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LA Times - Chefs who really make dishes pop

Chefs who really make dishes pop

Bastide's Ludovic Lefebvre is among the chefs sneaking soda pop and popcorn into the dining room.

Would chefs rather be at the movies than in the kitchen? It sure seems like it, judging from several local menus.

Bastide's Ludovic Lefebvre is among the chefs sneaking soda pop and popcorn into the dining room. Just look at the poulard on his summer menu.

The plumped chicken is marinated in Pepsi for about 48 hours, then braised. How American is that? Very, says the Burgundy-born chef. "In America, I always see people eating chicken and drinking Coke," he says.

"I love using popcorn too," adds Lefebvre, who pairs the poulard with a mixture of fresh corn, polenta, popcorn and salted butter.

A couple of other carbonated dishes pop up at the Melrose Place restaurant, both made with orange-flavored Nehi soda. Order the poached lobster with udon noodles and, tableside, a waiter will spritz the lobster with a blend of Nehi, sake and fresh orange juice. For dessert, a touch of mad soda science: Lefebvre freezes Nehi with liquid nitrogen to make a creamy topping for a hot chocolate soufflé.

Also fizzing things up is pastry chef Tim Butler of Providence, the stylish new seafood place on Melrose Avenue. He freezes Brandenburg ginger ale to make a granité (the French version of granita) and pairs it with diced elephant heart plums or pluots as a palate cleanser between the cheese and dessert courses.

Over at Beechwood in Venice, chef Brooke Williamson's into carbonation chemistry. She uses Coke to marinate the skirt steak and to braise the short ribs featured on the bar menu.

"It tenderizes the meat," she says, and "breaks down the fibrous tissue that makes the meat tough. Also, it adds a nice, sweet, caramelizing flavor. It's used a lot in Korean barbecue marinades. That's where I learned it."

When Williamson's not pouring Coke, she's popping corn for garnish. She adorns a peanut butter truffle tart with homemade Cracker Jack and tops puréed corn soup with popcorn.

A few blocks away at Joe's, soft-shell crab is enrobed in coarsely ground popcorn and tempura batter before hitting the deep fryer. The popcorn, says chef-owner Joe Miller, "adds a little extra so it's really puffy."

Customers "may not know it's popcorn," he says. "But it would definitely stick out as 'What is that?' "

But for those of you who prefer popcorn simply buttered and salted, and your soda straight up, see you at the movies.

Small bites

Amuse in Venice is closed and may or may not reopen. "We're looking into selling it," says chef-owner Brooke Williamson, who also operates Beechwood with her partner, Nick Roberts. "But we're not sure what's going to pan out." Williamson cited "lots of reasons" for the closure but did not offer specifics. "It's been a rough couple of years," she said, no doubt alluding to the struggles the restaurant had in securing a liquor license.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Wilshire restaurant is on track to open next month in the old Knoll's Black Forest Inn space in Santa Monica. (A "For Lease" sign for an office space in the same building had some passersby thinking the project was dead.) The chef is Christopher Blobaum, most recently of the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach. Blobaum will be turning out contemporary American and Mediterranean fare inspired by what's fresh at the farmers market.

The much-anticipated Lodge Steakhouse is opening its doors later this month in the former Beverly Hills Coffee Shop (then briefly Temple) location. Adolfo Suaya, one of the owners, describes it as "a traditional steakhouse with all the basics — creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, big dry-aged steaks — but with a beautiful design by Dodd Mitchell." Suaya, who also owns Gaucho Grill and is a partner in the Dolce Group (Dolce, Geisha House), teamed up with L.A. promoter and former Hollywood Canteen owner Michael Sutton for this latest endeavor. Look for another Dolce Group project, Della Cucina Italiana, to open soon in Hollywood.

The Lodge Steakhouse, 14 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 854-0024.