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Style / Restaurants : Fusion Confusion

February 18, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Italian restaurants rule Los Angeles, but the next most popular cuisine among local restaurant-goers is a fusion of East and West, the kind of food served at Chinois on Main, Shiro, Nouveau Cafe Blanc, Yujean Kang's--and Zenzero in Santa Monica. Opened in 1993 by Kazuto Matsusaka, who was head chef at Wolfgang Puck's Chinois for years, Zenzero is now the showcase for Fred Iwasaki, formerly of minuscule Carrots in West L.A. Following in Matsusaka's footsteps, Iwasaki, his shiny bald pate framed in the window of the open kitchen, stations himself where Matsusaka used to stand, monitoring each plate as it goes out to the dining room. This is a much-loved restaurant, however, and expectations are high, perhaps too high.

Zenzero is a striking, airy space that mixes polished pale hardwoods, galvanized tin and art glass. Gorgeous handblown glass sconces look like the mottled eggs of some astral creature, softly glowing in the dark. Far hipper than anything else along this prime oceanfront strip, the restaurant gets its share of tourists, especially those from Japan, drawn by the eye-catching design. Adding to the aura is a parade of beautiful people in label-conscious black and the tiny wire-rim eyeglasses that make everyone look like an anguished Russian intellectual. When you arrive, in fact, the maitre d' is correct but not exactly welcoming. He seems too busy scanning the room for the people--and the labels--who really count.

Once you secure a table, someone will slip strips of warm focaccia into a cone-shaped glass, where they droop like faded tulips. And set down next to them a dipping sauce of olive oil infused with ginger and garlic, an Asian take on the ubiquitous pool of plain olive oil. After you order, the waiter will explain that plates here are meant to be shared family-style. The only problem is, the tables for four are quite small and you can end up constantly juggling plates, trying to make room for the next dish.

On my first visit, I ask if the chef can make a special menu for the table. His six-course feast begins with a seafood salad of cubed raw ahi tuna, shredded crab, tomato and, unfortunately, tired rock shrimp, tossed in a raspberry vinaigrette. Then comes a single oval crab cake, packed with moist, flavorful crabmeat, served with a single slice of scallop and a rather salty Port reduction scattered with shiitake mushrooms. A salad of baby greens is heaped with steaming shiitakes that wilt the greens with their hot juices. The best dish is striped bass seared in a sesame-seed crust, topped with a tumble of julienned cucumbers, sweet red peppers and sliced shiitakes in a sharp vinaigrette. Rib-eye steak, grilled rare and then sliced, is smothered in limp onions; its ginger-scented juices, a little flat.

For dessert, Iwasaki sends out an apple tart made with fat, juicy apples and a terrific caramel sauce. Unfortunately, a dark-chocolate shortcake strewn with berries is marred by terribly oversweetened mascarpone. With the exception of the greens, everything we are served turns out to be on the regular menu, only served on individual plates. On the whole, it's a workmanlike effort.

Still, when I return twice more and order from the menu, I don't fare even that well. I like the calamari salad of piping-hot morsels of tender wok-fried squid, mesclun and bright threads of carrot and red cabbage dressed in a rich miso vinaigrette. There are delicious, grilled marinated shrimp, heady with garlic, five fat crustaceans to an order, curled up on a feathery frisee and cucumber salad, coated in a pleasantly cool, creamy dressing. Both are all competently prepared dishes, but not terribly exciting.

Then come greasy nuggets of stir-fried "spicy" chicken with barely a wisp of hot pepper and a slew of condiments: small bowls of grated melon, grated carrot and fried peanuts tossed with sugar (a perfectly awful idea), along with an extremely sweet peanut sauce laced with coconut milk. The waiter instructs us to roll the chicken in the lettuce and radicchio leaves like tacos, but this appetizer is decidedly unappealing no matter how it's eaten.

Side dishes don't make a good showing either. Stir-fried eggplant is swimming in oil. And vegetable fried rice and a special duck fried rice on another night are as greasy and unappetizing as the fried rice that run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants used to serve in the '60s.

Platters of sizzling catfish look so festive sailing by our table that we order one, too. The one we get is so relentlessly crispy that it looks almost mummified, and ringed with frisee that's beginning to brown at the edges. When the waiter serves us each a bit of dried-out fish, spooning over a little of the salty seaweed-soy broth, he starts to take away the rest of the fish, the very best part: the cheeks, the shreds of flesh clinging to the bones. We urge him to leave it on the table. Using your chopsticks to pick off the skeleton clean is what makes eating whole fish so satisfying.

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