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Deliciously the Same

September 09, 2001

Everybody in Los Angeles has a favorite discovery, the more obscure the better--a Mexican dive with supple, hand-patted tortillas on the east side of town, a minuscule French cafe braving an industrial area or an Italian trattoria in a Westside motel. A dicey neighborhood gives it even more cachet. A few addresses like these and you feel you own the city. They're not to be given up lightly, or to just anybody.

A decade ago, Cafe Blanc, then on the Eastside, was a serendipitous discovery, a tiny restaurant where chef/owner Tommy Harase turned out unexpectedly polished French food with a Japanese sensibility. In 1994, Harase moved the cafe to Beverly Hills, which may sound like a huge change, but Cafe Blanc is still modest and relatively hard to find. It's a stark white shoe box of a space with floor-to-ceiling windows on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, just east of Wilshire Boulevard. Hardly glamorous, but perfect for a chef who insists on doing everything himself.

I'd just been to Cafe Blanc for a thoroughly satisfying meal when friends who were back in L.A. for a visit asked for dinner suggestions. As I told them about my recent meal, they recounted how, when they were dating, they would stuff a bottle of wine into a backpack, hop on the motorcycle and roar off to the old Cafe Blanc for a romantic dinner. A couple of days later, my friends reported back that they went to the new cafe and and had a lovely meal. What surprised them is that Harase is still cooking the same food as at the old place. The menu has hardly changed.

In this low-key setting, which reminds me of a museum cafe, the quality of the food and the elegant presentation are unexpected. Everyone I've ever taken here has been pleasantly surprised. The servers, usually two of them, are young Japanese women, extremely polite and efficient. Weeknight or weekend, the chef always sends out a complimentary amuse or hors d'oeuvre. It could be a single endive leaf holding three wizened smoked scallops or a crouton of toasted bread with a slice of rustic chicken pate on top. Only then will the server announce the specials, just two: the terrine du jour and the fish of the day, which is usually the same one listed on the chef's six-course tasting menu that night.

Harase has invested in the same pure white porcelain plates that top restaurants all over the country are featuring, so your sauteed Sonoma foie gras in a delightful grapefruit compote may come on a white dish with square bottom that looks like unfolded origami. Gravlax arrives on a large clear glass plate with an etched crosshatch border. Satiny and perfumed with dill, the Norwegian salmon is garnished with diced cucumbers and a sprinkling of pink peppercorns and citrus juice. The latter is a subtle combination of lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit.

I wasn't sure about the veal sweetbread and mushroom spring roll until I tasted this light, crispy pastry stuffed with the custardy sweetbreads and shiitake mushroom in a fresh tomato sauce swirled with basil oil. It's a marvelous contrast of velvet and crunch. Every Japanese French chef makes ravioli, but Harase's are particularly plump and supple. He fills his with sweet, barely cooked rock shrimp, and naps the pasta in a light cream sauce. I'm also fond of his blue crab cakes wrapped in thin slices of potato and served with wasabi-doused caviar and a luxurious sabayon.

When soft shell crabs are in season, he serves two encased in a crackling tempura batter so delicate that you barely notice it until you take a bite. A hint of saffron in the sauce gives the dish an exotic dimension. This season Harase is offering roast squab (pigeon) in cocoa sauce, too. While I'm not in love with the thin, bittersweet sauce, the bird is wonderful: it comes sliced, very rare, with a miniature skewer threaded with the heart, kidneys and other innards. The dark leg meat is particularly flavorful.

One of his signature dishes is grilled poussin (the diminutive baby chicken) in an aromatic rosemary sauce. He also does wonders with lobster, which is roasted and served with a heap of fluffy couscous and a splash of intense lobster bisque. The portion is quite small, though. That's how he keeps the prices down.

I also like his big, pillowy Canadian scallops with a risotto swathed in Chinese-style black bean sauce. The flavors absolutely make sense together. Of course, he has to have a couple of bland dishes for less-adventurous eaters. But they're often not as successful as his other creations. They simply don't suit his sensibility.

Vegetarians rejoice: The four-course "Menu Legumes" gives you something more than a grilled vegetable platter. The current version begins with a pretty salad of tomato wedges and chickpeas arranged in the shape of a flower. Then come "towers" of grilled vegetables wrapped in brik, a Tunisian pastry dough, followed by sumptuous ravioli filled with kabocha, a gorgeous orange Japanese squash.

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