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Roy Choi's "Modern Picnic" 

A-Frame captures Asian-American flavor

Thursday, Jan 13 2011
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View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Asian-American flavor at A-Frame Tavern."

If you want to understand A-Frame, the ski chalet of a tavern that is the latest restaurant from Kogi auteur Roy Choi, you could do worse than to examine the furikake kettle corn that is all but a mandatory appetizer here, a snack that seems to appear on two out of three of the long communal picnic tables.

Furikake is, of course, the seasoning you find hidden behind the soy sauce dispenser at Japanese dives, a mixture of dried seaweed and dried fish and tiny rice crackers that you shake out onto rice balls or fried noodles. Kettle corn is the stuff of county fairs and the occasional farmers market, freshly made popcorn glazed with salt and sugar.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - Furikake kettle corn

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Furikake kettle corn may be a combination that shows up in Hawaiian family rooms, as something to nibble on while watching the Raiders and working your way through a six-pack of Bud Light, but in the context of A-Frame it seems like something entirely new, a mix of crunch and marine sharpness and oozing melted butter that is neither Asian nor American but somehow both at once.

The waiter brings out a tin spatter-ware bowl, lays out a square of brown paper and spills the corn onto the table, kernels rolling behind the silverware holder, piling up by your beer glass like a midden, and trickling onto the floor. You may be a Michelin inspector sent here to keep track of the famous chef, or a 10-figure CEO trying to figure out how to appropriate his latest concept, but like everybody else, you're going to have to deal with this kettle corn with your fingers, bits of seaweed clinging to your sleeve, the taste of young Asian America caught under your fingernails like thick, sweet ointment.

This may be the only Asian-ish restaurant in America that doesn't even have a pair of chopsticks on the premises.

A-Frame, a project with David Reiss, who also owns the Brig, the Alibi Room and Beechwood, among other Westside bars, is Choi's first stab at what might be considered a regular restaurant, with waiter service, alcohol and food not necessarily mounded into a rice bowl or folded into a tortilla. As much a case of adaptive reuse as Choi's Kogi-ized taco trucks or the strip-mall storefront he transformed into the idealized dorm lounge of Chego, A- Frame is an old International House of Pancakes chopped and channeled and buffed to the wood grain, until it resembles a fantasy ski chalet, all blond wood and soaring ceilings, big windows and an intimate patio ideal for sipping Sazeracs on a chilly night. When Choi is in the house, early evenings usually, the dining room thumps with classic L.A. hip-hop, before the soundtrack slouches toward LCD Soundsystem and the like. The crowd is of that deceptively casual Westside sort that always seems as if it would rather be at the beach.

Although it is equipped with a respectable selection of micro-microbrews, including hop-monsters like Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Stone's Sublimely Self-Righteous Black IPA on tap, A-Frame is pretty different from the legion of gastropubs, even in its beer selection: Choi claims that A-Frame, and the Alibi Room, for which he also consults, are the only places outside Koreatown to serve Hite beer from Seoul. A-Frame must be the only place in Los Angeles to charge less for a bottle of the hairy-chested cult zinfandel from Turley than it does for a bottle of Prosecco, and the cocktail list includes both the complex elixirs we have come to expect from local cocktailians and decent if oddball versions of Los Angeles classics like the mai tai and the Blood & Sand.

The subtitle of the restaurant is "Modern Picnic," and in a note on the menu, Choi says that the place was inspired by the feeling of cracking crabs on the Redondo Beach Pier when he was a kid. He also is known to be devoted to Side Street, a late-night Honolulu pupu bar where most of the Waikiki chefs end up after the end of service, a multiethnic local-food pub that pays the kind of loving attention to buffalo wings and hoisin-glazed baby back ribs that its best customers pay to foie gras and $40 plates of grilled opah.

A-Frame, which also serves Koreanized versions of crisp buffalo wings and hoisin-glazed baby back ribs, is somehow all of those things. You lick dried-shrimp salt off your fingers after you work through a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp; wrap lemongrass-scented crab cakes in Korean gaenip leaves; pick up tempura-fried broccoli rabe and sliced pumpkin with your fingers and dunk them into a tart citrus-soy dip.

You will get your hands dirty. The food comes out when the kitchen feels like serving it, and in no particular order.

The excellent clam chowder is kind of Thai-style, with coconut milk and green curry, but with a soulful Italian underpinning of pancetta and a garnish of toasted sourdough baguette. The grilled lamb chops, although they come in a green sauce not far from a Border Grill salsa, are undoubtedly rubbed with Korean chile paste. The sugar nuts, tossed with both slivered beef jerky and Japanese bar crackers, are coated with something that can only be described as pure umami, a funky Vegemite rush. The version of beer-can chicken, the perennial surf-house fave, is rubbed with spices recalling Peruvian pollo a la brasa, although it tends to sacrifice succulence on the altar of crispness.

For dessert? Sticks of deep-fried pound cake rolled in cinnamon — instant churros! — served with a glass of cool chocolate milk. Or better yet, the gargantuan ice cream sandwich, cinnamon ice cream smashed between two oatmeal cookies.

A-FRAME: 12565 W. Washington Blvd., L.A. (310) 398-7700, aframela.com. Open daily 5 p.m.-mid.; bar open until 2 a.m. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Lot parking. Snacks $3-$6; plates $7-$19; desserts $5-$6. Recommended dishes: peel-and-eat shrimp; clam chowder; bittersweet tempura; lamb chops; ice cream sandwich

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