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A Simpler Sampler

May 18, 1997|S. Irene Virbila

Michi's concrete facade is severely geometric, unadorned except for a mustard-yellow awning and the name spelled out in skinny copper letters. Manhattan Beach may be a sleepy beach town, but this 6-month-old restaurant has the sleek look of West Hollywood. Plus a menu that's just as familiar. Yet diners here are enthusiastic and as unjaded as they come, making the restaurant's East-West orientation seem thrilling and exotic.

Supervising the busy open kitchen in the back is chef-owner Michi Takahashi, the calm eye of the storm. Former executive chef at Chaya Brasserie in West Hollywood, 36-year-old Takahashi began cooking at 16 at the Italian restaurant Borsalino in Tokyo. Now he's finally got his own place. He designed it, and his mother, a former fashion designer in Tokyo, created the large-scale whimsical acrylic paintings that are the dining room's sole decoration.

Takahashi mixes French, Italian and Asian techniques and ingredients with an insouciance that comes off as fresh. Fusion, of course, has been around the block a time or two. Takahashi has been doing it so long, in fact, that he could be considered a member of the old school. His version isn't nearly as wild and woolly as that of young chefs who will dare anything to make an impression. But then, fusion is trickier than it appears, and even this veteran occasionally misses the mark.

To start, there's a beautiful salad of asparagus, spinach and shiitake mushrooms in tangy tofu dressing. Another appealing dish is sauteed oysters on rosti potatoes (a crusty potato pancake) strewn with golden caviar. The oysters are just warmed through, delicious against the cool roe and crisp potato. I also like the fat asparagus stalks dabbed with shrimp paste and wrapped with sweet glazed eel. Mandarin duck and mango salad is generous enough for dinner: strips of moist duck breast, sliced mango and greens, flanked by spring rolls filled with more duck meat and slivered vegetables.

A seafood tartare, however, is so overdressed that it's difficult to taste any seafood. The menu sometimes doesn't jibe with what you get either. On one evening, a soup described as spinach egg drop soup turns out to be tomato-ey broth with a poached egg--but no spinach. And choux a la mille-feuille, our waiter explains, is neither cream puff nor flaky pastry but ladyfingers layered with sweetened cream and strawberries--good but not what you'd expect.

Seafood paella--fluffy, saffron-tinged rice served in a copper paella pan brimming with mussels, clams, squid and shrimp--is wonderful. Another good dish was a Chaya Brasserie classic: chicken Dijon, or grilled free-range chicken in a sharp mustard sauce flanked with impeccable French fries. The flavorful rib eye is nicely cooked, slathered with a five-peppercorn veal sauce and accompanied by steamed Kentucky green beans.

One night, there's a lovely special of crisp, golden whitefish garnished with rock shrimp and sauced in Champagne, cream and fresh ginger. There's an excellent swordfish steak in a lime sauce, too. And a rather odd main course of tuna and crab spring rolls--rice paper rolled around a plug of dark tuna enrobed in flaky crab meat. It's more like a sushi hand roll than a spring roll and comes with an avocado sauce to boot.

I also don't know what to make of the dried-out sliced turkey breast in Champagne sauce dimpled with grape skins. And Takahashi's interpretation of osso buco, the classic Italian braised veal shank, is served with so little sauce that the best part of the dish goes missing.

Fortunately, desserts are no mystery. Our waiter recommends the creme brulee as a classic--no berries, very plain but wonderful. And it is. Served in a shallow dish, the creamy, eggy custard is covered with a glassy sheet of caramelized sugar. Profiteroles stuffed with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with hot fudge are excellent. So is the chocolate mousse (now there's a blast from the past). All this and without fooling around with fusion.

MICHI RESTAURANT AND BAR

CUISINE: Euro-Asian. AMBIENCE: Stark, contemporary beach-side restaurant packed with mostly young crowd. BEST DISHES: Sauteed oysters over rosti potatoes, grilled free-range chicken Dijon, rib eye with five-peppercorn veal sauce, seafood paella. WINE PICK: 1994 Peter Michael Sauvignon Blanc L'Apres Midi. FACTS: 903 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach; (310) 376-0613. Closed Monday and at lunch Saturday and Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $40 to $85. Corkage $10. Parking on street or in public lot.

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