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With High-Profile Dishes, Demolition Has Never Tasted So Good

April 11, 1999

Tall food has been tickling our chins since the mid-'80s, and it doesn't look as if it's going to disappear any time soon. Which is fine with me. I happen to find artistic arrangements of high-flying food more imaginative than most of today's Hollywood films. Diners get to participate in a delicious form of destruction instead of just watching it unfold on-screen.

At the acclaimed French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, I was recently pleased to find that the food was not only tall, but small. I'd wondered how I was going to survive chef Thomas Keller's eight-course tasting menu but soon realized that none of the dishes was much larger than a brooch. Most were made all the more memorable by sculptural presentations as seductive as a Parisian pastry.

Chef Alfred Portale is credited with constructing some of the first engineered entrees in the mid-'80s, when he arrived at New York City's Gotham Bar & Grill. "I was very intent on developing my own style," the former jewelry maker says. "I was always interested in art and sculpture. I began to see things on the plate differently, more compartmentalized and in different heights." Tall food was practical as well. "To cook the fish faster, I cut the fillet in half and stacked it on the plate. Everything had a purpose."

Like Portale, Hans Rockenwagner of Santa Monica's Rockenwagner restaurant has been adding elevation to his food for more than a decade. Rockenwagner's style can be traced to a childhood interest in architecture. His restaurant is appropriately housed in the Frank Gehry-designed Edgemar complex. The building's animated exterior angles are repeated in the restaurant's interior design and mirrored in the playful dishes that Rockenwagner is famous for. "I've always been attracted to good-looking food," he says. "Height adds definition to the plate."

To add such definition, Rockenwagner creates edible building materials, such as the crisp potato "sheets" and "nets" he makes with special cutting tools and the corrals he fashions from shoestring potatoes to confine purees, soups and stews, all of which would otherwise want to puddle on the plate. Paper-thin Parmesan bread crisps stand up in white bean puree, while fresh herbs, especially chives, lend an upright ebullience to mashed potatoes.

Tall food, of course, requires careful plating by well-trained kitchen staff and swift, graceful delivery to the table lest it "give in to gravity," Rockenwagner says. And while such lofty ambitions could be considered all the more daring in earthquake country, the chef assures that no temblors have ever toppled his creations, though a few have been reduced to rubble on "a rough walk through the dining room."

Leaving the elaborate construction projects for his restaurant, Rockenwagner does like to consider height when cooking and eating at home. Even if it's as simple as piling salad on the plate ("flat salad doesn't look fresh to me") or stacking several items hot off the grill. Tall food is a way of thinking, as he demonstrates with the appetizer recipe here, where a savory roll that might be served flat on the plate is instead cut, set on its end and side-dressed with an emphatic upswing of baby greens, straw mushrooms and asparagus spears.

Rockenwagner predicts that there will always be a place on menus for tall food "as long as people appreciate it." Especially in L.A. "We're the entertainment capital of the world," he says. "There has to be dazzle in the food, too." Now if studio heads would just pay more attention to what they ate.

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Crab and Goat Cheese Strudel with Red Bell Pepper Sauce

Serves 4*

*

Sauce

4 roasted red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and peeled

Juice of 1/2 lime

1/4 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

*

Strudel

1/2 cup goat cheese, room temperature

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

12 small asparagus spears

8 sheets thawed filo dough

1/3 cup unsalted clarified butter

1/2 pound cooked crab meat

4 1/2-inch-thick slices red onion, grilled until charred and soft

3 tablespoons bread crumbs

*

Baby greens

*

Puree bell peppers in blender. Combine and blend with lime juice, sour cream, paprika, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Combine goat cheese, lemon juice, salt, pepper and basil and set aside. Blanch asparagus in boiling water 4 minutes. Drain and set aside. Trim each filo sheet into 12-inch square. Layer 4 filo squares, brushing each with butter, and set aside. Repeat.

On one stack of filo squares, spread half of goat cheese mixture in line 1/2-inch away from one edge. Beside cheese and working toward center of squares, spread half of crab meat in another line. Next to this, place 6 asparagus spears and 2 slices of onion. Brush filo edges with butter. Starting near goat cheese, roll strudel tightly, squeezing sides to seal. Repeat.

Place strudels seam side down on baking sheet and brush with butter. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake at 400 degrees until crisp and golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool 5 minutes.

Slice off ends of strudels, then halve each strudel, making diagonal cut. On each plate, spoon sauce in center. Place one strudel half slightly off-center, flat end down and angled end up. Place baby greens beside strudel. Repeat. Serve immediately.

Note: Extra sauce may be served with grilled chicken or sauteed scallops.

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