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RESTAURANTS | MATTERS OF TASTE

Hold the mayo, but nothing else: Trillin's in town

June 18, 2003|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

CALVIN Trillin — "Bud" to his friends -- steps through the front door of Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant in Rosemead, a sly grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

"Chickens," he says, gesturing toward the two 4-foot plaster chickens that flank the entrance to the restaurant. "Chickens. Ancient Chinese symbols, no doubt, for a seafood restaurant. It's what I call the doctrine of creative inappropriateness."

Trillin, a longtime New Yorker writer, is big on gastronomic doctrines. His new book, "Feeding a Yen," is based on the doctrine that local specialties are better than anything else you can eat in any location -- unless Chinese food is available.

"Feeding a Yen," Trillin's 22nd book, is his first on food since the three he wrote from 1974 to 1983 that became known as "The Tummy Trilogy." When I heard he was coming to Los Angeles to promote it, I e-mailed him a list of my favorite restaurants and suggested we have lunch.

Trillin and I had gotten to know each other in the late 1970s, when he was roaming the country, writing his "U.S. Journal" pieces for the New Yorker, and we'd shared several meals in before losing contact for more than a decade.

But I knew he'd want Chinese for our lunch. After all, he hunts for a Chinese restaurant even in Paris.

I choose Sea Harbour, certain we'll be the only non-Chinese in the place.

We are.

"There are a few dishes you have to order in advance," I say, "so I called yesterday for the fish maw soup, the live prawns and the air-dried, deep-fried, ginger pigeons."

Trillin nods. "Well, that's a start," he says, looking at the menu. "Let's also have the jellyfish with bean curd roll. And the congee with minced fish and peanuts."

He rejects several other dishes as "too mundane for us" and one as "too smelly" before settling on sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf.

"It reminds me of that bread and noodle dish I write about in the book," he says, "the one that only Abigail will eat with me."

Abigail is the older of his two daughters. Raised in Greenwich Village, she lives in San Francisco, and Trillin's attempts to lure her back to New York are a leitmotif of "Feeding a Yen," which is a compilation of tales -- many originally printed, in somewhat different forms, in Gourmet and the New Yorker -- of his global pursuit of one exotic foodstuff after another.

It's a quest with a certain unspoken poignancy. Trillin's food books often featured his eating adventures with Abigail; her sister, Sarah; and his wife, Alice, and he was devastated when Alice died two years ago.

When he mentions Alice, today, I ask how he's feeling.

He shrugs. "OK." Then he brightens. "The girls have been great." He offers a big, if somewhat practiced, smile. "I was very shrewd in my choice of daughters."

He looks at the menu again and smiles more naturally. "Chicken knee with spicy salt and pepper," he reads. "No. I say we rule out the knees of all animals for this lunch. Hmm. Pan-fried taro cake. Nah. Too standard for us."

The fish maw stew and pigeon have already arrived -- both are excellent -- and as we dig into the live shrimp ("Even better," Trillin says), the waiter suggests that the six dishes we've ordered might be more than enough.

Trillin and I look at each other, grinning. "He doesn't know who he's dealing with here," we say simultaneously,

When the sticky rice in lotus leaf arrives, I ask Trillin why there was such a long lag between his last food book and "Feeding a Yen."

"Well, the food books grew out of those 'U.S. Journal' stories I did," he says. "Most of those pieces were very serious ... and while I was doing them, I realized I could also write about the country in a lighter way by talking about food.

"It was also a way to find something good to eat, so I didn't always get stuck in all those fancy places that ... got five stars from the Mobil guide just because Mobil had a good service station manager somewhere and promoted him to restaurant critic.

"The problem with haute cuisine," he says, "is it doesn't connect with most people, and it's the people I wanted to write about."

By the time he was done with "U.S. Journal," Trillin found he was tired of writing about food of any kind, though. Then, a few years ago, he again added food to his journalistic mix, for reasons he can't quite explain.

But who needs explanations? The waiter deposits the jellyfish with bean curd roll on our table. It's chewy and spicy and "really, really good," Trillin says between mouthfuls. The congee with minced fish and peanuts is not far behind.

"Very healthy for you," says the man whose earliest food writing trumpeted the virtues of Kansas City barbecue.

Of course, Trillin's older now -- 67 -- and he had heart bypass surgery in 1997 and he takes a cholesterol-lowering drug. Congee is one of his favorite dishes, though, and he's thinking of immigration, not medication, right now.

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