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Fusion Fixation

July 28, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

For a chef who really cares about cooking, a stint behind the stoves at a trendy, white-hot restaurant may seem like a sojourn in hell. The maitre d's at these places consistently overbook. It's catch 'em while you can-before the trend-seekers move on. Most people are more interested in the scene than the food anyway, and by the time they're seated, they're too hungry to notice subtleties in the cooking.

After a two-year sentence at just such a place-Linq in Los Angeles-and 20 years of working for others, chef Andre Guerrero is out, and he's not going into anybody else's kitchen but his own. Guerrero has moved to the San Fernando Valley and opened his first restaurant on his own, on Sherman Oaks' restaurant row. Named for his son, Max is a boxy storefront on the site of the old JoeJoe's. A smart remodel has transformed it into a glamorous boite, with white damask walls, sleek banquettes and soft lighting from silk-shaded lamps. An alcove to one side of the main room is the three-table "star room." "Really? Stars?" I queried the waiter. "You'd be surprised who comes in," he says. Somehow I believed him. With a crowd here for the food, Guerrero is reveling in his brand of California-Asian fusion. He is Filipino American, and has cooked French, Italian and California cuisine. In fact, he was an early fusion artist at Duet in Glendale, and some of his fans from that late restaurant have sought him out here. With tables packed closely together, this 4-month-old newcomer feels like downtown New York.

One night one of my guests, who had once lived in a Filipino neighborhood in New York, jumped at the lumpia, the traditional shrimp and pork spring rolls. Rolled as slender as cigars, with a mild shrimp and pork filling, they come piping hot from the kitchen and not a bit greasy. A refreshing Asian slaw accompanies them. For my taste, the lumpia are a tad bland, but easily perked up with the spicy dipping sauce. Guerrero's subtle touch comes to the fore in his Thai lemon grass coconut soup. Fragrant with Thai basil and light as silk (read: not too much coconut milk), it's laced with fresh corn and delicious little dumplings plump with a pleasing chicken and mushroom stuffing.

Crab ravioli are more Asian in inspiration than Italian: round pillows of chewy dough filled with fresh crab meat in a lovely nuanced lobster sauce that upstages the ravioli itself. Hamachi sashimi, drizzled with yuzu citrus and served with a chilled soba noodle salad, would do a top sushi restaurant proud.

One of my favorites is his tea-smoked salmon. Curing it in soy sauce, mirin and fresh ginger gives it an unusual lilt. The presentation is different, too. The supple sliced salmon comes with a slab of tender brioche that has a hole in the middle filled with an over-easy egg-sort of a refined toad in the hole.

Main courses are more uneven. You can't go wrong with Guerrero's roasted half chicken, a standard dish that's upgraded with a flavorful bird and the piquant salty-sour taste of preserved lemon and a garnish of sweet blanched garlic. Crusty and juicy, the chicken sits on a swatch of sauteed spinach and comes with garlic mashed potatoes, making this a fine supper all on its own, and a real bargain.

Applewood smoked baby back ribs are terrific one night, less compelling another. At their best, the ribs are falling-off-the-bone tender, permeated with a light haze of smoke. The barbecue sauce seems to taste of tamarind, but it's actually hoisin. Since the ribs come in a generous double rack, they're fun to share as an appetizer or even a middle course. Guerrero makes a mean New York pepper steak, too, encrusted with black peppercorns. They add interest to a fine, but not remarkable, cut of beef, and pack a wallop of heat, so the buttery spinach and lovely Gorgonzola-potato gratin are a welcome contrast.

He gets a little carried away with mushroom risotto, though. The texture is right, but loading the risotto with duck confit, arugula and white truffle oil deflects attention from what's most important: the rice and the mushrooms. It's also hard to understand where he's going with the Indian coriander masala-crusted cod. The spice mix is wonderful, and the fish nicely cooked, but the thick mat of chickpea-battered vegetable fritter that sits on top is heavy and distracts from the fish.

Each time I eat at Max, I wonder where Guerrero found his staff. They know what they're doing, remaining remarkably composed in the confines of the small room and under pressure from a demanding clientele. They also all feel strongly enough about the food to offer their opinion of what's best.

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