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THE BLANC PAGE : At Tommy Harase's New Cafe, Now in Beverly Hills, the Flavors Fill the Tiny Room

July 10, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

The tiny cafe is not much bigger than a shoe box, its simple glass facade trimmed only by a bleached canvas awning with the name "Nouveau Cafe Blanc" stenciled in black. Quietly, very quietly, Tommy Harase has reopened Cafe Blanc, which closed in late 1991. His new 12-table restaurant is only a smidgen larger than the first, but this time it's in Beverly Hills instead of the old neighborhood near Beverly and Vermont. While other entrepreneur-chefs rush to open big restaurants with upscale fast food and theme-park pizazz, Harase keeps going his own sweet way.

It's a pleasure to sit down in the simple white room and let this young Japanese chef cook for you. His idiom is fresh, light French cooking, filtered through a stripped-down Japanese sensibility. Flavors are bright and unfussy, products carefully chosen and the prices almost too modest for this caliber of cooking. Customers who know him from the old place worry just a little. He could at least raise the corkage fee, a longtime fan fretted one night.

Muffled murmurings and stirrings come from the kitchen that is set at an angle to the room. A narrow band of glass frames a stack of plates, the top of the cook's head, a rack of wineglasses. Two paintings are hung side by side on one wall; on another, a flat white sculpture looks like a bubble bath trailing the tub stopper and chain, but who knows?

Lunch and dinner at Nouveau Cafe Blanc are different experiences. Open just three weekdays for lunch, the cafe features a short menu of salads, pastas and fish and poultry dishes. At dinner, the menu is prix fixe only. They're both delicious bargains.

At lunchtime, the place feels like a neighborhood cafe where customers might end up chatting with the person at the next table. "How was your Chinese chicken salad?" asks a sociable woman as she steadies her shopping bags on a chair. It's terrific--soft, wrinkly Napa cabbage tossed with nuggets of roasted chicken, curly endive and wisps of bitter greens. Fine threads of deep-fried potato give it some crunch; the creamy dressing is beautifully balanced and blissfully not too sweet.

Caesar salad "flower arrangement" looks gimmicky at first: tender inner leaves of romaine tucked upright into a short, hollowed-out length of baguette encircled with Parmesan shavings and ribbons of dressing. Tip it over, the ponytailed Japanese waitress advises, and then mix everything together, breaking the "crouton" with your knife. It works. The piquant dressing, livened with fresh garlic, is just enough to coat the leaves, with nothing left over.

There's also a refreshing grilled chicken in a ponzu sauce strewn with pine nuts, capers, fresh mint and basil, pasta in a subtle fresh tomato sauce or a special of northern halibut in an herb vinaigrette.

At dinner, Harase pulls out all the stops with a five-course prix fixe menu at either $29 or $38. Each course has at least two choices; occasionally he'll add an extra selection, like the buttery soft-shell crab I snatched up one night. As soon as you sit down, before you've ordered a thing, the waiter will bring out a "palate teaser" appetizer. One night it was a pure-tasting tartare of salmon and scallops served with perfect little toasts; on another, a tangle of enticing crab salad to savor while looking over the wine list.

It's a fine little list with very fair prices. A good match with first courses and fish dishes is a German Riesling, like the off-dry 1992 Kabinett from R. Weil in the Rheingau ($17.50). The 1992 California Pinot Noir from Au Bon Climat's Talley Vineyard ($21) is well suited to poultry and meat dishes. And once the wine is ordered, there are only a few more choices to make.

Jewels of marinated vegetables or the wild mushroom terrine of the day? That's easy. Take the marvelous slab of terrine, a complex composition of gray and tan, made with four kinds of mushrooms. Or splurge on the more expensive menu's sauteed foie gras with fine slices of ripe pear.

Smoked squab with orange burgundy sauce or steamed black mussels with shallot cream? That's difficult. The squab is tender, rare, with a seductive smoky edge that plays well against the sweet-tart sauce. But I just might lean more toward the bowl of small, delicately steamed mussels swimming in a delicious bath of mussel broth, cream and shallots.

Next, there's a salad of mixed baby greens with a few slender chives that, at first bite, seems to be missing its dressing. It's there, but just barely. Or you can opt for the rich lobster bisque with a shock of cool thick cream to one side.

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