or a haughty salad. Equally important, they are practical enough for the amateur to adapt, modify and master.
The first menu is by Celestino Drago, of Celestino Ristorante in Beverly Hills and Cafe Panino at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It calls for panino , the wonderfully robust Italian sandwich sold as fast food throughout Italy and the specialty of MOCA's cafe. The sandwiches lend themselves to a multitude of bread and filling possibilities and are easy to pack and simple to eat. You can use Drago's recipe for one of the fillings (he uses a California-inspired combination of avocado, red pepper, bacon and goat cheese), or you can concoct your own, using any rolls or French bread and fillings. Some Italian delis and bakeries carry a line of panino- type sandwich rolls. In Italy there are almost as many types of panini as there are villages.
Drago selected Italian rice balls for his menu, because they are easy to eat by hand, and their crispy crusts and soft centers make them appealing picnic food. You might find a few Italian restaurants and delis willing to sell them to go, but any crispy food, such as deep-fried fresh rigatoni sprinkled with grated cheese or other fresh (not dry) pasta, will do.
Strawberries, a perfect picnic fruit, can be pre-dipped in chocolate and carried to a picnic in an ice chest, or you can let guests dip their own at the site.
Madeleines (small molded cakes) can be substituted, as can other favorite cookies. If there are children in the group, Drago suggests trying health-food cookies that are extra-rich in nuts, raisins and grains
Tommy Tang, another top Los Angeles chef, prepared a Thai menu typical of his innovative touch. There is an easy-to-tote pasta--a variation on the cold Italian pasta salad theme, using chicken breasts and spinach linguine tossed with a sweet-and-sour sauce.
Crispy, stuffed chicken wings make wonderful munching food at picnics, and they can be found for take-out at most Thai restaurants. If it's too difficult to make them at home, substitute a simple recipe for shrimp toast. You'll enjoy the crisp, cool arugula doused with Rosemary-Honey Vinaigrette as an accompaniment to the pasta. If arugula is difficult to find, substitute any of the lettuces. Tang also chose strawberries for his picnic dessert. Refreshing and appropriate.
The last menu is an ultra-elegant French picnic by one of the great French chefs in Los Angeles, Laurent Quenioux of the Seventh Street Bistro. He selected a menu based on his to-go, home-delivered picnics launched this year in time for the Hollywood Bowl season. Of course, you can pick up the telephone and call in your selections from several to-go menus offered, but those who wish to can prepare some of the less complex dishes (featured here) at home.
There is a lovely lobster salad that is gorgeous and delicious. A Cold Poached Salmon With Herb Dressing is simple to prepare. Instead of the lobster salad, you might want to serve marinated breast of chicken with ga z pacho- type vegetables.
It's safe to carry chocolate mousse over ice if it's served within two hours. If not, bring a less perishable dessert: torte, fruit tart or chocolate cake.
CELESTINO DRAGO'S CALIFORNIA PANINO 12 ounces sliced, cooked breast of turkey 4 michete (Italian sandwich rolls), split 4 medallions goat cheese, rolled in coarsely ground black pepper 4 tablespoons finely diced sweet red pepper 4 tablespoons crumbled crisp bacon 1 avocado, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced Layer turkey slices on 4 split roll halves. Cover third of surface of each turkey layer with quarter of avocado slices; another third with 1 tablespoon diced pepper, and last third with tablespoon crumbled bacon. Top center of each sandwich filling with goat-cheese medallion. Cover with remaining roll halves. Makes 4 sandwiches.
TOMMY TANG'S THAI PASTA 1 7- to 9-ounce boneless chicken breast 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 pound fresh spinach linguine Thai Sauce 3 tablespoons diced sweet red pepper 3 tablespoon small diced tomato 1 carrot, cut julienne (2 inches long, 1/8-inch wide) 1/2 teaspoon ground dried oregano 8 to 10 sprigs cilantro Bake unseasoned chicken at 375 degrees 15 minutes or until just tender but not overcooked. Or steam, or cook in water to barely cover over high heat 15 minutes. Drain, shred and set aside.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to enough water to cook pasta. Bring to boil. Add pasta and boil 2 to 4 minutes or until linguine rises to surface. It should be al dente . Drain and rinse in cold water. Set aside to cool.