From the moment Helen Springut established a Los Angeles outpost of the Gastronauts, an adventurous eating club that Curtiss Calleo and Ben Pauker started in New York, it was inevitable that I’d end up at her dinner table. That finally happened in July when she hosted a Cantonese feast in the private dining room of Fang Zhen’s Elite Restaurant. On a regular basis, Elite is best known for dim sum, which is usually pretty good, but they definitely raised their game for Gastronauts.
Live Drunken Shrimp ($32.80 per pound) were supposed to arrive “still jumping,” but the Santa Barbara spot prawns were surprisingly subdued after bathing in a crock of sweet, mind numbing plum wine. Only the occasional antennae twitch even indicated these prawns were still alive.
Their condition was probably for the best, as the next instruction from our maitre ‘d resulted in crustacean dismemberment. Not that there would have been any vegans at Gastronauts, but they no doubt would have been horrified as he demonstrated how to twist their bodies in half, piling the heads into a bowl and un-peeling the rest of the shell. Rigor mortis had no time to set in, and the sweet, supple meat was great, especially combined with what they did next.
Our maitre ‘d absconded with the bowl and returned with fried heads tossed with salt and pepper, minced garlic and shaved green onions. The texture was great, the residual organ meats inside of the head were practically self-saucing, and the antennae and legs were particularly crunchy.
It took a second to get read on what arrived on our appetizer plate. One thing that was clear was that we didn’t receive the desired goose web. Gelatinous jellyfish salad , crunchy pig’s ear, tender strips of pork intestine, bony duck tongue and iron-rich chicken livers appeared with crunchy seaweed strands on a decorative cucumber bed along with shaved scallions and sesame seeds.
Frog with Chinese Tea and Fried Spinach ($15.80) was tricky to eat, since frogs have such small bone structure, but it was still enjoyable, kind of like eating tiny drumsticks. The meat was crusty, flecked with aromatic tea leaves and plated on a bed of crispy spinach leaves.
Crunchy shavings of Chinese Broccoli ($10.80) provided some of the meal’s only (much needed) roughage. This version came with tiles of crispy fish skin and shaved, browned garlic. We also split a surprisingly fluffy and oil-light Fried Rice with cubes of Salty Fish ($10.80), scallions and egg.
A big selling point for some of the adventurous eaters at our table was Stewed Hasma ($9.80), which factored into our dessert. The frog fallopian tubes looked like dust bunnies, had a spongy texture and graced coconut milk soup. Spoonfuls imparted a strangely bitter at the end that was impossible to place.
Helen’s e-mail said we should indulge in “as much Tsingtao beer as you can drink.” It turned out to be bottles of Heineken, which was fine. It may have been the beer, but we ended up turning on the TV and Karaoke machine combo, which played amateurish videos filmed on the Venice Boardwalk circa 1988 set to songs like “Jessie’s Girl,” “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Kung Fu Fighting.”
Since our meal, Helen convinced chef Laurent Quenioux to prepare beaver and bear at Starry Kitchen, and there was even talk of delivering forest creatures to Gastronauts in the fall. Our meal ended up costing about $70 per person, which isn’t cheap, but this was my favorite meal at Elite, by far, and it did yield a couple new food experiences, so it’s worth getting on the e-mail list.