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Adventuresome table

Diverse Asian cuisines mingle on the plates at Yi Cuisine, Rodelio Aglibot's inviting spot.

September 15, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

In New York, Asian fusion has become the kudzu of cuisines, rapidly overtaking the restaurant scene. In the past months, a rash of high-end openings has reinforced the trend. Los Angeles cooks, however, have been there, done that several times over. Think of it: Chinois celebrated its 21st birthday a couple of weeks ago. And Asian accents are so common on Cal-French and other restaurant menus here that we hardly notice them anymore. We are, after all, living on the Pacific Rim.

Still, Yi Cuisine, a recently opened restaurant on 3rd Street in Los Angeles, manages to break new ground even here with a menu that embraces much more than Japan or Thailand. Chef-owner Rodelio Aglibot, who was born in the Philippines and raised in Hawaii and who was opening chef at Koi in West Hollywood, moves as easily among Hawaiian, Filipino and Chinese cuisines as he does between French and California cuisines.

No one can accuse him of failing to be ambitious with a menu that sprawls over several pages and more than 58 items. This, in fact, is smaller than his planned opening night menu -- one he must have realized, just in time, was too much of a challenge for the kitchen to execute. Though not every dish is successful, it's wonderful to see this kind of enthusiasm. Aglibot wants to show what he can do, not just coast along with the same old, same old dishes every other restaurant is making.

It's a tough assignment for a young kitchen, but over the several months Yi has been open, the cooking has become more assured and the service has improved so much, it now seems like a different restaurant. It's been very slow during the week, so service is better those nights, but the evening may be duller. Weekends when it's packed, service is more erratic.

The crowd is mostly young and, at least on the nights I've been there, less flashy than at Koi or Katana. Less date night, more just friends going out for a good meal and a good time. Yi Cuisine has achieved the impossible: an atmosphere that has a low-key glamour without being too trendy.

A vaguely Asian decor seems to be the winning formula for restaurants right now, and Yi's design follows the trend to the letter. Out front, colored lights play across a tall sculptural column of water, and the obligatory candles flicker in the shadows.

Indoor and outdoor spaces have a comfortable flow. And you can choose between the dining room with its sleek butter-yellow booths and the gold-painted symbols of chi on a rough-hewn background or a table on the patio between the dining room and the lounge.

You can opt to eat in the bar too. On second thought, maybe the bar is better for drinks with friends in front of the blond flagstone fireplace. The noise level can get a little punishing for eating.

If Aglibot had wanted to play it safe, he would have installed a sushi bar just like Koi's wildly popular one. In sushi-mad L.A., you can never have too many slinky sushi bars. Or so you would think. That would have been too easy and might have upstaged the cooking that Aglibot wants to showcase. So instead he's put just a few sushi items on the menu to satisfy that craving for raw fish.

Of the sushi choices, spicy tuna is dull and not spicy at all. You're much better off getting the Kobe beef tartare, a thick slab of American Kobe-style beef, lightly seared and presented with a dab of wasabi on pan-seared sushi rice. Now, this is something good. The rice has the crunchy texture and chewiness of a risotto cake.

The rest of the menu offers plenty of choices for noshing or for feasting, organized in categories such as salads, "eat it raw," "crispy," "roasted" and "wok'd and sauteed." Some plates are small, some are big, but all are generous enough to share. And that's the idea: ordering a slew of dishes to share. They'll arrive in no particular order.

Aglibot does a nice variation on the ubiquitous Chinese chicken salad. His is moist, hand-shredded strips of chicken tossed with perfect little tatsoi leaves in a spicy peanut-jalapeno dressing and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It's hard to keep away from this one after it's set in front of you. There's also a deconstructed salad of hearts of romaine dressed in a pungent roasted garlic and ginger aioli, set on a fashionable square porcelain plate. At the corners are thin toasts covered in anchovy butter, a pinch of ground black peppercorns and grated Parmesan.

Hawaiian-style mac salad is a big surprise: macaroni salad made with al dente elbow macaroni and a mayonnaise spiked with a pinch of Japanese hot red pepper flakes. It's understated and delicious.

Raw oysters are nestled in Chinese porcelain soup spoons with a thatch of curried daikon on top that nicely sets off the crisp brininess of the oysters. If you like poke, then this ahi tuna poke should please. I'm not so fond of it, because the tuna always seems to get lost in the oily dressing. I feel the same about albacore sashimi in a warm garlic-soy sauce.

Filipino influence

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