HAUTE CUISINE COMES DOWN TO EARTH : Between them, these chefs own six of L.A.'s most upscale restaurants. But Wolfgang Puck, Bruce Marder and Michel Richard are now turning their attention to affordable food.

TIMES FOOD EDITOR / RESTAURANT CRITIC

Mickey Kanolzer is worried. Wolfgang Puck's childhood friend has munched his way through Spago's kitchen. He has managed Chinois on Main since the day it opened, watching elegant trays of sauteed foie gras and curried lobster as they are devoured by the rich and the famous. He has popped the corks on more bottles of Champagne than he cares to remember. He has eaten in the great restaurants of the world. Now, however, he's afraid he is going to get fat.

"I love this food," he says, patting his growing belly. "And this beer . . . ." He takes a swig from an enormous mug and wipes the foam off his top lip. "This place . . ., " he says. Words momentarily fail him. ". . . It's going to be great!"

It is Wolfgang Puck's enormous new Eureka Restaurant and Brewing Company, due to open any day on an unprepossessing lot behind a dress manufacturing plant in West L.A. The man who made fine food fun is now moving in a new direction. When he opened Spago, Puck took the starch out of elegant eating and turned the fine dining experience into a party. Now he's got his eye on everyday eating. Dinner time may never be the same.

Dan Berger describes Eureka's beers, brewing techniques.

Eureka, some three years in the planning, is a vast building. In the back, a pristine industrial space holds huge, gleaming, slightly menacing tanks of lager that lie in wait for the unwary. "Don't touch that!" shouts Kanolzer as somebody steps up to a spigot and begins to give it a spin. "It could explode on you." He runs off to find one of the experts who knows how to draw a tankard of beer. Kanolzer smiles expectantly as the amber liquid comes bubbling out of the vat; it is a gutsy, slightly sweet brew that tastes nothing like the wine Puck's food is accustomed to being served with.

Tankard in hand, Kanolzer strolls toward the front of the building where Puck's wife, Barbara Lazaroff, is carving a metallic fantasy of a restaurant out of raw space. Etched glass bricks create walls and copper tubes snake across the bar. It's a breathlessly macho new take on upscale industrial that Lazaroff describes as "a great-looking guy on a Harley wearing a jacket with studs."

Lazaroff points to a bar stool. "Sit," she commands. The seats don't look all that inviting; in fact they look like back breakers. But they curve to your spine, caress your legs; in spite of the way they look you find that you never want to get up. "Hand-carved," she says triumphantly, and goes off to inspect the bathrooms, where artist Mike Payne is installing tiles that create something of a Chaplinesque "Modern Times" look.

Meanwhile, Puck is wandering nonchalantly around the kitchen, sticking little bits of this and that into his mouth and acting as if he had nothing to do with all of this. He is maddeningly vague about the menu. "I'll think about it next week," he says. "That's part of the fun. If we had known already what we would serve, what would have been the point in building this place?"

"Tell her about Grandma Puck's cheese ravioli," urges Kanolzer. Puck relents; clearly he is more organized than he is willing to admit. "They'll be on the menu," he says. "But they're not like Italian ravioli. The dough is flour, not semolina. Inside it's cheese and potato, and there's brown butter on the top. It's a dish that comes from the town that we're from. It's not even an Austrian dish; it's a Carinthian regional specialty. And we'll have a couple of my mother's dishes too."

So this beer food will be Austrian? Puck shrugs. "I imported a sausage maker from Munich . . .," he says. But it turns out that what he ended up making were anything but ordinary sausages. "At first," says head chef Jody Denton, "the sausage maker thought we were crazy when we wanted to put all these dates and chipotles into the sausage. Now he's so excited he wants to take the ideas home."

Dates and chipotles in the sausage? This is Puck's idea of beer food? Puck nods. "We're playing around in the kitchen." He adds, "In Austria when we go out for a drink we have wine. When we eat, we drink beer. And you know, they drink beer all over the world. So when I thought about what to cook, I thought about what they eat with the beer. Thai, Mexican, Austrian . . . it's hard to think how the whole thing fits together. But there's no sense spending $1.5 million on a restaurant and then just serving hamburgers."

Sous-chef Kevin Ripley puts it a bit more succinctly. "We're trying to step away from trattoria food and lean toward soul food," he says. "We wanted things to be full-bodied, full-flavored."

Mostly what you sense is that this is food that the chefs are emotionally involved with. Their eyes glow when they talk about the food that they just ate for lunch. They are eager to discuss the duck chili (which is, in fact, fabulous) and the Moroccan lamb sausages. And when pastry chef Melinda Bugarin discusses the desserts she says that they are "super-homey, American, and things that remind Wolf of his childhood." As she crimps pie shells in one part of the kitchen, a chef in another pulls lobster from its shell and mixes the meat with chiles for a sort of Thai lobster dim sum. Meanwhile Puck is staring into a huge caldron of simmering oxtails. "Take out the bone," he says to a cook; "stuff the tails with bread dumplings and continue to cook them. They'll be good. "

What else is on the menu? Plenty. The restaurant, which will be open seven days a week for both lunch and dinner, seats 180 people. Prices, Puck says, will be about half those of Spago. There will be pizza. Lots of sausage. Ribs. Homemade mozzarella. "A hamburger for lunch," says Puck, "and sometimes a hot dog. Why not?"

He looks around the kitchen and smiles. "At Spago we buy more white truffles than any other restaurant in Los Angeles. Even the Italian ones. But this is different." Over his shoulder Kanolzer smiles. Sausages dance in his eyes; he loves the difference. He is probably going to get fat. But he is going to be very happy while he does it.

Eureka is at 1845 S. Bundy in West Los Angeles. (213) 447-8000. It is slated to open next week.

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