Kenji Seki has left the China Grill, the smash-hit new restaurant he helped open last year on the ground floor of the CBS Building in Manhattan. Kenji, as he likes to be known, is familiar to many L.A. restaurant-goers as the longtime floor manager at Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, and indeed, the China Grill borrowed a number of employees and most of its menu from Chinois. ("It's as if they bastardized my child," Chinois creator Wolfgang Puck told New York magazine recently, referring to the China Grill's food. "Now I know how Mario Puzo feels when he sees 'The Sicilian'.")
When asked why he left the China Grill, Kenji replies, "No comment." But he does say that he is leaving New York almost immediately to move to San Francisco, where he hopes to have another restaurant open within six months. He had had several offers of backing for a restaurant in LA, he adds, but anticipated that he would have too many problems with building permits, a liquor license and so on here. "It's much easier in San Francisco," he says. "I want to do something downtown where there will be a good lunch business. And the food won't be like the China Grill's at all."
Kenji's partner in China Grill, Philadelphia-based real estate syndicator Jeffery Chodorow, says that, "Basically Kenji was involved with the opening of the restaurant, and I think he enjoyed the opening more than he did being the host. He liked the challenge of getting it started, and now maybe he wants another challenge of the same kind. We're still good friends, though, and he will continue to be associated with the restaurant to the extent that he can give us advice. He'll come in periodically, too, I hope."
Though Kenji was widely considered by the New York press and regular customers alike to have been the animating spirit of the China Grill, and though the place seemed imbued with his own hip, witty sensibility, Chodorow stresses that he too had a lot to do with setting the place up. "I wasn't just somebody with dollars," he said. "This was not a passive activity for me. I was very instrumental from the beginning in making a lot of decisions about the place. This has never been a one-person restaurant."
Nancy Robinson, another former Chinois on Main staffer, whom Kenji brought with him to the China Grill, stays on as manager of the restaurant.
FINAL BOW: Leo Steiner, proprietor of New York's fabled Carnegie Deli, died suddenly of a brain tumor at the age of 48 in New York early this month. At one time, Steiner had planned to open an L.A. branch of the Carnegie. The New York original, particularly famous as a hangout for comedians and gag writers (and featured as such in the Woody Allen movie "Broadway Danny Rose"), carries on as usual, under Steiner family management--but expansion plans have been suspended.
CRAZY DOGS AND INCANDESCENT PHEASANTS: The food in the main dining room upstairs at the Rattlesnake Club in Denver--which is owned by chef Jimmy Schmidt and L.A.'s own Michael McCarty--is serious, smart, contemporary American stuff. Downstairs, though, in the restaurant's Grill Room, Schmidt and associates bring imaginative changes to Mexican and Southwestern food--and present their creations anything but seriously. Here are some items listed on recent Grill Room menus, written in Schmidt's own straightforward Spanish:
"Calamares Atacados por Piranas Bidimensionales" ("Squid Attacked By Bidimensional Piranha"--a dish of fried squid with tomato sauce); "Objetos Redondos Centrifugos Destrozados y Atlanados" ("Round Objects, Centrifuged, Destroyed and Flattened"--a cracker-crust pizza with tomatoes and capers); "Faisan Encandesente" ("Incandescent Pheasant," or spicy pheasant pizza); "Perro Loco con Queso" ("Crazy Dog With Cheese," which is of course a cheese-topped tamale served with green beef and lamb chili); "Carga en Profundidad en la Bahia de Bengala" ("Sunken Cargo in the Bay of Bengal," which translates to shrimp, cheese and poblano pepper empanadas ), and, maybe best of all, "Explosion Nuclear en el Campo de Calabezas" ("Nuclear Explosion in the Pumpkin Patch"--another kind of empanadas with a blue cheese and pumpkin sauce).
HORNED MELON AND KIWANO FLAN: According to exotic produce queen Frieda Kaplan in a recent edition of her weekly Hot Sheet, the next big fruit just might turn out to be an orange-spiked, green-fleshed African horned melon called kiwano. The fruit, says Kaplan, is delicious and has many uses, some of which she suggests. Blame her, not me, then, if in the near future your neighborhood bistro offers you a kiwano prawn cocktail, a kiwano and potato salad with chile, a kiwano smoothie, a kiwano lime meringue or a kiwano flan.
HAPPENINGS: Next Sunday, Chez Melange in Redondo Beach hosts its third annual "For Our Children" food and wine tasting event to benefit St. Clare's Family Care Center. Many of the usual suspects will participate, among them the Crocodile Cafe, Camelions, Le Chardonnay, Tosh, Patout's, Celestino's, Les Anges, Magdalena's, the Shenandoah Cafe and wineries from Alexander Valley Vineyards to White Hall Lane Winery. Tickets for the event are $50 each, and hours are from 3 to 6 p.m. . . .
If you leave Redondo Beach a bit early, you'll just have time, the same evening, to get to Gilliland's in Santa Monica for an evening of Corbett Canyon Wines and Moroccan banquet food beginning at 6, for $45 a head. . . .
Jan. 25 is, of course, Scottish poet Robert Burns' birthday, and the Tam O'Shanter Inn on Los Feliz Boulevard will celebrate the occasion with bagpipers, Highland dancers and a complimentary sample of haggis for all dinner guests.