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Steak and lobster? Dream on

You can't fence chefs in these days when it comes to surf-and-turf plates. They're imagining all sorts of seafood and meat combinations -- with fantastic results.

July 12, 2006|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

HALIBUT cheeks and short ribs. Scallops and foie gras. Squid and pig's ears. Lobster and squab. Recognize the theme? It's surf and turf.

For the guy shuffling chips at a Vegas craps table, hoping for a hot roller -- or at least a meal comped by the pit boss -- surf and turf means a thick steak and a fat lobster tail. But chefs are navigating uncharted waters and ranging beyond the plains to create new takes on the steakhouse standby.

Their sometimes wild iterations continue to evolve and proliferate despite the fact that some food lovers think the classic American pairing is based on an uneasy marriage of meat and fish. And whether inspired by the land-sea combinations of international cuisines or maybe just the American dream of having it all, especially on one plate, today's surf-and-turf combinations are more varied than the possible rolls on a pair of six-sided dice.

"So many meats go really well with seafood because they'll add richness or fat that a lot of seafood doesn't have," says Water Grill executive chef David Lefevre. "With a flounder or a sole or a John Dory or a flakier, whiter-fleshed seafood, a rich piece of meat contrasts with the lean fish and adds a new dimension of flavor."

On the other hand, Sona executive chef David Myers combines big-eye tuna with veal tongue because of what he sees as similarities. The tuna is seared rare and the tongue is braised, then crisped in a pan. "I like the depth of flavors, the meaty richness of a specialty meat with the rawness and meatiness of the tuna.... It's a combination that works as a red-wine-oriented dish," Myers says.

What's the obsession behind the compulsion to unite land and sea on the plate? "I think people will always gravitate toward surf and turf because we've all been raised with it. I remember it from my parents," says David Lentz, chef at the Hungry Cat, who has offered as a special a "mainstream surf and turf": grilled rib-eye and butter-poached lobster with a bearnaise sauce. It's the bearnaise sauce that helps pull it all together, Lentz says, because "you can use it either with the lobster on its own or the steak on its own."

Lentz also has experimented with pairings such as monkfish with beef cheeks. "It's through trial and error that we've come up with these combinations," he says.

Living large

WHAT'S nostalgia for some may be culinary cliche for others. "I hate steak and lobster. It's so 1976. People have got to get past the whole steak and lobster thing," says Michael Bryant, chef at Norman's in West Hollywood. "When it comes to surf and turf, try something new."

Bryant definitely is. He's dishing out chocolate-glazed short ribs with parsnip puree paired with halibut cheeks over bacon-braised cabbage.

Sound like a bit much? But then, surf and turf was born of excess. Steakhouses of the '60s and '70s may have given rise to the term surf and turf -- one of the earliest published references is said to be a 1967 advertisement in the Yellow Pages for a steakhouse in New York -- but the American steak-and-lobster tradition extends back further. The late 19th century gave rise to New York's lobster palaces, restaurants that served seafood to the newly wealthy of the Gilded Age. One rich railroad salesman in particular, of significant globosity, liked to eat his steaks with his oysters with his ducks with his lobsters.

In 1940s New York, the Palm, an Italian-restaurant-turned-steakhouse, added 2-pound lobsters to its menu. The bigger the lobsters, the more popular the dish: When, in the '70s, the restaurant introduced 4- to-8-pound lobsters, sales jumped from 100 pounds to 25,000 pounds a week.

But there are other reasons surf-and-turf combinations are showing up on contemporary menus. The influence of cuisines that have a long tradition of combining seafood and meat, such as Spanish or Cantonese, and an ever expanding repertoire of specialty ingredients -- Japanese sword squid, veal tongue, baby cuttlefish -- are spurring exuberant experiments.

Lentz's squid stuffed with chorizo and a clam-and-chorizo dish owes a culinary debt to the Portuguese way with seafood, which often involves pork, as in clams cataplana, a stew of clams and pork sausage. Versions of clams cataplana have been showing up all over Los Angeles such as at the new wine bar Bin 8945 (actually, it's a sort of mussels cataplana there), and you can even find the Italian classic vitello tonnato, veal with tuna, at new restaurant Bridge.

The Spanish version of surf and turf, the lyrically named mar i muntanya, or sea and mountain, refers to the foothills of the Pyrenees that extend to the Mediterranean Sea. It's the underlying principle of Catalan dishes such as chicken with lobsters or rabbit with langoustines.

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