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In search of a good stew

Wednesday, Feb 7 2001
Photo by Anne Fishbein

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Stew is the stuff of memory, and, as such, can be very good: my mother’s blanquette, veal in velvety cream (served one time taffy-sweet, when she accidentally used confectioner’s sugar instead of flour in her roux); the peppery, fruity lapin aux pruneaux I ate, at 19, on the outskirts of Paris; my first bite of chili that didn’t come from a can. Of course, the memories can be equally bad, such as the stew a college roommate tried to make in an hour, resulting in hard potatoes, tough meat and a can of tomatoes sitting indifferently, like strangers at a party, in tinned beef broth. If there is one thing stew needs, it is what memory is handmaiden to: time. Time for the ingredients to meet, court and, eventually, marry. With the exception of oyster stew (a love-at-first-sight affair that requires only that oysters be flashed in a pan of bubbling butter and bathed in hot milk), stew is something to be started in the morning and eaten at night, or, better, the next day, for if ever there was a food enriched by time, it is stew. It is an ur-dish, no doubt made since earliest man needed to turn whatever was at hand into something edible. And in L.A., one would expect no shortage of bowls, cauldrons and crocks spilling pan-ethnic riches.

Beginning with the stew of (my American) childhood, I conjure an image of something bubbly and beefy, a bone-warming bowl enjoyed before a hearth. Perhaps at the Tam O’ Shanter Inn, in Atwater Village, where I’ve eaten excellent sandwiches cut from slabs of brisket. At Christmastime, carolers in 19th-century garb fa-la-la through the labyrinthine rooms, roast goose is presented before roaring fires, and there’s a stew that sounds divine: a Yorkshire pudding filled with filet mignon and mushroom caps, in a Burgundy wine sauce, charmingly called Toad in the Hole. Which no doubt would be more interesting were it actually a toad in a hole. Instead it is a dense disk of pudding, sodden with what tastes like canned gravy, topped with chunks of tasteless beef and blunt strips of green pepper. It is the sort of desperate “I’ll eat this because I’m starving” fare one puts up with in a ski lodge.

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Not ready for another attempt at beef stew, I head to Far Niente, in Glendale, to try the caciucco Livornese, a shellfish stew from the seaport city of Livorno. I am entranced by the panini fritti, squiggles of fried and salted dough, and with the baby-spinach salad, served in a â portion that would win an Italian grandmother’s approval. And here is the caciucco, a gigantic soup plate brimming with baby clams, green mussels, giant prawns and tiny calamari, swimming in cup upon cup of a tomatoey broth that tastes like . . . nothing. No depth of spice, no pepper’s heat, perhaps one faraway cry of garlic.

I need flavor, and go to the Ethiopian restaurant Nyala, on Fairfax Avenue, to try its famed yemiser wot, a stew of red lentils. A vermilion paste made fiery with ginger and garlic and smoky with cumin, it is very good, though I cannot help thinking it would be better served as a condiment alongside something more substantial.

I can taste the time in all of these; unfortunately, I detect neither a discerning palate nor attention to detail. Perhaps stew’s relative ease of preparation has rendered it a dish to be thrown together with little heed as to how the ingredients are getting along. I need cooks who will give a stew both time and understanding.

Ah, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, and the south-of-the-border dishes at their celebrated restaurant Ciudad. I love the sun-drenched walls and napery; adore the Chilean wine; the waiters in their persimmon-colored shirts are enthusiastic. As I bite into an opener of nicely chewy plantain gnocchi doused with sharp tomatillo and smooth crema, I anticipate great things from what I’ve come for, the stew congrio con pebre, seared sea bass in a saffron broth. It arrives steaming, in a bowl big enough to provide a facial, the sunset-colored broth buoying slices of red potato and artichoke, and a peak of sea bass so overcooked it tastes like white paper. I reason that the responsibilities of the Two Hot Tamales do not include, at least this evening, being anywhere near the kitchen.

I am ready to admit defeat. There are no good stews in Los Angeles. But how can this be? I must be going about my quest the wrong way.

I send up flares.

“Guelaguetza” . . . “Polka” . . . “Song,” come the voices of those who’ve sailed these culinary waters before me.

How did I forget Saladang Song, the utterly beautiful Thai palace situated next door to its sister restaurant, Saladang, in Pasadena? With its entryway of towering steel panels, an immense patio, and a dining room with sky-high ceilings and walls of translucent glass, the effect is at once epic and airy. I have loved everything I’ve eaten here — the yum eggplant, amethyst-colored grilled Japanese eggplants, bathed in lime and chile, strewn with plump shrimp that taste as though they’ve been caught an hour before; the e-saan combination, a meltingly tender chicken, barbecued maple-brown, perfectly paired with a smooth black pepper sauce. The menu’s crowning glory, which I am elated to return for, is the poo-goong tom ga-ti, a schooner of chile-and-ginger-infused coconut broth, with succulent shrimp and a tangle of crab legs, cracked, so that the sweet meat is easily procured. This is a truly symphonic stew, the velvet of the coconut milk mellowing chile’s heat and softening ginger’s spark, suffusing the shellfish with a harmony of tastes.

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