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Forget Fusion: Regional Rules

May 24, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Angelenos are a spoiled bunch when it comes to international dining. For years our Mexican restaurants have been serving authentic moles, our Italian trattorias cracker-thin pizzas and our French cafes pa^tes that would not be out of place in Paris.

Although we aren't exactly bored with all that, we do seem to have a bit of senioritis, the common malady among high school seniors that has just one cure, graduation.

But to what do we graduate? Regional menus may be the answer.

Regional menus, which have proliferated within the last year at area restaurants, provide depth and intimacy. They are the culinary equivalent of spending a week in Tuscany instead of a fast and furious seven-day tour of Venice, Rome, Florence and Milan.

Mimosa, a popular neighborhood French bistro on Beverly Boulevard, added a regional menu to its regular menu this spring. "We've been in business four years," says Silvio De Mori, who co-owns the restaurant with executive chef Jean-Pierre Bosc. "The [regular] menu has barely changed since the beginning. And we want to excite the curiosity of our guests."

To that end, they chose Lyon as their first stop. "It's the French capital of gastronomy," says Bosc, who has a special affinity for the area; he did most of his apprenticeship there.

The Lyon menu consisted of appetizers such as cervelles de canuts (an herbed farm cheese salad) and quenelle de brochet Nantua (pike souffle mousse with lobster sauce). Entrees included tablier de sapeur (breaded tripe) and cervelas chaud aux lentilles du puy (pork sausage with lentils).

"We knew when we put tripe on the menu that it wouldn't sell," says De Mori. "But we did it for authenticity's sake." Even though, as anticipated, few people ordered the tripe or the pork sausage, the menu, De Mori says, was "absolutely successful, an 8 out of 10. Around 40% of our guests ordered from the [regional] menu." Mimosa is offering an Auvergne menu through mid-June.

Such regional menus require plenty of extra work. Just ask Bret Thompson, executive chef at DC3 in Santa Monica. In a little more than six months on the job, Thompson has created nearly a dozen regional menus as part of a "Destination" dining program, ranging from the north of Mexico to the south of Italy.

Each menu is the result of hours of research, including trips to the bookstore, time clocked on food Web sites, even chat-room visits.

"We're probably giving ourselves ulcers," Thompson says. "But we like the pressure. Also, it gets us out of the everyday monotony. I get bored very, very easily."

Initially, Thompson conceived a new menu each week, which was offered one night only. "For the work, the payoff was insufficient," he says. "If just two people ordered it on a Wednesday night, it's like . . . ugh."

So come June, when Spain is featured, DC3 will spend a full week in each of the following areas: the Basque country, Catalonia, southern Spain and (most likely) Madrid.

"The worst thing would be to serve a person from Spain and have them say 'What is this?' " Thompson says.

The original El Cholo rolled out a Monday-night regional menu program a little more than a year ago. Every month, one of 11 regions of Mexico is featured: Chihuahua in May, for instance, and Colima in June, Sinaloa in July.

"Monday night is the slowest night," owner Ron Salisbury says. "We started this to generate more foot traffic. Also, El Cholo has had the same menu for many years. This lets the chef have some fun and focus on something special. And it lets the guest try something new in the same confines of a restaurant they want to be at." A bonus is that a prep cook may get the opportunity to contribute a dish to the menu.

Tanino Drago, chef-owner of Tanino in Westwood Village, is taking a different approach to the restaurant's first regional menu, which will debut in June. He has invited Anna Bevini, a chef from Bologna, to join him in the kitchen.

"Remember Rex?" says Drago, recalling the celebrated downtown restaurant. "[Owner] Mauro Vincenti had many guest chefs from Italy. I would go to all these events. I really liked the idea.

"Having a guest chef will bring a little bit of excitement. And we will be offering customers unusual dishes that you don't find at most Italian restaurants."

Examples include risotto con fragole della Val Padana e grana (risotto with strawberries from the Padana Valley) and tortelloni di zucca Emiliani con salsa di amaretti e salvia (tortelloni stuffed with pumpkin in a sauce flavored with amaretti cookies and sage).

No discussion of regional menus would be complete without mentioning Il Fornaio's successful Festa Regionale, now entering its sixth year. For two weeks every month, 19 Il Fornaio restaurants, including seven in Southern California, "travel" to one of Italy's 20 regions. Each regional menu is created by an individual Il Fornaio chef. And seldom are dishes repeated.

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