The Chinese New Year, also known as The Spring Festival, begins Feb. 10th and is celebrated for two weeks. This will be The Year of the Serpent in the Chinese zodiac calendar, and the Los Angeles Times described people born under this sign as "seductive, gregarious, charming, smart, good with money and, at times, a little jealous." Sound like anyone you know? Some famous people born under this sign are Edgar Allen Poe, Howard Hughes, Aristotle Onassis, Mao Tse-Tung. Martin Luther King (and me). I celebrate this holiday every year because of my affinity for Chinese culture and passion for Chinese food. In past years I have given a celebratory dinner party at my little 'secret' restaurant, Hop Woo, at Olympic and Sepulveda in West Los Angeles, an authentic eatery serving much of the same food available only in San Gabriel Valley spots. This year for various reasons I have decided to honor the event at a few of my favorite Chinese dining places with an assortment of friends, family and associates. There will be a Peking duck dinner with my British friends, Freddie and Sophie Windsor, at the rediscovered (to me) Joss diagonally across from the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Dim sum served from rolling carts will be a Sunday brunch with other friends at the Palace, formerly the VIP Harbor Seafood, upstairs at Barrington & Wilshire. It is not the equivalent of my favorite dim sum place, Elite in Monterey Park, but here they serve some unexpected treats from those rolling carts... things like chicken feet and jook (flavored porridge) along with sui mai and har gow dumplings. I'll sneak off to Hop Woo for a few lunches of cold hacked chicken and shrimp with lobster sauce. Perhaps Peking Duck at Vicky Mense's so-convenient and healthy Xi'An on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. But my main celebration will be at Chinois-on-Main (2709 Main Street, Santa Monica, 310-392-9025), a restaurant founded by Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff with which I have a long history but had not visited for several years.
To properly prepare for this event, I had a tasting dinner last evening with two friends at Chinois, and want to report on it now for Huffington Post readers who might want to do the same. This is a restaurant which I first visited on Sept. 2, 1983, which was a night before its official opening. A prominent movie executive had arranged a private party there... and when we all arrived, learned that the restaurant's gas had not yet been connected. But Wolfgang and his staff coped by setting up temp burners in the alley and cooked a fabulous repast. I then returned when it was officially open and wrote the first extensive rave review of it. Wolf's then-wife, the dynamic Barbara Lazaroff, had created the extravagant, exciting décor... and it pretty much remains the same to this day. Last night Barbara (born under the sign of the serpent, as was her son Cameron) stopped by the restaurant to greet me and detail some small changes she would be making to the 30-year-old dining spot... a new painting or two, some touching up. Chef Rene Mata waved to me from his open kitchen and Bella Lantsman, the general manager and partner, told me that he had been cooking in this kitchen since 1987, working under several master chefs until he took over the top toque. Bella's story is wonderful in itself, from the days when she arrived in the U.S. from Russia and went to work for a restaurant supply company in 1981, where she met young Chef Wolfgang Puck from Ma Maison and they became friends. When Wolf and Barbara opened the original Spago in 1982, she helped them setting up the restaurant... and when they decided to expand by opening Chinois, they offered her the position of bookkeeper and assistant manager, becoming general manager and partner in 1990. Her husband, Norman, and she eventually bought and still own that restaurant supply company. Much of the continued success of Chinois is attributed to her astute, loving and imaginative management. She and her husband are always present serving up food at almost every charity food event held in our city... a great woman who will greet you as you enter the door.
Last night's dinner included two friends who also had a long relationship with Chinois, and we decided to feature an extensive dinner of the classic dishes which we all loved from dinners past. Susan Swerdloff is now a senior vice president of Union Bank and had hosted several bank parties here in years past, while Greg White had been her associate all that time and now is a food blogger (firstname.lastname@example.org). We agreed in advance on a selection of dishes and Bella obliged. First up were the warm, sweet curried oysters with cucumber sauce and salmon pearls ($19.50), succulent and terrific. But the show-stopper came next, the legendary Chinois Chicken Salad ($19.50), the best Chinese chicken salad in a city profuse with them. I commented that the BBQ baby pork ribs with soy honey glaze ($21) should also be on any appetizer selection. But then the first of two entree fishes appeared... and we dug into a Whole Sizzling Fried Catfish ($37) with its ginger-ponzu sauce. Of course, as dictated by Confucius, the eldest at the table (me) confiscated the head and tail of the fish, symbolizing the beginning and the end of the new year... but Greg and Susan were too busy with the crispy moist fish chunks to complain. We all had agreed that the Shanghai Lobster had to be part of any dinner, and it appeared next. The meat had been extracted from the shells, which were used as decoration. The lobster morsels were placed atop jasmine rice (which symbolize longevity) and dressed with an amazing curry sauce. To complete the dish, we dug into a pile of crispy spinach. Now, in many places which serve crisp fried spinach, it is actually the top leaves of another green... but here it really was spinach which had been flash-wokked 'til perfect. A second fish then appeared... since I had mentioned that I loved their steamed loup de mer... this one was a large fish adequate for two or four or more ($67). An artist in the kitchen had carved 'roses' from carrots to adorn the seafood. Bella noted the whole fish symbolizes abundance in the Chinese pantheon. A superb dish which you will dream of later that night. There is another fish on the menu, a Roasted Black Cod with spicy miso glaze ($37.50) served in a tea leaf, for next time. I must confess that I was not happy with the next entrée, the Grilled lamb chops ($48.50), with its cilantro vinaigrette warm potato salad. Perhaps it was my salt-antenna, but I thought they may have marinated it a bit too long. However, Greg disagreed and took home the remaining chop for his lunch. I made arrangements to have a Roasted Cantonese duck ($32.95) for my New Year's feast here on the 10th. We also sampled a delectable Calamari and Rock Shrimp Salad ($27.75) served in a won ton cup with a spicy chili paste.
I queried Bella about the plethora of celebrities who have come here over the years, and she was somewhat reluctant to tell me, but eventually I wheedled out of her the fact that Robert Downey, Jr. and Susan were regulars, as was Larry David, and my friends Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. And she mentioned that Woody Allen made it a practice of stopping by whenever he was in town. (Woody and I grew up in the same Flatbush, Brooklyn neighborhood, and as kids we both frequented a small Chinese restaurant on Coney Island Avenue which served a $.35 lunch special. Yes, those were the days.) The mayor stops in frequently and Don Rickles is a regular, as is Anthony Hopkins. Phil Jackson was here just last week. Barbara Lazaroff later told me that a highlight for her was the recent visit of Paloma Picasso, a gracious woman who loves good Chinese food... which we have here in abundance. I was delighted to see that they serve Fiji Water here, my favorite non-alcoholic beverage, and then I was astonished in examining the wine list at the breadth and depth of it. I ordered a bottle of Justin Isoceles, which goes so well with this deeply flavored food. Bella told me that the lunch crowd consists of many regulars, while the menu has many lower-priced dishes. I was astonished that every table as taken on a rainy Monday night... a sign of the loyalty which its patrons give this wonderful place.
After dinner, Bella took us next door to see the private dining room, and was suitably impressed by its beauty and functionality, a spacious Orientally-decorated space seating 40 or so comfortably, more for a cocktail party, with its own kitchen. The rare 100-year-old jade Buddha which I always wear around my neck for good luck felt comforted with so many other Buddhas in both rooms. It is a Buddha-friendly atmosphere and, as a zen juddist, I felt at home. This is a spectacular, beautiful, and satisfying restaurant which seems to have aged so gracefully under Bella's guidance that it is new again.
On Feb, 10th and 11th, they will be serving a special Year of the Ssserpent dinner ($90 per person, food only, tax, tip and beverage additional). It begins with a sashimi of tuna tartar, salmon and yellowtail. Then goes to a coconut seafood soup, followed by a savory dim-sum delight... seafood sui mai, shrimp spring rolls, and chicken potstickers. There will be a steamed catfish roll stuffed with winter vegetables, served with stir-fried bok choy... and the piece de resistance, the exotic five-spice-rubbed, oven-roasted French beef, with long-life (uncut) Chinese noodles, and a surprise dessert. You know where I will be on the start of the Chinese New Year, so why don't you join me? Gong Xi Fa Cai!
Chinois-on-Main is open for lunch Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 11:30 am to 2 pm. It is open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 6 pm to 10 pm. On Friday and Saturday they stay open 'til 10:30 pm. Sunday it is open from 5:30 pm to 10 pm.
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