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FOOD & WINE : California Food--Via London : Salty Stilton, Sweet Pears and Peppery Watercress Enhance a Winter Salad

February 17, 1991|COLMAN ANDREWS | Colman Andrews is the author of "Catalan Cuisine" (Atheneum).

SALLY CLARKE OF the popular Clarke's on Kensington Church Street is one of the most talked-about young chef-restaurateurs in London today. And when people talk about her, one of the things they say is that she introduced the city to California cuisine. There is good reason for this: When she lived in Los Angeles in the late '70s, she worked at Michael's in Santa Monica and at the West Beach Cafe in Venice. It was also during that period that she first visited Chez Panisse in Berkeley. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "I'd always had a fantasy about a restaurant where there would be just one set menu every night. It would be like cooking for my family--and that's just what Chez Panisse was doing."

That's also what she now does at Clarke's, although her cuisine can no longer be called California. Just as the cooking of the best California chefs has evolved beyond the early mesquite-and-goat-cheese days, so has Clarke's food found its own identity.

A case in point is Clarke's late-winter salad of pears, watercress, melted Stilton cheese and toasted pecans. "Our food is very seasonal," Clarke says, "and in February and March, there aren't a lot of different salad greens to choose from in England. But watercress is good just now, and it has a peppery character that offsets the sweetness of the pears and the saltiness of the cheese quite nicely. I like to toast the cheese because I think salads should have something at least slightly warm about them this time of year."

SALAD OF WATERCRESS WITH PEARS AND GRILLED STILTON

2 bunches of watercress, well washed and dried, stems removed

3 ounces pecans, lightly toasted in oven and roughly chopped

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Walnut oil

2 large medium-ripe pears, cored and cut lengthwise into 8-12 slices

4 slices sourdough bread, each about 4 inches square

Extra-virgin olive oil

6 ounces Stilton or other good-quality firm blue cheese, thinly sliced

Preheat broiler. Toss watercress and pecans in salad bowl with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle lightly with walnut oil. Add pear slices, toss gently again, then divide salad equally among 4 plates.

Brush sourdough slices lightly with olive oil; toast in broiler until bread starts to brown. Turn bread over, place Stilton slices on uncooked side and broil until warm but not browned or completely melted.

Cut each piece of toast in half diagonally; arrange on one side of salad. Serve immediately. Makes four servings.

Food styling, props and painted plate: Darren Ransdell/Zenobia; antique mirrors: Tracey & Company, Melrose Avenue.

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