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SOCAL STYLE / Entertaining

Beach Food Bingo

Adventures in Cooking and Dining at 72 Market St.

October 18, 1998|LAURIES OCHOA | Laurie Ochoa is The Times' food editor

One of the problems with Southern California stereotypes is that those of us who live here sometimes start to believe them. Consider beach food, dude. You know--beer and crab, beer and corn dogs, beer and "kick ass" chili.

It was "kick ass" chili, in fact, that helped make a name for 72 Market St., the swank Venice Beach restaurant opened by Tony Bill and Dudley Moore 15 years ago. The restaurant's original chef, Leonard Schwartz, served food that managed to be both chefly and unpretentious. Meatloaf with mashed potatoes, grilled chicken with tomatillo salsa, killer crab cakes and super-rich brownies were consumed--often with wine instead of beer--by artists, actors, architects and foodies alike. It was an exciting blend of beach and boho style frosted with Hollywood glitz.

So when French chef Roland Gibert took over in 1994, he was understandably reluctant to mess with the formula. Would 72's beachy clientele want to eat the kind of French food Gibert served at Tulipe, the brilliant but too-short-lived Melrose Avenue restaurant he opened with Maurice Peguet? Would they bother to pronounce petit pithiviers a la Fourme d'Ambert et aux poires even if their reward were an amazing puff-pastry tart filled with blue cheese and pears? Would they overcome their food prejudices to order pigs' trotters stuffed with snails and sweetbreads even if it were one of the most delicious dishes ever served in an L.A. restaurant? Wouldn't it just be easier to order the chicken?

At first, Gibert played it safe. He personalized the menu a bit, added nightly specials and maintained the restaurant's classic dishes. Customers seemed happy, and he even found that he liked making meatloaf. As he wrote in "72 Market St. Dishes It Out!"--a cookbook published by Wave Publishing earlier this year--"My greatest pleasure is to cook a broad spectrum of foods, to satisfy the tastes of every guest."

But how to satisfy his creative desires? As months passed, Gibert found himself holding back. He worried about intimidating customers with foie gras, and though he'd make the pigs' trotters for old Tulipe customers, he kept the dish off the menu. "I was very cautious--chicken in a way," he recalls. "I could blame no one but myself."

These days, however, Gibert feels freer than ever. "It took me four years," he says, "but the customers and I have gotten to know each other--and we trust each other." The result is a more adventurous spirit in both the kitchen and the dining room. Recently his beach diners have been going for his seared sea scallops with caramelized onions and sweet and sour sauce. "When most people hear the phrase 'sweet and sour,' they think right away of Asian cooking," he says. "I decided to play with the concept."

Gibert combines red wine vinegar and honey with veal stock and red wine for a sauce reduction that has the depth of a classic French sauce and a nice acidic edge. The sauce is spooned onto a plate and topped with onions caramelized with butter and a pinch of sugar, an accompaniment usually associated with pork or other full-flavored meats. He tops the onions with scallops that have been seared briefly on each side.

"I like the combination of the sweet-and-sour sauce against the natural sweetness of the scallops," Gibert says. And his customers like that the chef is giving them the best he's got to offer.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Seared Sea Scallops With Caramelized Onions and Sweet-and-Sour Sauce

Serves 6

*

3/4 cup red wine vinegar

5 tablespoons honey

1 1/4 cups red wine

3/4 cup veal stock or demi-glace

*

4 tablespoons butter

4 medium onions, finely diced

1 teaspoon sugar (optional)

2 1/2 pounds jumbo sea scallops (about 36)

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons chopped chives

*

Sweet-and-sour sauce:

In saucepan, combine vinegar and honey. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat until liquid is reduced by half.

Add wine. Continue cooking until remaining liquid is reduced by one-third.

Add veal stock or demi-glace. Simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and set aside.

*

Scallops:

In saute pan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Add onions and sugar (if you desire sweeter onions) and saute until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

In another pan, melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Season scallops with salt and pepper and saute over medium heat for 3 minutes on each side, or until cooked through.

To serve, rewarm sweet-and-sour sauce. Spoon six dollops of sauce onto plate and top each with 1/2 tablespoon of caramelized onion mixture. Place one scallop on each dollop of onions. Garnish with chopped chives if desired.

*

Food stylist: Christine Masterson

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