California Cooking | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

California Cooking 

It's healthy, it's multicultural, and it only took 20 years to get here.

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It's annoying to have to say something nice about the state that gave us roller blading, hot tubbing, smart drugging, and Aaron Spelling, but California's brand of New Southwest cuisine is finally making an impression in Chicago, 20 years after Alice Waters invented it at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. One happy result of this development is that it's been months since I received a press release announcing a new Italian restaurant.

Instead I've been inundated with hype for places like Jezebel, which opened last summer. It bills itself as a Mediterranean restaurant emphasizing Italian food, to which it adds Greek, Egyptian, and Spanish dishes. The even newer Misto, whose chef came from Jezebel's kitchen, features a fusion of Italian and Asian cuisines. (Should we expect fortune biscotti?) These, of course, are classic examples of restaurateurs hedging their bets against the Italian glut, but they also reflect the California-inspired shift toward multicultural cookery.

LA chefs like Spago's Wolfgang Puck combine cuisines and techniques from the Orient, Italy, and France. Susan Feniger aand Mary Sue Milliken, who trained at Chicago's original Le Perroquet, operate LA's City, where the international menu includes Indian tandoori chicken, Greek moussaka, Spanish seviche, and Thai melon salad. Chicago chef Donna Knezek, who apprenticed with them, is serving up the same sort of food for half the price at Leo's Lunchroom on Division. I hope this cross-cooking won't cause the kind of confusion that could result from finding arugula and ruggelah on the same menu. If I'm expecting a buttery pastry filled with apples and cinnamon, any kind of lettuce is going to be a disappointment.

The superb cuisine at the recently opened Brett's in Roscoe Village, which the owner describes as "California, only heartier," is similar to French regional cooking, the newest food fad on the horizon. One of the appetizers on Brett's exhaustively detailed menu shows where all of this creativity can lead: braised garlic cloves with three radishes; sun dried tomato, balsamic vinegar, and basil; mustard seed, tarragon, and green peppercorns; lemon, sweet potato, sage, and toasted pecans--a nice warm-up exercise before tackling Ulysses.

It's taken a while, but thanks to California dining out in Chicago has also become healthier, relying more on fresh vegetables and fruits, fresh fish instead of red meat, and fewer fattening or high-cholesterol ingredients. Food is more highly seasoned than ever, but it's done with less salt and more fresh herbs, exotic spices, and chili peppers. Southwest cuisine is heavily influenced by its proximity to Mexico. All the chilis it employs have been paying the country club dues of Beverly Hills gastroenterologists for years, and now, with the arrival of places like the Blue Iris Cafe, Chicago-area docs are starting to salivate. One of the cafe's entrees, although technically not a cash cow, is certainly a major medical money-maker: pork tenderloin marinated with chili caribe sauce, accompanied by spinach sauteed with chilis, bacon, onion, garlic, and pinto beans.

Stylish presentation is part of the New Southwest mystique, and Chicago chefs seem to be catching on. Misto's Sami Signorino once won a contest with a table decoration consisting of a motorboat skimming over blue meringue water pulling two crawdads by linguine tow ropes. Did I mention that Sami is the daughter of the bent Straight Dope cartoonist Slug Signorino? Did I have to?

Health and political reasons may be responsible for people abandoning white wine in favor of red, but suddenly everyone's drinking California merlot. Suddenly everyone's also going home with red wine headaches, which could lead to a drop in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Thanks again, California.

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