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RESTAURANTS : A Master of the Art of Bi-Cuisine Performs at Symphonie : A noted pioneer in Franco-Japanese cooking runs his own shop in Torrance

<i> Charles Perry writes about food and restaurants for The Times</i>

Where is Susumu Fukui? I hear people ask. Ou est Susumu Fukui? Donde esta El Susumu Grande? Where has the pioneering Franco-Japanese chef of the original La Petite Chaya gone?

The answer: About 2 1/2 years ago, Fukui found himself a quiet niche in Torrance. Of course, this high-velocity section of Hawthorne Boulevard must seem out of the way to mainstream Foodies--the same ones who couldn’t be troubled to drive to Los Feliz to eat at the old La Petite Chaya.

And as hard to find. On this Boulevard of Big Signs, amid the high-profile likes of Ed Debevic’s and various fajita palaces, you have to look close to discover Symphonie.

The room has a faintly Cubist feel, all straight lines and compass curves with pale blue indirect lighting. Some original Miro sketches and the Bauhaus-y bar stools add to the ‘20s feeling, but the effect is softened by an etched-glass room divider that looks like a parade of bean sprouts with artistic Japanese souls, and the definitely Japanese garden in the window (a garden coyly concealed from the street). It’s a small room, and its proportions are even a shade smaller than you expect; Symphonie is cozily Franco-Japanese.

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What’s more, the waiters actually know their business. They’re knowledgeable about the food (meticulous creations that require some study), make thoughtful suggestions and pay attention to the tables.

You need helpful waiters, because the menu is downright confusing at first. Basically, the right-hand page is a la carte; the left-hand page is choices which, taken together, make a $33 prix fixe dinner, but you can also mix appetizers or entrees from it with the a la carte choices. Then there are several multi-course choices under the rubric Ecrin de Symphonie and the daily-changing $45 full dinner called Chef Vous Propose.

A typical appetizer is ravioli de crevette. They’re not really ravioli but Oriental dumplings filled with crunchy shrimp; the “marinara” the menu mentions is a tiny dab of tomato sauce with bits of raw garlic in it, and curiously it seems the more tomatoey for just being a tiny dab.

If that sounds ethereal, cote d’agneau grille a la ciboulette seems more like an entree than an appetizer: three little lamb chops with a salad of mixed greens. The chops rest on a bed of braised garlic greens and are sprinkled with arrowroot chips--they have an interesting texture, like little rugged potato chips, but not much flavor. The vinaigrette is made with truffle-flavored oil (actually, a drawback--it tastes like rather old oil). The best part is the garlic greens, which the menu somewhat confusingly calls “garlic chives"--they’re like extra-pungent leeks.

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The appetizer to try, though, is the daily-changing creation du soir “bon sai” (it is a little like bonsai: miniaturized food), a square plate full of tiny treats. It might have a bit of wonderful chicken salad in peanut dressing in one corner, raw tuna salad with a mustardy dressing in an endive leaf in another, and in the remaining corners, calamari salad on lettuce and some roast duck with sprouts. In the middle might be mousses of red and yellow sweet peppers, sprinkled with chervil.

Fukui has a weakness for giving his dishes excessively long French names. For instance, roti de saumon farci d’oeuf brouille et shiitake en chemise de bambou naine, sauce creme salsa. This is very good, anyway: salmon (marinated in miso, which gives it an unusual dense texture), steamed in a bamboo leaf and, as I had it, stuffed--I don’t care what the menu says about egg and shiitake--with corn kernels and enoki mushrooms.

The best entree I’ve had was a lot simpler, though: medaillon de veau poele et salpicon a la cressonniere , three wonderful little veal chops floating on a little mild watercress cream sauce and sprinkled with bits of cucumber and tomato. It was fresh and sweet; cute food.

On the other hand I had to be impressed with a fish of the day that consisted of red snapper fried in a spice mixture heavy on cinnamon, cumin and ginger. It was reclining on a bed of leeks and came with four luscious scallops in thick meat glaze sauce spiked with sour grape juice.

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When we think Franco-Japanese, we think pretty on the plate. In the three-course lobster dinner listed under Ecrin de Symphonie, saffrony lobster broth garnished with odds and ends of the lobster carcass and cold claw meat surrounded by little molded salads lead up to a Franco-Japanese instance of Tall Food: a sort of skyscraper made of the lobster’s carapace displaying chunks of sweet lobster tail.

The special dinner called Chef Vous Propose carries the subtitle “Put yourself in the chef’s hands,” and you really do. I’ve had grilled eggplant, two pieces of squid stuffed with cheese and jalapenos (in two different sauces), lamb chops with salad and an Oriental eggplant stuffed with fish followed by duck in black-currant sauce. Another time it was simpler: mousses of red pepper, yellow pepper and fennel, a salad topped with a grilled squab and a little square of foie gras and then a steak with tarragon sauce. Luck of the draw, I guess.

Lunch operates much the same as dinner. The right side of the menu is a la carte and the left side is prix fixe, but there’s no mixing and matching. The prix fixe meals consist of soup or salad followed by a plate of little tastes of things. The “A” lunch, for instance, gives you chicken salad in thick sesame dressing, a lamb chop marinated in sherry vinegar with pine nuts and a piece of veal tenderloin with meat glaze and prunes, which is more restrained than it sounds.

The a la carte selections at lunch overlap the dinner menu a little, but some are wilder. The eel salad is a mountain (Tall Food, again) of mixed greens propped up by eight rich chunks of fried eel. Muscovy duck comes in honey sauce rendered slightly menacing with red peppercorns.

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The desserts are very good. The creme brulee has a nice creamy texture and does not fool around with a sugar crust, just a sprinkling of cinnamon (it does, however, fool around with a tiramisu effect, being mounted on a layer of cake). The chocolate mousse, topped with about a quarter of an inch of cocoa, has an intense chocolate flavor and a clean aftertaste.

Sometimes Fukui sandwiches two big tuile cookies around raspberries and cream, or serves a cheese-flavored mousse topped with a custard sauce browned under a flame. The only dessert I haven’t liked was a chestnut cake. Even a chocolate filling couldn’t save that heavy, mealy texture.

Torrance has evidently taken to Symphonie, because 2 1/2 years is a respectable age for a restaurant in our part of the world. Fukui can call his niches.

Symphonie

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23863 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance.

(213) 373-8187.

Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, $50 to $90.

Recommended dishes: ravioli de crevette, $6.50; creation du soir “bon sai” (chef’s assorted appetizers), $12.50; medaillon de veau poele, $19; roti de saumon farci d’oeuf brouille et shiitake $18.50; creme brulee, $4; chocolate mousse, $4.

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