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Please Don't Order My Deep-Fried Catfish

Put yourself in the shoes of a chef who creates a dish so popular everyone wants it.

March 08, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What do chefs and some of this year's Grammy winners have in common? Both can have the bad luck of becoming one-hit wonders, an unfortunate kinship that makes the two groups promising candidates for co-therapy.

Hideo Yamashiro of Shiro in Pasadena could probably have a good heart-to-heart with Tommy Tutone, for example: Yamashiro bemoaning the wild popularity of his whole deep-fried catfish, to the exclusion of the other dishes on his menu, and Tutone being similarly ruffled by his singular fame for the '80s hit "867-5309," as if it were the only song he ever sang.

Coming up with a hit, whether on a menu or on the music charts, might be profitable, but there is a flip side.

"Some people don't care about the other dishes," says Yamashiro. In fact, one-third of Shiro's patrons order the catfish, which is perfumed with fresh ginger and finished with ponzu sauce. Yamashiro has been making the dish for 13 years. On the rare occasions when he is forced to take it off the menu (because he can't find catfish that meets his quality standard), his customers react. "Many people get upset," he says. "Some people just leave."

But Yamashiro actually enjoys the times when he can't find perfect catfish because it gives him an opportunity to make something different.

"To do the same thing over and over is easy," he admits. "You just get bored. If you drive in the same place, even with beautiful scenery, you get bored."

Nearly every Los Angeles chef has a catfish equivalent. For Massimo Ormani of Locanda Veneta, it's spaghetti with lentils, baked tomato and spinach. "It's great to have a dish that gets such a positive reaction from people," says Ormani. "But in the meantime, the menu is composed of many dishes. The dream is to have a menu where all the dishes sell at the same percentage."

Ideally, Ormani would change the menu every day. Or better, not even have a menu. "I would go to the market and get the best products available and then go to the kitchen and start creating," he says. "As a chef, it's a dream. As a restaurateur, it's a hard reality. I would give it a 50-50 chance in L.A."

Larry Nicola has been making his sauteed oysters on spinach with walnuts and garlic for 20 years (first at L.A. Nicola, then at Nicola, now at Nic's in Beverly Hills). His charred pasilla with crispy lamb and Port-Salut cheese has had an equally impressive run. He has tried to remove both dishes from his menu--"If you don't change, you don't learn," he says--but customer response has been "sadness."

"You realize that you shouldn't have [removed those dishes]," he says. "People come back to restaurants because they get this feeling, a good feeling. And you have that taste again. Comfort is the biggest thing in restaurants. Why do people go to Tito's Tacos or Jay's Jayburgers?"

Christine Brown of Christine in Torrance concurs: "People drive here expecting to have a particular dish. It's a food memory comfort thing. We have a customer who moved to Colorado, and he comes back to visit and always gets the Tuscan style brick-flattened chicken."

Brown has been making the whole boneless chicken with rosemary, garlic, lemon and olive oil since she opened the restaurant 3 1/2 years ago. "I tried to put another chicken dish on the menu to take it [the brick-flattened chicken] off," she says. "But the staff and manager, who is my husband, said not to take it off."

So is Brown tired of preparing the dish?

"The challenge is there to keep it as consistent as possible," she says. "It's wonderful to have that reception. Someone will have it and tell another person and they'll tell someone else."

It's like that '70s commercial for Faberge shampoo, with one shampoo fan multiplying into dozens, solely by word of mouth. Except in this case, the product is chicken.

And what about chefs who inherit popular dishes? Brooke Williamson took over the kitchen at Boxer restaurant in November. Since then, she has changed the entire menu except for one item, a dish created by the restaurant's opening chef, Neal Fraser. The dish is tuna tartare on a bed of seaweed salad with spicy mustard dressing and potato crisps.

"If I took it off," says Williamson, "people would ask 'Why don't you have that anymore?' I don't want to disappoint people."

And why not tweak the recipe to make it her own?

"I don't feel like I could alter it in a way that could make it better," she says. "Plus, it is mentioned in the Zagat guide."

Nor are pastry chefs immune to these forces. One year ago, at the urging of several customers, Water Grill's Wonyee Tom added cre^me brulee to the dessert menu. And guess what happened.

"When tickets come in," Tom says, "they are for five cre^me brulees or six cre^me brulees. I'm tired of cre^me brulee. It's not to say it's not good, but try something new."

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