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Seafood by the Seashore

June 16, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Visit granita these days, and the once-sleepy Malibu restaurant seems to have sprung to life. There's a wait at the door. The phone rings incessantly. A crowd mobs the bar. People already seated eat with gusto. And at the flamboyantly tiled open kitchen in back, cooks work double time, turning out a dizzingly long list of dishes.

The captain of this 4-year-old ship under full sail is Lee Hefter, the 28-year-old chef who took the helm in September. Confident and enthusiastic, the burly chef relishes his new role so much that the entire restaurant feels lighthearted. And his food is so good that Granita has, in just nine months, gone from neighborhood clubhouse to full-fledged destination restaurant.

Now that summer's here, sit inside or, a better bet, on the patio, sheltered from both sea wind and parking lot by a tall hedge. Flickering votive candles light the outdoor tables and, high overhead, beams encrusted with a coral-like filigree are lit from within.

Over the past couple of months, I've had dinner at Granita several times, sometimes a la carte but more often asking Hefter to prepare a custom menu for the table. I've quickly learned to trust him, as each meal is better than the last. What I especially like is that he doesn't think in terms of recipes or menu descriptions. He starts with an ingredient and then tells you what he can do with it.

"I've got red snapper caught with harpoon--very tasty. Or beautiful whole French turbotine, fresh peas and the first chanterelles of the season," he'll say. Like a doctor recording your medical history, Hefter will ferret out your preferences. And then he'll go to the kitchen and send you a parade of enticing dishes, often a mix of special creations and offerings from that night's menu.

If you like oysters, he'll give you an appetizer platter of tiny Kumamotos, fine-textured Hama Hamas and mollusks from Sunset Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. You can get them plain or with a dab of granita, an icy slush of balsamic vinegar spiked with horseradish. When choosing the latter, dive in right away, before the granita melts and floods the oysters.

Hefter's also pushing sardines! And they are wonderful: fresh Portuguese sardines en escabeche, sweet with pickled spring onions and a swirl of 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, Modena's "black gold," aged in wooden casks.

Skate that's been crisped at the edges and set on a soft cushion of eggplant is fabulous with a splash of old aceto balsamico and tender fava beans strewn around the plate. Big-eye tuna comes sliced, rare and crowned with dark violet seaweed and the bright yellow yolk of a quail's egg, and tastes delicately of the sea. Dainty lobster cakes, topped with a dab of mango chutney and served with a cool salad of shaved fennel and basil, overshadow every crab cake I've ever had.

It's a pleasure to learn that Hefter is some kind of wizard with duck. One night, he cooks a breast rare, smoking it just enough to leave a subtle, haunting touch of smoke to linger on the tongue. He serves it as a salad, sliced and fanned out on the plate, with roasted golden beets, lacy frisee and segments of blood orange. Sometimes he offers a perfect nugget of meltingly delicious piece of seared foie gras in a dramatic, deeply colored sun-dried cherry chutney with plush nectarine wedges, so bursting with juice and flavor that it's like going from black and white to Technicolor in a single bite. And each time I order the roasted Cantonese duck, it is spectacular: skin lacquered crisp as great Peking duck, the flesh gamy and delicious, judiciously scented with ginger and five-spice powder, set off with juicy blood oranges and sauteed Chinese greens.

I love the conceit of a single stuffed pasta, presented like a jewel in the middle of the plate, as a kind of prelude to the main courses. One night it's an artichoke and goat cheese tortelloni in a light artichoke broth perfumed with white truffle. Another night a single sweet pea ravioli garnished with rosy lobster and a velvety morel in a silken marjoram sauce tastes like the essence of early summer.

Fish lovers will be singularly happy at Granita. Hefter not only goes out of his way to obtain flavorful seafood--Florida grouper, black bass, Gulf prawns--he also works very hard at cooking it in interesting ways. Pan-roasted filet of black bass, for example, is crispy yet moist, layered with marinated tomatoes that have been roasted to concentrate all their flavor and served in a saffron pepper sauce with a little grilled fennel. Taste it and every element makes sense. Here is a chef who leads with his palate, not his head.

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