Kiss, Kiss

Asian fusion stumbles at Café Japon

To discover the essence of a restaurant, you often must probe beneath the covers and mine for subtexts. Do this with Café Japon, and what do you discover? A carnival of lips. Lips grace publicity materials. Lips part and loll on the Café Japon Web site. There they are, dabbed deep red and succulent, shimmering, curving and creasing like the paint on a Pininfarina Ferrari. These lips grow from two different faces. One is the porcelain face of an Asian woman, frocked in a gauzy veil. The other, a bronzed Caucasian face with high chiseled cheeks and an elegant sculpted beak framed in long silken strands. These women pinch pieces of sushi with long red chopsticks, bringing the rolls furbished in tobiko and slivered vegetable to their lips. In one photo, the Asian woman lets a flattened shrimp droop from her chopsticks, lifting her eyes as she brings it to her pouting mouth.

The message is unmistakable: Sushi is sex or, at least, a consuming kiss. The subtext is no less apparent: Café Japon is fusion. For those who are metaphor-impaired, it is spelled out. "Café Japon, cuisine for the senses," blurts a publicity pack insert. "Indulge in the sensual experience of Japanese fusion food and drink, an exquisite blend of traditional and innovative colors, textures and tastes."

But like most overt lunges into the carnal and the fused, things can get a little clumsy.

Kiss-off: There's many a slip between the kitchen and the lip at Café Japon.
Tom Jenkins
Kiss-off: There's many a slip between the kitchen and the lip at Café Japon.

Example: tofu steak. Is there a more incongruent word pair than one describing a square pad of yellow coagulated soy milk posing as bovine loin? Is there an odder visual than a vegan anti-establishment political statement affecting the mannerism of broiled capitalist exploitation on a plate? It's served in a pan. The steak rests in a thin soy garlic sauce with slices of mushroom and jalapeño tumbled over the surface and floating in the fluid. A dab of pulverized daikon radish rests on one corner. The menu declares it a crispy steak--one thing a steak shouldn't be unless it's plunging into the chicken-fried genre. This steak isn't crispy. It's spongy and soggy. (What else could it be?) And aside from an occasional mushroom-induced delusion, it didn't taste a thing like steak, not even the boiled kind.

Yet that doesn't mean the fusion motif always stumbles. Behold the lettuce wraps: cupped leaves of dewy iceberg with a ground chicken mound teeming with tomato scraps, water chestnuts, carrot, celery, onion and zucchini in a sesame garlic sauce. Lettuce wraps are an ingenious Asian fusion invention targeting mainstream lips with a touch of exotica. Café Japon's wraps are competent, if unexceptional, burnishing the dish's credentials as the quintessential postmodern Asian-fusion culinary cliché.

Here's a rule when you get a whiff of fusion fumbles: authenticate. Unaju is barbecued fresh water eel (basted in sweet soy) resting on a fluffy bed of rice. "Is the barbecued eel any good?" Our server was succinct: "No." We ordered it. It's counterintuitive, but reverse psychology works well in restaurants that are flagrantly fusion. Skip the house specialties. Plumb the dishes on the outskirts of the menu, the ones that seem like placeholders. Probe the servers. Get them to diss a dish. "How's the monkfish liver?" usually flushes them out. Wink, then go for the kill.

The eel is delicious: tender, racy, slightly crisped and not too slathered in unctuous sweet soy. But the eel episode exposes the most critical Café Japon flaw: service.

It's pleasant and earnest enough, but it's clumsy. Café Japon is the Addison transplant of a successful Houston restaurant. It's a modestly modern room with recessed lighting, baffles over the sushi bar and sharp angled walls and ceiling softened by a circular dining space near the front. Lighted nooks hold large wine bottles in the back bar.

We order some wine, an Alder Fels Gewürztraminer, which wine rule books say must be drunk with Asian food because the thread of sweetness is a bulwark against vicious Asian spices. We throw in a Sauvignon Blanc, too, hoping the acid will do the same yeoman's work.

Ten minutes pass. Fifteen. Our server returns. "I'm sorry, but we've sold out of the Gewürztraminer and the Sauvignon Blanc," he says. Christmas drained their stocks. This took 15 minutes to confirm and relay. Our server tries to sell us on a Rabbit Ridge Chardonnay. No, no California bunny chards. A Pinot Grigio? No, not that. Pinot Grigios are a crap shoot. You might get one that's got a little fruit and decent acid, but more often than not you'll get something that tastes like BC Powder. The manager throws this out: Chateau Tour de Mirambeau, a Bordeaux. "It's a very popular wine with the sushi," he says. It is good.

We sip and take in the appetizer menu, which is vast. It dodges from deep-fried to baked, to steamed, to sautéed. You can rein it in with the Kintaro sampler, a porcelain plate with six equal divots of negina (grilled strips of rib eye stuffed with scallion and rolled), crab puffs (fried pastry purses stuffed with crab and cream cheese), gyoza (pan-seared pork dumplings), baked mussels (with mushrooms and spicy mayonnaise) and a chuka salad (a seaweed tangle splashed with soy and sesame oil). All come through in good taste, particularly the negina. This could be a twisted fajita fusion something or other if the strips of juicy beef, bound into a swaddled core stuffed with scallion bits, weren't so tender. Scallion debris lends subtle textural contrast and a nudging sear that helps cut the fat. This is a piece of work you roll around your mouth for a few minutes, testing the flavors, working over the textures, shuffling the sensual information through your head in an attempt to decipher precisely why it compels. It's just beef, after all, sewn with scallion. Yet when simple things, thoughtfully assembled, converge in the mouth, reflection sets in.

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