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Really, why stop at sushi?

L.A. is catching on to the intriguing flavors of crudo. And a new cookbook brings the Italian-style raw fish home.

August 22, 2007|Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writer

SEVEN years ago, when chefs Mario Batali and David Pasternack opened their New York restaurant Esca, they introduced Manhattan to what they called "crudo" -- Italian-style sliced raw fish. It was inspired by the carpaccio di pesce (sometimes referred to as pesce crudo or crudità -- "crudo" means "raw") served up and down Italy's Adriatic coast, but it was ratcheted up -- delicate fluke was topped with briny sea beans and tiny radish slivers; raw scallops got a splash of tangerine oil; bluefish was spiked with chiles and perfumed with mint. New Yorkers went wild.

The basic concept of raw fish Italian-style wasn't entirely new to Americans -- Italian chefs in L.A. had long been serving carpaccio di pesce. In 1998, Salvatore Marino had carpaccio di tonno Lampedusa -- thinly sliced raw tuna with hearts of palm and artichoke -- on his menu at Il Grano, which had opened the year before. Though he since has become L.A.'s resident crudo master -- as anyone who has tasted his gorgeous fantasia di crudo plate can attest -- somehow, the dish never caught on in a big way in L.A. It's curious, considering the city's love affair with sushi.

Now suddenly crudo is making a splash here. At Catch, the new restaurant at Santa Monica's beachfront Hotel Casa del Mar, crudo is the centerpiece of chef Michael Reardon's appetizer menu. Piero Selvaggio plans to unveil a crudo bar at his venerable Santa Monica restaurant, Valentino, by the end of the month. Chef David Lentz plans to feature crudo when he opens a 10-seat raw bar next to his Hollywood restaurant the Hungry Cat this fall. At Tre Venezie in Pasadena, chef Gianfranco Minuz offers a daily crudo special.


Trying it at home

And not a moment too soon, Pasternack has published a cookbook, "The Young Man & the Sea: Recipes and Crispy Fish Tales From Esca," that shows how to make crudo at home.

You'd think crudo would be easy to make at home -- it's often as simple as a few slices of fish with a touch of lemon and olive oil. But for the dish to work, you need to use great quality fish and know how to cut it. Pasternack's book dispenses good advice on both.

But it's a little trickier to take crudo to the next level. The best of them have a flavor accent -- it could be a different citrus juice, or even dried, powdered zest, or a vinegar. Or a sliver of fruit on top. Or a shaving of bottarga (dried mullet or tuna roe). A slice of scallop might get a bit of summer truffle. Instead of plain olive oil, you might use pistachio oil, or Meyer lemon-infused olive oil. In almost all cases you want to finish it with a few flakes of sea salt, and maybe freshly ground pepper.

"Keep it simple, buy great fish, practice restraint," Pasternack says. "If you're getting really great fish, why put 18 different things on it?"

Just back from a fishing trip that took him 110 miles off Montauk, New York, Pasternack says the fish he caught will determine what he'll put on the menu that night. "I start with the fish, then what's in season." This can mean pairing albacore with caper berries, or fluke with sea beans and radishes. If he has black cod, he'll match it with oil, flakes of sea salt, a splash of red wine vinegar and saba (grape juice cooked down to a viscous syrup).

For Catch's Reardon, the inspiration for a crudo dish can come from either direction. "Sometimes you just get the whole dish in your head and you wait for the season to become available; sometimes you wait until you get the fish in your hands."

In the four months since his restaurant's been open, Reardon has created, he estimates, 40 different crudo dishes, among them mackerel with ginger juice and mustard oil, snapper with papaya and lime, and the one dish that's always on the menu: kampachi with sea beans, aged soy sauce and sherry vinegar.

At Valentino, the crudo bar will be helmed by chef de cuisine Giacomo Pettinari, who attributes his knowledge of fish to his stint working as a sushi chef in Bangkok. In Italy, Pettinari had spent a year in Campania at Gennaro Esposito's restaurant Torre del Saracino, known for carpaccio di pesce. "There I got my creativity," Pettinari says.

Until the bar opens, he has been offering crudo specials, often two or three a night. Lately he's been playing with sorbetti (ices), most recently pairing ahi with basil sorbetto and a thin slice of bottarga. He also likes the match-up of raw fish with fruit, such as branzino with cherries or halibut with a few dots of a fantastic lemon sauce Pettinari learned from Esposito.

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