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KAZUTO KNOWS FOOD : Former Chinois Chef Kazuto Matsusaka Finally Decided He Had Other Fish to Fry

July 25, 1993|Ruth Reichl

August, 1983: Wolfgang Puck and Richard Krause are downtown, poking around a seafood market, looking for fish to serve in the restaurant Puck is about to open in Santa Monica. The two talk about catfish and ginger and black beans. They look at some swordfish. ("If they grew those the right size," Puck says with a sigh, "we could serve them whole.") And then they spot a beautiful silvery little fish that is unfamiliar. "Kazuto will know what it is," says Krause, who will be head chef at Chinois on Main when it opens. "Let's buy it."

When Krause shows up with the fish, his sous chef Kazuto Matsusaka nods knowingly. Matsusaka picks up a knife and, with swift, sure strokes, filets the flesh. "Kazuto," says Krause reverently, "knows everything about fish."

November, 1985: Chinois is a big hit, but Krause has gone to New York to open a restaurant and Matsusaka is head chef. Matsusaka, who came from Japan to work at L'Ermitage and Ma Maison ("and Michael's for a little while, but I didn't like it"), looks incredibly elegant in the restaurant's open kitchen. Customers love to sit at the counter, watching as he wields his knife with the ease of a sushi master. More important, the food at Chinois finally starts to come into focus.

October, 1989: Chinois is going strong and people are asking, "When is Kazuto going to open his own restaurant?"

October, 1990: "I really need to talk to Wolfgang," Matsusaka is starting to say. "I think it may be time to think about opening my own restaurant."

May 31, 1993: Kazuto Matsusaka, 41, opens his own restaurant.

He names it Zenzero, which is Italian for ginger, but the originally planned Asian-Italian mix doesn't work out. Kazuto drops the idea but keeps the name. And he locates his restaurant only a mile from Chinois on Main, on the site of what was once Fennel. And it is, almost instantly, the restaurant where everybody who is anybody in Los Angeles is eager to be seen.

"I don't take reservations at 7:30 or 8," says the woman who answers the phone. She sounds, almost from the first, harassed and irritable. Then, as if catching herself, she adds, "It's a very small restaurant; you'll see when you come in." It is, almost, an apology.

Even though this restaurant is bigger than Fennel (Matsusaka has broken through the wall into what was once a Peugeot dealership), it is still quite small. People now stand where the cars once did, nursing drinks and waiting hopefully for tables. The restaurant itself is beyond a wall made of beautifully cracked glass; another wall of glass sets off the patio. The effect of all this glass is to give the restaurant an ephemeral feeling; it seems as if it might all blow away were the wind to change.

The room is so light, so airy, so uncluttered that Matsusaka must be making a statement. Chinois is dark and busy, filled with statues and flowers and colors and stuff. Whatever Zenzero is, it is certainly not Chinois.

And yet, the restaurant has its own pretensions. "Have you eaten our food?" your server will query, no matter how many times you've been here before. Should even one person at the table answer in the negative, you're in for a lecture. This changes with each server, but in essence goes something like this: "Kazuto is the chef here. He is a famous chef, and he has his own idea about service. He wants you to forget your old ways of eating and to experience something new. Dishes will be brought out one by one and the food will be put in the middle of the table so everybody can experience the joy of tasting each dish."

In layman's words, food is served family-style. In the chef's words (actually, in the words of Wolfgang Puck just before he opened Chinois): "It is so much easier than in a Continental restaurant, where you have to wait for everybody's order to come out before serving."

The food, like the room, will invariably be compared to Chinois. And, like the room, it is less flashy, less daring and less endearing. Zenzero's food is cleaner, more severe, less rich--more Japanese than the food at Chinois. Matsusaka is at his best when the food is pared down. His fish tartare is a terrific dish--wonderfully rich tuna chopped and mixed with bits of shiso, some wasabi, some soy--served on rounds of cucumber. It relies on the quality of the fish.

There is a salad made of fried calamari, reminiscent of one once served at Chinois. What you notice here is the lightness of the frying, the crunch of squid rings against the crisp of slivered vegetables. This is a salad informed by the best tempura, and it is wonderful.

Vodka-cured salmon, which owes very little to Japan, is equally wonderful, the salmon served with a warm potato salad and studded with fresh pearls of salmon roe. And a salad of sauteed mushrooms and watercress is infused with the fresh intensity of the mushrooms.

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