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Flavors of Alsace

Maple Drive chef Eric Klein turns a Sunday staple from his country into a meal that invites you to pull up a chair, whether at his restaurant or in your home.

March 10, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Like any hotshot young chef working in the heart of the entertainment industry, Maple Drive's Eric Klein knows how to make all of the lighter, brighter dishes that are demanded by his clientele.

But Klein also has a secret weapon: choucroute, the very antithesis of light and bright. A steaming mass of long-simmered sauerkraut flavored with the mingled essences of half a dozen types of sausage and smoked meats, choucroute is the archetypal centerpiece of the Sunday family meal in Klein's native Alsace.

Perhaps surprisingly, it and other rustic dishes from that French region have become favorites at the restaurant, which serves as a kind of unofficial cafeteria for a healthy portion of the Beverly Hills music and movie industry.

Maybe it will be a slab of tarte flambee, like a tissue-thin pizza topped with a smear of softly cooked onions, creme fraiche and a little bacon. Or maybe it will be a tiny bowl of split pea soup. Or Klein's take on pickled herring, which he makes with buttery Spanish mackerel and serves atop warm sliced potatoes (so delicious regulars have started calling it "holy mackerel").

When the weather and his mood are right, Klein will even roll out the big gun: choucroute royale. It's all part of his plan to make diners feel like they're a part of the family.

"Choucroute is something I grew up with," Klein says. "It's something very homey. The whole family would sit around on a Sunday and have a good meal."

But Klein also has a deeper reason for serving such elemental dishes. Choucroute, which means "sauerkraut," "is one of the most basic things ever, one of the oldest dishes ever," he says. "But now the old stuff is again the new stuff. It seems like every 25 years or so we go back to the basics, then we evolve again. Sometimes we lose track of real flavors, but those are the first things a chef needs to learn."

Like so much of Alsatian cooking, the dish seems more German than French. Little wonder. The mountainous region is on the border between the two countries and has been fought over since time immemorial. The regional dialect is essentially German with some French thrown in, the great grape is Riesling and, Klein's wife, Tori, likes to tease, pork fat is regarded as a vegetable (she knows whereof she speaks, being from Arkansas).

"Alsatian cuisine is rustic, yes, and maybe a little bit heavy when it's not prepared right," Eric Klein says. "But there are good simple flavors there. I want to bring those back. I want to take the traditional cuisine and evolve it, make it clean and pure."

Klein, just 30 years old, was raised in the Alsatian equivalent of a foodie family. His dad raises cattle on a 250-acre farm his family has owned for more than 600 years in the mountains above Colmar, the heart of the Alsatian wine country. His mom is a butcher. Growing up, he learned to help her make sausages. Both of his sisters work in restaurants.

Klein started working part-time in a local restaurant when he was 13. When he graduated from high school, he got a job for a couple of years at a small family place in Bergholtz.

"It was not high gastronomy; it was casual simple food," Klein says. "But the chef had a lot of knowledge. He had worked at great restaurants and then decided he preferred to do something simple."

Klein worked for a short time at Schillinger, a restaurant in Colmar with two stars in the Michelin guide, then, when mandatory military service intervened, he was assigned to cook for a French general and spent much of his time at his country house, located, ironically enough, in the German Black Forest.

"Everybody loved to come to our place because we had the best food," Klein says. "Even the drivers ate well. We had everything: lobster, foie gras, everything. I went into the service weighing 155 pounds and came out weighing 200 pounds."

Three-star chef

At the end of his service, he went to work at Holtzschopf Gasthaus, a restaurant in Germany that is owned by a sister of Hans Rockenwagner, a well-known Southern California chef. On a visit home, Rockenwagner persuaded Klein to give California a try.

He moved to the U.S. in 1995 and worked first for Rockenwagner and then for Wolfgang Puck, starting at Chinois on Main, then moving on to ObaChine and finally Spago. In 2002, he won a competition for the outstanding sous chef in the country.

Just this August Klein took over the kitchen at Maple Drive, his first head chef position. By October he had earned the restaurant a three-star rating from Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila.

Given that background, it's not surprising that he has come up with a couple of twists on the traditional choucroute. One of them is to cook everything in separate stages: braising the sauerkraut in wine; cooking the potatoes; poaching the sausages. That way, all of the elements can be prepared in advance, then combined and warmed through right before serving.

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