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On the Menu: White Lotus brings signature seafood to LA
Executive Chef Andrew Pastore gives Asian ingredients a French/Italian spin
Joan M. Lang
February 01, 2005
Can an Italian guy from Brooklyn, N.Y., find success and happiness as the chef of a trendy pan-Asian sushi restaurant in Hollywood, Calif.? He can if he loves seafood.
“I really like the ingredients I work with here,” says Andrew Pastore, executive chef of White Lotus, a Euro-Asian restaurant-cum-club that opened in January 2003. “Most of what we do here is seafood.”
Pastore has always been fascinated by Asian food, watching short-order cooks in Chinese restaurants work their magic with knives and woks. He eventually ended up in a line position at JoJo in Manhattan during the time chef-owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten was first experimenting with Asian flavors and ingredients. He also spent some time in the kitchen at Sullivan’s, a quirky New York restaurant whose menu was half-steakhouse and half-Cantonese. The Asian chef there, typically secretive, wouldn’t actually teach him anything, but Pastore watched his every move — and learned anyway.
Pastore’s menu at White Lotus is a fusion of familiar sushi-bar items and one-of-a-kind signatures that apply French and Italian cooking techniques to Asian ingredients, including Sesame Crusted Halibut Filet with coconut and kefir lime sticky rice, and Spicy Tuna Titaki & Heirloom Tomato Salad. There are also a number of specialty sushi rolls, like the cult-favorite Mysterious Andy Roll, an elaborate, $32 assemblage of crab, crispy red onions and caviar, garnished with edible 24-karat-gold leaf. About 75 percent of the restaurant’s total sales come from the kitchen as opposed to the sushi bar, an unusually high percentage for a Japanese restaurant.
But White Lotus is no Japanese restaurant.
“The menu was conceived as a ‘happy medley’ of different foods,” says Pastore, who takes his inspiration from any number of different quarters. The sauce for the steak, for instance, combines soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and cream, reduced until it’s luxuriously thick and clingy.
The medley approach is evident with White Lotus’s Thai Spicy Coconut Bouillabaisse, which combines lobster, green mussels, clams, scallops and rice noodles with sweet basil, chili and coconut milk.
Many items begin life as specials, which Pastore and the kitchen crew work through with the waitstaff before serving them to customers.
“Everything has to be approved by the waiters first,” he says. “They’re my guinea pigs. If they gobble it up in a flash, I know they’ll be out there selling it to their customers, but if there are any negative comments at all, it’s back to the drawing board. And they certainly don’t mind helping me out.”
Pastore often experiments with more unusual fish species as nightly specials, such as John dory and black sea bass, which is not frequently seen on the West Coast. The restaurant’s popular whole snapper started as a special. The cavity of the fish is stuffed with Chinese aromatics like cilantro and ginger, and then the fish is deep-fried, so that the flavors infuse the snapper’s flesh.
Having numerous specials every night helps Pastore keep popular signature dishes on the menu without risking customer — or kitchen — boredom. There is also a rotating selection of specialty sushi rolls that are featured on weekday nights; the Andy Roll, for instance, takes 20 minutes to make, a time luxury the sushi bar can’t afford on a busy Saturday rush.
The sushi bar is its own little fiefdom, presided over by Hiroji (Brian) Obayashi, who was born in Orange County, Calif., but speaks fluent Japanese. There are two other Japanese sushi chefs as well as several Japanese assistants, but the rest of the kitchen staff is American.
Many customers, especially those in bigger parties, will order a platter of sushi to share along with appetizers to begin their meal, then move on to cooked items from the kitchen — just as Pastore intended.
Obayashi helped Pastore establish vendor relationships with such Japanese seafood suppliers as Yamimoto and Mishimoto and handles any ordering that needs to be done in Japanese — thus ensuring that White Lotus benefits from all the nuances of quality and price on highly volatile product. But Pastore has the best of both worlds, working with a total of seven fish vendors, including True World Foods International in Sumner, Wash., and Fish Warehouse Corp. in Los Angeles.
“We need several different suppliers because of quality and availability issues,” notes Pastore. “Sometimes I’ll get better sushi-grade product from the Fish Warehouse, so that’s who I’ll order it from that day. You have to stay communicating with your vendors so you know who has what, and they know what kind of product you expect.”
Pastore orders fish every day; that’s part of the menu concept. Even though he knows he’ll use about 50 pounds of halibut in a given week, he’ll order it daily, 5 to 10 pounds at a time.
“It may cost a little more and take a little more time, but I don’t mind. I get what I want that way.”
He and Obayashi order much of the fish in whole form and break it down in-house. Again, the issue is quality, and being involved with the product as much as possible.
"It's a pride thing," says Pastore. "Being able to work with fish helped me earn the respect of the Japanese staff."
Pastore is also proud of the fact that 90 percent of White Lotus's menu consists of signature items that you can't get anywhere else. "Yes, you can get a tuna roll or yellowtail sushi, but I don't know of anyplace else in town that you can get an heirloom tomato salad made with peppered Japanese toro tuna."