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Can Do 

Thursday, Mar 31 2005
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Photo by Anne FishbeinWhen my friend Barry e-mailed me about a special dinner he had set up at Yi Cuisine, a multi-course extravaganza in which every course involved Spam, my response was probably not as grateful as it might have been. While I have probably enjoyed more than my share of feasts devoted to a single ingredient, it must be said that I was already predisposed towards black truffles, or spring’s first asparagus, or the fall’s bounty of shot game. I still count an all-lobster meal at Joachim Splichal’s ’80s restaurant Max au Triangle as among the best dinners I have ever eaten in my life, but it wasn’t as if I trembled at the sight of a lobster even before the meal. Spam was a different matter. I have always thought of myself as possessing an ecumenical attitude toward Spam. I didn’t grow up eating Spam — we were more of a Vienna sausage family — but when I encountered the substance as an adult, I have always tried to keep an open mind. In Hawaii, I rarely turn down a chance to try gas-station Spam musubi, triangular bricks of vinegared sushi rice stuffed with pink, glistening slabs of the luncheon meat and burrito-wrapped in sheets of dark-green seaweed. I have tasted Spam-topped noodles at Gardena coffeeshops. I have eaten Spamburgers, and I have almost liked them. Spam is like nothing else in the world of cured meats: cloying and sweetly porky; salty, fatty food manufactured for and revered by folks for whom salty, fatty food was once the ultimate in unobtainable luxury. In American Samoa, the average consumption of Spam may approach a can per day per person. On the other hand, I am neither Samoan nor from the great Midwest — Spam, to put it gently, is not among my favorite meats. Yi Cuisine, however, may be one of the most underrated restaurants in Los Angeles, although it is an Asian fusion joint that superficially resembles every other Asian fusion joint in Los Angeles, down to the tasteful trance music, the exotic lighting, and the yoga-toned regulars around the bar. It would be possible to visit Yi a dozen times without realizing that there was more to the place than soju martinis, tuna tartare with avocado and crunchy, sweet honey-fried rock shrimp. The light fixtures fashioned from pierced ostrich eggs are as serenely Zen as any bed of raked pebbles, and each monumental water sculpture, each gold-leafed abstract painting on the walls, was undoubtedly placed with the assistance of a feng-shui consultant. Chef Rodelio Aglibot came from behind the stoves at Koi, which is to the new wave of Los Angeles fusion restaurants what Chinois was to the first one: the spot that wrote the rules. But Aglibot, a Filipino born in Spam-loving Hawaii, has quite a different conception of Asian food than chefs whose formal training came in Japan, and Yi Cuisine’s menu has always proudly, unabashedly included Filipino dishes. There may be delicious pan-seared sea bass rubbed with tandoori spices, and raw oysters with tiny scoops of wasabi sorbet in the manner of New York chef Rick Moonen, but there are also plates of chicken adobo, oxtail kare kare, and a light, tamarind-soured seafood stew much like an upscale sinigang, which is more or less the Filipino national dish. Yi serves lumpia instead of the closely related spring rolls, homemade tocino with its eggs at brunch instead of industrial bacon, garlic noodles finished with a sprinkling of the funky dried shrimp paste bagoong instead of Parmesan cheese. The best dish in the restaurant is probably the pata, a crisp, super-rich braised and roasted pork knee that is made with fancy kurobuta pork and served with a vinegar dip enriched with foie gras instead of the traditional pureed pork liver, but otherwise the only way it differs from the crispy pata served at all the other Filipino restaurants in Los Angeles is that it tastes better. At the end of the meal, when minds turn to chocolate, Aglibot tempts his customers away with luscious avocado mousse. If you were going to trust one chef in Los Angeles with eight courses of Spam, Aglibot, a muscular dude with the restless energy of a major-league shortstop, might be your guy. Still, as I slid into the booth in the main dining room at Yi, seconds before the onslaught of luncheon meat was supposed to begin, I couldn’t help hoping that he had somehow forgotten about the premise of the meal, that we were about to enjoy a tasting of bangus or lechon instead. The actual menu at Yi Cuisine, after all, is as free of Spam as my tenderest dreams. Out came skewers of grilled Spam dusted with sesame, spears of tempura-fried Spam-wrapped asparagus and Spam-wrapped sea scallops, little blocks of Spam tethered to sushi-size blocks of caramelized rice. For once I remembered my doctor’s admonition to leave half of each course on the plate, although any spare bits of food at the table tended to gravitate towards Tom, a part-time Iowa resident forced to spend most of each year in the relatively Spam-deprived precincts of Silver Lake. Spam carpaccio was surprisingly tasty, thin slices of the stuff brushed with a sweet sauce and garnished with slivers of grilled foie gras. The next course was good, too: a plate of bitter, charred grilled endive and radicchio speckled with clumps of blue cheese and strewn with matchsticks of Spam that had been broiled to the crispness of bacon, like some Tongan version of a French country salad. (At this point, most of the restaurant became aware that we were eating an all-Spam meal. Other diners started drifting towards our table to see what was up, as if we were the guys eating earthworms on Fear Factor. I noticed that nobody asked for a bite.) Then came a plate of shumai, Chinese open-faced dumplings that had been stuffed with Spam and rock shrimp and steamed — the Spam came through a little too strongly on that one, though Tom liked it a lot — and small bowls of arroz caldo, a lovely Filipino-style rice porridge, like congee, dressed with a few shreds of baby bok choy, a nicely poached egg and a rather punishing quantity of cubed Spam. What does one drink with Spam, you may ask? In our case, Martinelli Gewürztraminer, a fragrant, bone-dry Alsatian-style white from Sonoma County whose high, apple-like acidity was almost high enough to scrub away the lingering aftertaste of the canned meat. Nothing short of Drano, though, would have been sufficient to erase the taste of Spam Wellington, an entire can’s worth baked in pastry with a duxelles of shiitake mushrooms, a dish so revolting in its native pinkness — the pastry itself was decorated to look like a can of Spam — that even Tom couldn’t manage more than a couple of bites. In a battle between Spam and Angelenos, the Spam will win every time. Aglibot has a sense of humor. Dessert was a delicious version of the Filipino parfait halo halo served in rinsed-out Spam cans. Did we finish it anyway? We did. Yi Cuisine, 7910 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 658-8028, www.yicuisine.com. Lunch Tues.-Fri., dinner nightly. American Express, Mastercard and Visa accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Small plates, $9–$15; medium plates, $14–$22; big plates, $22–$36; desserts, $8. Recommended dishes: tandoori Chilean sea bass; crispy pata; avocado mousse.

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