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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

He's back for another course

June 24, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Kazuto Matsusaka is a cooking legend. He was the first chef at Chinois on Main, then he left to open his own Santa Monica place, Zenzero, then he moved to Paris to direct the kitchen at the hyper-chic Buddhabar. He came back to L.A. for a stint as opening chef at Barfly on Sunset Strip, then he spent the last couple of years catering for the movie industry.

Now he and his wife, Vicki Fan, have opened Beacon, an Asian cafe in the Helms Bakery complex in Culver City. The look is smart and urban, with bamboo floors, bare tables and lamps that look like wooden box kites hovering below the high ceilings.

Culver City may just have lucked into its first destination restaurant. Beacon is casual and fun, the two qualities everybody seems to want in a restaurant lately. It also has delicious, moderately priced food from a chef who knows what he's doing.

The first time I saw the one-page menu, though, I was puzzled. It read like so many others around town -- vegetable spring rolls, salmon, miso-marinated black cod -- that I wondered whether Matsusaka had suddenly gone cautious. But when I read it more carefully, discerning details stood out. That salmon is wild, and it comes with red onion chutney and quinoa-farro salad. The green bean salad is a pile of emerald beans scattered with matchsticks of smoked tofu in a nuanced dressing. Miso-marinated black cod stands out for its sweet glaze and charred edges.

The menu mixes small plates with salads, soups, noodles, large plates and sides, not to mention a small selection of sashimi and rolls. At lunch Matsusaka adds sandwiches (a seared albacore BLT) and a burger, plus a couple of rice bowls.

Beacon is a cafe for every moment. You can stop in for a glass of wine and a bite after work, grab a quick supper before the show at the Jazz Bakery or settle in with a bunch of friends and cover the tabletop with a slew of small plates, tapas style. If you feel like just a bowl of noodles, you can get fat, squiggly udon with swatches of braised pork belly, chicken pad Thai or a green tea soba noodle salad.

On a first visit we ordered 15 or so different dishes, not a bad one among them. Two of us got there early and hungry and had the vegetable spring rolls to keep busy while we waited for our friends. The slender rolls were surprisingly delicate, fried to a perfect golden brown.

Chicken wings come sticky and delicious, glazed with soy and honey. Avocado salad is scattered with Japanese scallions and cilantro. And juicy fried oysters come wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a little yuzu-drenched tartar sauce.

Beacon has a nice little wine list too, which includes Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, Albarino and Viognier, all whites that show well with Asian food. The bar also serves chilled and hot sakes.

I'd say it's a slam-dunk.

*

Beacon

Where: 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City

When: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily. Dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Thursdays- Saturdays; closed Monday nights. Beer and wine. Lot parking.

Cost: Small plates, $2.95 to $9.95; noodles, $8.95 to $9.95; large plates, $12.95 to $17.95; lunch, $8.95 to $13.95; dessert, $6.50.

Info: (310) 838-7500

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