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Pavarotti and Stein: Culinary Odyssey Starts in Italy

August 13, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Pavarotti and Stein is not the name of a novelty act shuttling between the Catskills and Hoboken, but an Italian/Jewish restaurant adjacent to the Blue Line in downtown Long Beach. I must admit to finding a dinner of gefilte fish and osso buco bizarrely irresistible, but that's not to say it is going to be everyone's cup of tea. (Make that everyone's glass of tea.)

The restaurant is owned by a courtly couple from Buenos Aires, of all places, Enrique and Cora Borensztein. If the Argentine connection seems to complicate this equation, not to worry. Argentina has large Italian and Jewish communities, and it is obvious that the Borenszteins know their way around both cuisines. (In fact, they were twice successful with this concept in their native country.)

You'll find the restaurant on the site of the former Collage, a converted gas station full of tiny rooms and obvious charms. The main dining room, gracefully designed in white and blue, is intimate and well suited to the Brazilian guitarists who perform soft jazz here on weekends. You can also sit in a brick-paved courtyard full of flowers, where the clang of the trolley cars outside makes for a romantic anachronism.

In the '80, hybrid cuisines such as Franco/Japanese and Chinese/Italian emerged, and one might expect Pavarotti and Stein to be doing something of the same kind. It is not. What we have here is basically an Italian restaurant where you can also get a few Jewish dishes, with some South American charm thrown in for good measure.

Prepare for this culinary odyssey with a few of the homemade breads. The best is the authentic challah, a bright yellow braided egg bread. It's a real kick to dip a slice in perfumed olive oil, which you'll find in long-necked cruets on your table. (I'm not predicting a trend.) The bread basket also holds Italian bread and Parmesan cheese muffins.

That table opposite the guitarist mostly holds attractive Italian appetizers, and they definitely have their ups and downs. The potato and fava bean salad has a wonderfully creamy, herb-infused mayonnaise binding it all together, and the components have great contrasting textures.

Kalamata olives, caramelized sweet onions and good, vinegary marinated mushrooms are equally satisfying, straightforward fare light enough for heavier dishes to follow. But pass on soggy strips of grilled eggplant or on any of the oily fritturi, misbegotten fried vegetables served unappetizingly cold.

Now, don't giggle when you see gefilte fish and chopped liver under the heading "antipasti." These people are serious.

The gefilte fish is infinitely the better of the two, even if chef Cora Borensztein prepares hers more in the spirit of a fine fish terrine than the coarsely chopped spheroids of a traditional yiddishe grandmother. No matter. This is simply delicious food--dense, delicate balls of minced fish served with big, grayish cubes of aspic and a mound of freshly grated red horseradish.

I'm less sure about her chopped liver, where the same delicacy works firmly against type. This is finely chopped chicken liver all right, but this time the dish comes up bland. Only side dishes of chopped egg, daikon and fried onion give it any kind of fighting chance with your palate.

The pasta section is distinguished by a couple of Eastern European Jewish dishes--potato varenikes "Stein" and cheese kreplach "Stein"--although credible versions of linguine al pesto and tagliatelle with Parmesan and pecorino cheese are also worth a try. The varenikes are little Ukrainian pasta pillows filled with soft mashed potato and crisp bits of fried onion, and they practically melt in the mouth. Kreplach here means the dairy version of the time-honored meat-filled dumplings you find on menus from Hungary to China. The filling this time is a spiced cream cheese.

The entrees do their level best to stand against the starter courses, although a couple of them fail. Osso buco is a fairly classic version, a tender, slightly overcooked veal shank in a rich, grainy tomato-based sauce. I also fancy one called pollo alla moda da meo pataca, a half chicken sauteed with minced red chile and garlic that is served with round-cut garlic-fried potatoes.

But some dishes need to be improved drastically. Veal Milanesa is simply the Italian name for Wiener schnitzel, and this one is as dry and flat as a hot day in the pampas.

Roast brisket "Stein" should be an appealing dish, served as it is with good farfel (tiny dumplings made from matzo flour) flavored with homemade chicken liver. Too bad this meat is ribboned with gristle and fat. Any corner delicatessen can do better.

These flaws are almost redeemed by a couple of lush desserts.

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