Ocean Specific

Animal-rights activists make poor dining companions. They boycott tuna for the dolphins and shrimp for the sea turtles. They object to chicken, beef, and veal on hormonal or moral grounds. And, like a guest of mine did recently, they ask servers who are better equipped to describe the pesto butter melting atop it if the swordfish has been netted or speared. Now I don't mean to disparage their beliefs; we could certainly use a few more humane people in this world. But to dine with me, you need to be somewhat flexible.

On the other hand, I've found that human-rights workers make fine dinnermates willing to consume just about anything -- especially if it's called "Dish of Hope." This commendable idea, sponsored by the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS (DIFFA) in conjunction with local chefs, calls for participating restaurants to designate one menu entry as the "Dish of Hope" and to donate to the foundation all profits from the sale of that item. Our party did the Dish at Pacific Time, the upscale Lincoln Road eatery where the yearlong project was launched in May with an auction that netted $40,000 for the foundation. Pacific Time's version of the "Dish of Hope" is a pair of lightly grilled squid served with a sweet Asian salad of tat-soi and mazuna (two types of Japanese mustard green) and a hot-and-sour vinaigrette. Arranged on the symbolic-ribbon plate, the appetizer was expertly prepared, instilling at least as much hope for a fine meal as for rapid progress in AIDS research.

Thirty-three-year-old chef and co-owner Jonathan Eismann says he conceived of the fundraising idea when he spotted some red ribbon-emblazoned china while Christmas shopping two years ago, long before the restaurant opened. This month marks the one-year anniversary of Pacific Time, as well as Eismann's twentieth year as a chef, a double milestone he's celebrating by renovating Pacific Time. (Landscaping and more outdoor tables top the list of planned improvements, along with better air-conditioning and an increase of seats at the "kitchen bar," where patrons can watch the chef at work while they partake of drinks and appetizers.)

Pacific Time's innovative Asian-influenced dishes aren't in need of many adjustments, however. Eismann's method, which has won him acclaim from Esquire, Bon Appetit, and the New York Times, among others, has been to transport the Eastern-spiced fare of California and the Pacific Northwest to South Florida, incorporating a smattering of local ingredients. This year he was honored with a Robert Mondavi Rising Star of American Cuisine award; a television series is set to debut on PBS in October, the same month Pacific Time will begin serving lunch.

Though "Pacific Time pancakes of the night" may not compare philosophically to the "Dish of Hope," this starter certainly equalled the squid in execution. Two pancakes were rolled crepelike around pieces of duck, then dressed with sliced shiitake mushrooms in a pungent barbecue sauce. The strong-on-strong flavors of the topping complemented the duck wonderfully, while the mild pancakes were a pleasant counterpoint in texture.

"Pate imperial" was another dish that contrasted textures to good effect; unfortunately, it had little flavor. Steamed shrimp and crisp lettuce were wrapped in fine-grained rice paper, much like a spring roll, cut diagonally in two, and placed on a bed of shredded daikon and carrot. The accompanying dip, zesty but unnecessarily sharp with vinegar, was delicious over the root vegetables but overwhelmed the bland rice paper and its contents. A gratis dish of julienne summer squash and zucchini, marinated in rice vinegar and sesame oil and dotted with red pepper flakes, was a more masterful, refreshing introduction to an unquestionably fine meal, particularly when paired with the slightly spicy seeded flatbread that was piled into the bread basket along with crunchy Chinese noodles.

Back when Pacific Time opened, I had one quibble: Eismann's creations weren't nearly large enough to satisfy the appetites he awakened with his talent. A year later, that complaint is moot. Every entree we ordered was large and filling, starting with the honey-roasted Chinese duck, its breast meat arrayed in thick slices on a tangy sauce of fresh plums and plum wine, with the drumsticks propped up with Peking pancakes, supple crepes filled with shredded vegetables, rolled and arranged like sushi. The breast meat was rich and charged with flavor; the molasses-color skin crackled between the teeth like cellophane.

A whole farm-raised catfish, stuffed with aromatic ginger and lightly fried in a tempura batter, was served with a gingery "sizzling fish dipping sauce" on the side. Among the least attractive of finned critters, the catfish was served with both its prehistoric head and tail hanging over the edges of the oversize plate, testament to its prodigious size. In contrast to its fierce appearance, the fish was exceptionally mild, chunks of clean-flavored flesh coming easily off the backbone.

Two fish fillets were also deliciously prepared. Striped bass, farm-raised in Florida, was grilled to fragrant flakiness, served with a handful of tiny, tender steamed whitewater clams and baby artichokes. Soft, tarragon-scented noodles completed the dish. Szechuan-grilled Florida Keys grouper was similar in appearance and texture to the bass, and just as tasty. A garnish of tempura-battered sweet potatoes, slightly stale and greasy-tasting, couldn't obscure the delicate spicing of the grouper, which resounded with subtle notes of sake, shallots, and ginger.

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