Chefs in a countdown to tomato time

Summer's officially here ... so where are all the fat, juicy, tasty tomatoes? It's not quite tomato season yet, but chefs are already jonesing for those great seasonal varietals and multihued, big-character heirlooms. All those visions of plump, ripe, flavorful tomatoes have them fantasizing about delicious gazpachos, colorful salads, pastas napped in fresh tomato sauce, tomato sorbet.

"I'm chomping at the bit," admits Craig Strong, chef at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington in Pasadena. "There's something about a perfectly ripe tomato that touches your memory," he says, going into some tomato-induced reverie. "It's the scent of the tomato, almost the vine."

Strong is already fantasizing about juicy gazpacho served with crunchy lobster "croutons." "When you smell those tomatoes that are in the heart of the season, there's no mistaking it. Your dish will have that same resonance," he says.

"It's frustrating," says Jason Travi, chef at 2-month-old Fraîche in Culver City, of having to wait for great tomatoes. He's dreaming about a luscious tomato tasting with a few different preparations on one platter. He's flirting with a panzanella salad made with Sungold cherry tomatoes, and a crispy Parmesan cone filled with tomato sorbet.

"And obviously, we're going to have a caprese salad," he adds. He'll make his with juicy-ripe tomatoes marinated in olive oil, lemon and salt, and burrata in lieu of the traditional mozzarella. Oh, will they never arrive?

"When will tomatoes come so we can have that luscious, olivey tomato background?" moans Corina Weibel of Canelé in Atwater Village. She's dying to pair wedges of assorted heirloom tomatoes, seasoned simply with herbs and shallots and tossed with torn croutons, with crispy-skinned seared snapper, drizzled with a little olive oil and lemon juice.

Nobody's craving them more than this guy. Sal Marino, chef at Il Grano in West L.A., is especially sensitive to the great tomato wait because his family hails from the province of Naples, where tomato is king.

"In the south, everything has tomatoes," he says. It doesn't help matters that his customers keep asking when his annual Sagra del Pomodoro, or all-tomato menu, is starting up.

For this year's Sagra del Pomodoro, which will probably begin in late July, he's planning Bloody Mary shooters made with Tolstoy tomatoes; mozzarella and burrata ravioli rolled and twisted to look like little candies and finished in a sauce of peeled Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes; and mini sandwiches of tomato, burrata and pancetta.

Making the wait even harder, Strong says, is the answering machine message he hears every time he calls in his lettuce order to Scarborough Farms in Oxnard. "They tease you," Strong says. "They say, 'Heirloom tomatoes are almost here.' "

It's tomato torture.

— Leslee Komaiko

Small bites Pink Taco is scheduled to open Friday above Houston's in the Westfield Century City mall. The rock 'n' roll Mexican eatery, with locations in Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Ariz., will serve traditional fare such as carne asada tacos, along with more experimental entries like a Mexico City Hot Dog and a chorizo sausage stuffed with cheese and jalapeños and wrapped in bacon. 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 789-1000.

The restaurant at the Luxe Hotel on Sunset Boulevard has a new look; a new chef, Olivier Rousselle, formerly executive chef at Michael's, then Camden House in Beverly Hills; and a new name, On Sunset, not to be confused with the buzzy new restaurant, One Sunset. At One Sunset, from the owners of One Little West 12 and STK in New York, Chef Christopher Ennis offers a menu of progressive American fare.

On Sunset, 11461 Sunset Blvd., L.A., (310) 476-6571. One Sunset, 8730 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-0111.

Firefly Bistro adds live blues to its Sunday brunch, guitar licks courtesy of Barry Big B Brenner to go with that "green goddess omelet" filled with arugula, asparagus, artichoke, Gruyere and parsley pesto.

Firefly Bistro, 1009 El Centro St., South Pasadena, (626) 441-2443.

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