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Still a Main Attraction

March 11, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Chinois on Main, after 17 years, is still one of the toughest reservations in town. In a city where 10 is doddering old age for most restaurants, Chinois' staying power is remarkable. What's the secret?

For one, the food is as fresh and appealing as it was when Wolfgang Puck created this, his second restaurant, as his play on the enticing flavors of China and Asia. Filtered through Puck's French-trained sensibility, Chinois' cuisine has little to do with authenticity: it's Puck's quirky, romantic take on Asian food, brilliantly tailored to the tastes of Los Angeles diners.

Chinois' design (by Puck's partner and wife, Barbara Lazaroff) is a riot of colors and patterns. She's translated the garish neon of film noir Chinatowns into strips of innocent hot pink, offset by turquoise. The bar is faced in bamboo staves and has a Buddha watching over the scene. Two slender cloisonne birds stand in the middle of the dining room. And masses of fresh orchids give the place a tropical languor. Servers in black cotton Chinese PJs dart between the lacquered turquoise tabletops, ferrying platters piled with Shanghai lobster or sorbets crowned with a delicate sugared cookie in the shape of a dragon.

Hisses of steam and scents of star anise, garlic, mint and basil drift from the open kitchen at the end of the room. A bank of woks bubbles with Chinois' signature dish--sizzling whole catfish--while cooks juggle French saute pans. Louis Diaz, Chinois' new chef, is at the eye of the storm, tasting sauces, urging the line cooks on.

A typical Chinois dish reminds me of the sizzling colors of clothes from Hong Kong's trendy Shanghai Tang. Here it's the flavors that pop with intensity. That's because everything is fresh, made from scratch and with top ingredients.

Chinois has had surprisingly few chefs in its 17-year history. Longtime chef Kazuto Matsusaka stayed until he left to launch Zenzero. Then came Mako Tanaka, who opened Mako in Beverly Hills last year. After a brief stint by another chef, Diaz, who practically grew up behind the stoves at Chinois as a cook and then a sous chef, stepped into the position in January with scarcely a dip in Chinois' consistency or professionalism. His new role, plus a new, improved dessert menu, make Chinois worth another look.

Among the best new dishes is soup for two, a fragrant broth of mushroom dumplings served from a saucepan with a hinged lid. You choose which (or all) of the garnishes you'd like in your soup. Cilantro? Epazote? Sliced fresh red chiles? The waiter will tip in chrysanthemum leaves, a mix of fragrant herbs and a little Thai chile pesto. The soup is sweet and hot and rich, but the best part is the supple mushroom dumplings that float in the bowl. There's also a delicious version of the classic clams in black bean sauce, made here with littleneck clams sauteed with Tokyo negi (a mild Japanese onion) and an intense black bean sauce. Potato dumplings, a special, are like wonderful little pirogi, wrapped in a delicate dough, with a dollop of good caviar on top. The briny, fishy taste melts into the warmth of the dumpling. It comes with a delicious little seaweed salad featuring ruffly pink seaweed in a sprightly dressing.

Diaz has added a lobster dish as well. Fabulous, and messy, the Maine lobster comes already cracked, redolent of ginger, garlic and pungent black bean sauce. His special sauteed black bass in yuzu sauce is terrific, too. Sauteed so that its skin is crisp, the filet plays beautifully against the slight bitterness of the citrus sauce. It comes with crab dumplings that resemble particularly tender and delicate pot stickers.

Puck himself often drops in to join the cooks on the line, the way a sax player sits in with other musicians. And they're all on the same songbook: Chinois chicken salad, still surprisingly tasty after all these years; the irresistible Mongolian lamb chops with their spring green cilantro, parsley and mint sauce; Cantonese duck with fresh plum sauce; whole sizzling catfish in a light ponzu sauce. The one I love, though, has a name that's a mouthful: tempura ahi tuna sashimi with fresh uni sauce. It's ahi tuna wrapped in nori, dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried. It's cooked so quickly the center is still raw, and the combination of the crunchy coating, the cool tuna and a masterful uni (sea urchin) sauce spiked with wasabi is thrilling.

The one fault-line running through Chinois' menu is sweetness. People like it, I know, but when you have five or six dishes in a row, that sweetness can become cloying. Also, the ornateness of many of Chinois' best dishes needs to be balanced with something plainer, which could be a simple bowl of rice. Rice is suggested as a side dish but unless you ask for steamed rice, you'll get fried (good, but more like chopped salad with rice), which is one clue how very Western this restaurant is.

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