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Eating A-to-Z

By Naomi Glauberman for the "New Times"

The alphabetical culinary adventures of Kristen McGary and pals could fill a scrapbook--and indeed, they do.

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Kristen McGary pays another visit to Ubon, restaurant number 21 in her alphabet quest. Photo by Jack Gould.

Twenty-six restaurants in six years--hardly something to embroider on your belt. But in this case, it seems appropriate to congratulate Kristen McGary, founder and organizer of the Alphabet Club, an eating group that recently completed an A-to-Z foray through Los Angeles restaurants. I couldn't make their final meal (Zach's Italian Cafe on Ventura Boulevard), but, eager to learn more about this cracked endeavor, I arranged to meet Kristen for a firsthand report.

A film-school graduate now living in the Hollywood Hills, Kristen has a résumé that covers most areas of movie production, including stints in the art departments of Driving Miss Daisy, Glory and Terminator. She is currently devoting her prodigious energies to her own projects--writing and developing feature films with her sister, Amy McGary. Kristen's peripatetic career was both the source of her desire to create an eating community and the reason for the perpetual delays of dinner outings. Scanning backward through the alphabet--past Zach's, Yamashiro, Xian, Woo Lae Oak and Vida--she chose to meet at Ubon, Nobu Matsuhisa's moderately priced restaurant on the ground floor of the Beverly Center, a few blocks north of the pricier Matsuhisa. (Ubon is Nobu spelled backward, rather than a variation on udon, the Japanese word for noodle).

The six original members of the eating club began their abecedarian odyssey at the Apple Pan, followed by drinks at the Arsenal. The group's second dinner, at the Benvenuto Caffe, drew 22 diners; 44 attended the final dinner a few weeks ago; average attendance at the Friday evening gatherings was about 15. "The idea was to go to both a restaurant and a bar," she explains, though some serious dinner often rendered the designated bars superfluous-- they made it to the second acts only 11 times. And they weren't stumped by Q, either: They found Q's Billiard Club and Restaurant, 11835 Wilshire Boulevard in West L.A. Kristen has brought two oversize scrapbooks containing a complete history of the club's trajectory--menus, photos, comments from A to Z. She even has her camera with her to record our out-of-sequence meal.

"I'd often decide on a restaurant on Wednesday and send out an e-mail; people would just show up. I don't know how it became magical, but it did," she said, marveling that she managed to effortlessly convene 26 successful meals.

Our first course arrives: tuna sashimi--each tuna slice resting on a packet of cucumbers and scallions and topped with peanut sesame sauce; yellowtail jalapeño sashimi--big slices of fish with a round of jalapeño on each; a little bowl of spinach; and a sushi platter.

"I'm a wasabi person," Kristen says, requesting an extra dollop of horseradish for her food. A great talker with an easy and infectious laugh, Kristen describes herself as an organizer, someone who jumps right in rather than waiting for things to happen. "I come from a family of gatherers," she says, "both on the Irish and the Italian side. The Corvellis--all 20 of us--met every Sunday at my grandmother's house in Akron, Ohio, for pasta and poker. My extensive Irish side is full of storytellers. My parents gave parties for any occasion. First Akron snow of the winter--it's a party!

"We tried everything," she says, remembering those Sunday dinners.

"You did?" I ask, noting that the families of my Italian friends never varied their menus.

"Now that you mention it, it was exciting compared to the Irish side of the family. In fact, we had the exact same dinner every Sunday--pasta with meatballs and meat sauce, no garlic, with Italian bread from Deviti's. And we always drank wine in little jelly jars. They were just the right size."

In the summer, after dinner, someone would be sent to Strickland's ice cream stand. "It's a cross between gelato and ice cream," Kristen says. "They'd get either chocolate, vanilla or banana. It's still there and still great." After the meal, the tablecloth--flowered plastic--would be flipped over to the cloth side for some rounds of poker.

"Those Italian women were very proprietary. They didn't let the daughters cook," she says. "After college I took up cooking with a passion. In each of my recipe books"--her favorites include old standbys like the New York Times and Moosewood cookbooks--"I made notations of who I cooked for and what they liked." Those notes were just for the historical record, as she claims rarely to repeat a dish.

Prior to her restaurant days, she was cooking for big casual dinner parties as well as hosting pancake breakfasts. "I do tend to bring food into most of my activities," she says.

Our next course is shokado--an assortment of dishes in a bento box containing tuna tataki salad, rock shrimp tempura with spicy mayo, anticucho chicken (the Peruvian Matsuhisa influence) and Chilean sea bass.

I ask the queen of the Alphabet Club how she finessed that potentially rough moment when the check must be divided.

"That was a big question in the beginning," she says. "Everybody brought cash and paid the exact amount for what they ate and drank, plus 8 percent tax and an 18 percent tip. It was effortless once everyone got the hang of it." They avoided high-end restaurants--the average bill was about $30 per person.

Nobu chef Naoki Takahashi personally delivers us an assortment of desserts. We practically swoon over the green-tea pudding and the cappuccino crème brûlée, and are happy enough with the mochi ice cream in strawberry sauce and a chocolate soufflé.

I'm ready to sign up for the next alphabet round, which Kristen assures me will be happening soon. "My tendency is to turn something into a tradition," she reflects, noting that most members of the group soon became committed to the tradition as well. She reports that similar groups are functioning in Atlanta, New York and San Francisco. (Anyone interested in starting their own march through the alphabet can contact her at alphabetclub1@aol.com.)

Speaking of tradition, I ask about her family recipes. "I make my mother's sauce," she says. "And we have a very specific recipe for the Corvelli sausage. It's a real secret. I can't say anything beyond that it's pork. I would totally get in trouble. If I told you I would have to kill you," she says with a sweet smile.

Newtimesla.com | Originally published on 6/28/2001

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