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Asian Inspiration

HOT AND COOL: Guests can relax at the serene Fivespice in Portland, top, while Shibuya's approachable cuisine, below, has helped make it a hot commodity in Las Vegas.

DRAMA: Anemic entree sales took off when Las Vegas' Shintaro lured away a competitor's chef.

YUM YUM: Yumcha's Angelo Sosa produces haute Chinese for a discerning New York crowd.

SHIBUYA: Hip decor matches the modern cuisine at this spot inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

FAST TRACK: Mama Fu's has won fans with pan-Asian fare like Pad Thai.

EAST MEETS WEST: Japanese food, European presentation and calm surroundings add up to a winning combination for Japonais.

In kicking off the Culinary Institute of America's Worlds of Flavor Conference on Asian cuisine last fall, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl led the audience on a tour of the Asian food scene in the U.S. as reflected in the magazine's 60-year history. The tour turned out to be pretty brief for about the first four decades, with only the occasional mention of Chinese or Japanese cooking. One of the few recipes, for orange beef, violated the "don't play around with the food" cardinal rule, she sniffed. All that has changed in the last couple of decades, no more so than in the last few years, when the U.S. landscape has literally been flooded with new and way more authentic—if not always completely true to their roots—tastes from not only China and Japan, but Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and other corners of Asia. Riding on this tidal wave is everything from Masa, where a $300 average check lands it among the most expensive of tony New York establishments, to the 300-square-foot takeout-only Wow Bao at Chicago's Water Tower Place, where sales of $1.50 steamed buns bring in a cool $1 million a year. It's classic Japanese dressed up with French accoutrements and service; it's street food packaged to be palatable at the mall. It's P.F. Chang's, the first mass Asian concept, which has stunned the industry with its rapid growth. What's behind all these new and largely more authentic flavors?

Many observers credit globalization and the imprint of Asians migrating to North America. With Americans traveling further afield and immigrants adding to the melting pot here, it's only natural that more exotic foods would find their way to the table. And for those who can't travel—or travel as often as they would like—Asian restaurants provide a dose of escapism. "Asian food lends itself to this fun, lively environment where you feel you're being transplanted into some other country," says Michael Schulson, executive chef of Philadelphia's Pod and soon-to-be heading up the kitchen at the $13-million Buddakan in New York (both are Stephen Starr projects).

The flavors are also a big draw for certain demographics. Sweet and sour pork, egg rolls and egg foo yung aside, diners who lean toward healthy choices have gravitated to the clean, simple, yet assertive flavors of many Asian cuisines. And the adventurous palates of the younger generation seem to be driving some demand.

Inspired by Wanderlust
Two decades of travel to the Far East inspired Quentin Dante to bring haute Chinese cuisine to New York City earlier this year with Yumcha. Angelo Sosa's modern Chinese menu provides a cross-section of China's 60-plus culinary regions; most of it leans toward Cantonese and Szechuan, but it's not the Cantonese many of us remember from our youths. For one thing, "we don't deliver or do takeout, because it wouldn't travel well," says Dante, Yumcha's owner. For another, checks average $60 at dinner. As for the backdrop, Dante describes the interior of the 55-seat restaurant as a cross between Ming Dynasty and Bauhaus. It's meant to be a little escapist, he says.

Dante thinks it only makes sense to elevate lesser-appreciated Asian foods right now, given what's going on in the world. "Japan was the big player 15 years ago; now we see Thailand, India and China are the juggernauts."

Which is not to say that Japanese cuisine has lost its hold. In fact, New York and other cities have seen a slew of prominent Japanese restaurant openings. The big difference between the newbies and their ancestors of the late 1980s-early 1990s is a much more relaxed atmosphere that welcomes, rather than intimidates.

For Shibuya, which opened last summer in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, the goal was to balance tastes and textures, not overwhelm diners with massive portions; adapt presentations of Japanese food to American tastes; and wake them up to the subtleties of sake. A sake sommelier helps steer guests through the 100-plus list, which itself can generate $200,000 in a month. "Most people thought the best sake was what was warmed up at Benihana," says Stephen Judge, vice president of food and beverage for the hotel. "The best sake is always chilled, and the Japanese tend to keep the best sakes for themselves and send the cheap stuff overseas."

The combination has worked: Shibuya has quickly turned out to be a celebrity magnet, and the local media recently voted it the city's best Japanese, dethroning the reigning Nobu.

Asian, American-Style
Some Asian restaurants have had to do a bit of fine tuning to hit on all cylinders.

In Philadelphia, the ultramodern Pod faced a similar dilemma when it opened. "We didn't know how to tie the cooked food with the sushi," says Schulson. So he spent a year in Japan working at a Four Seasons Hotel and Spago to learn more about how the Japanese ate. His first revelation: "In America, when you think Japanese you think sushi, but the Japanese eat sushi maybe once a month. They eat simple foods, like a panseared piece of meat with a soy dipping sauce, and they might have a little house salad and miso soup— what we would consider pedestrian food," he recalls. "I never saw wasabi mashed potatoes or yuzu poached salmon; they would do something like roasted potatoes with a broiled piece of hamachi, using the freshest fish you've ever seen, and only four ounces of it." Schulson dropped 20 pounds during his year there.

When he returned, he tried to weed the fusion aspect out of the Pod menu while still appealing to American appetites. "We try to present it in such a way where we're not compromising what Japanese food really is," he explains. A popular bento box meal now contains sea bass, snow peas with soy sauce and wasabi; "before, we would have marinated the sea bass in 52 ingredients, broiled it and served it with tempura vegetables," Schulson says. The menu integration worked; today, a party of four is likely to order sushi and entrees and share everything; checks average $12 at lunch, $35 at dinner.

At Shintaro, a 165-seat restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, many guests ordered mainly sushi during the early days, despite the teppanyaki grills and a dining room menu offering modern Japanese cuisine. Two years ago, the restaurant lured away Joel Versola from nearby Nobu to be executive chef, and the entrèe menu took off. While GM Mark Szczepanski says many guests still stick to the sushi, more order from all parts of the menu, including favorites such as shiitake-crusted Chilean sea bass with a truffle soy reduction and a crispy Maine lobster with honey black bean sauce. Also beefing up the wine list and including 30-plus sakes boosted wine sales. Today, checks average $89.

Purists trying to make a living by serving Asian cuisine to Americans can face some obstacles. Charles Phan, who packs them in at the critically acclaimed Slanted Door, still tries to menu foods he thinks guests at his San Francisco restaurant should be eating. But he admits that American palates are put off by authentic Vietnamese touches like bones and skin on fish, even though he considers both essential to a dish's flavor and texture. He says sourcing authentic ingredients, such as organic head-on shrimp, can pose a problem as well. Both challenges, he admits, are part of the reality of doing business in America. But he refuses to compromise on the basics. "You don't make fish sauce (a staple in several Asian cuisines) in a blender—unless you want phony fish sauce," he observes. Gene Kato, executive chef at Chicago's popular Japonais restaurant, also wants to expose guests to authentic tastes but realizes he can't push the envelope too much. He tries to keep it as authentic as possible, following a basic tenet of Japanese cooking—which he studied in Japan: "What grows together, goes together."

American palates are put off by authentic touches like bones and skin on fish.

Kato's menu marries ingredients familiar to both Japanese and Americans, prepared using Japanese techniques, he explains. He also helps make navigating the menu a little simpler by using familiar terms. A popular dish called Kobe carpaccio, for example, would be called tatake-style in Japan. "You have to give the customers what they understand. We want them to come here and relax, not be nervous because they can't understand the menu."

Some Americans' palates are a bit more adventurous. When Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises bought back Big Bowl from Brinker International, an early step was to finetune the menu. "There's a whole generation of younger kids in their 20s who have grown up with different flavors," says Dan McGowan, president of the brand, which has eight branches. "I think Asian and Thai and those flavor palates are appealing to the younger generation because it's a much more open, exciting profile than your average food. Many of them also crave spicy, hot flavors, so Big Bowl created a whole menu page called 'truly hot and spicy.'"

Americans may be getting more adventurous, but after growing up with the local Chinese carryout they may need a little educating to understand the value of more upscale Asian alternatives. That's what John Beeaker, chef at Portland, OR's Fivespice has found since opening earlier this year. Beeaker's pan-Asian menu includes traditional street hawker fare, such as satays and steamed dumplings, as appetizers; entrees include noodles, hot pots and curries and dishes with lamb, beef, pork and seafood. "We try to maintain an amount of truth in the recipe, so if it's an Indian recipe, we try to use Indian spices," Beeaker says. "But the one way we change it is we use a lot of what we have here in Oregon." About three-quarters of the menu includes local ingredients.

Following those principles can cause some price resistance. "A lot of people see green curry with chicken for $8.95 elsewhere, and mine is $13 because we use organic chicken," Beeaker says. He believes the perception that Asian food is healthier and a desire by more Americans to know what exactly they're eating will prevail.

The Next P.F. Chang's?
P.F. Chang's aside, the jury is still out on whether any Asian concept can ascend to be the next Olive Garden or Chipotle. Despite Chang's explosive growth in its relatively short history, translating an Asian concept into an expansion vehicle is no simple matter. Darden found that out the hard way with China Coast, which in the early 1990s grew to more than 50 units before abruptly shutting down in 1995 due to poor sales. Brinker, which bought Big Bowl from Lettuce Entertain You five years ago, happily sold it back earlier this year; LEYE isn't in the expansion business, so don't expect it to start a rollout of the brand any time soon, either. And Outback Steakhouse is keeping its development steamroller in check while it patiently tweaks Paul Lee's Kitchen before rolling it out.

Mama Fu's, part of the Raving Brands portfolio, started two years ago and is on track to hit the 50-unit mark by the end of this year, with an additional 225 franchise agreements signed. Marketing VP Brian Curin admits that the Asian segment has been dominated by mom-and-pop operations, but he thinks concepts like Mama Fu's will dominate because they make Asian more approachable. Kitchens at momandpop places are rarely seen; Mama Fu's puts the cooking on display, where patrons can see for themselves how fresh everything is. The brand also focuses on popular and relatively familiar items such as pad thai and seared ahi tuna, its top sellers. To assuage the even mildly squeamish, menus present dishes with Americanized names such as Thai Cashew Stir Fry, and clearly explain the ingredients.

Pick Up Stix, a fast-casual brand Carlson acquired in 2001, has grown to 100 units and expects to add another 20 this year. The brand recently unveiled a new prototype designed, like Mama Fu's, to spotlight the kitchen and create a less quick-service atmosphere. Top sellers such as cream cheese won tons and lettuce wraps are Americanized versions of Chinese fare.

LEYE, which operates not only Big Bowl, but the quick-service Wow Bao and Shanghai Circus concepts, thinks the Asian boom is in its infancy. "We believe Asian is going to be like Italian was in the 1980s," McGowan says. "It will explode in popularity."

Asian Concepts of Tomorrow

Mama Fu's Asian House

One of the Raving Brands concepts (see RH, April 2005), Mama Fu's serves Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese fare in a fastcasual setting. Check average is $10. Open locations (23) are concentrated in the Southeast; 30 more sites are expected to open this year, and 225 franchise deals are in development.

Gimme Sum Fresh Asian Grill

Two of these fast-casual concepts are open, and nine are under construction in Las Vegas, Florida, Louisiana and Utah. Gimme Sum focuses on healthy preparations of contemporary pan-Asian (mostly Chinese) dishes. No fryers are on the premises, and many dishes are grilled ( including spring rolls). Checks average $10 at lunch and dinner. Colleges and hospitals have approached the company about opening locations.

Pei Wei Asian Diner

Launched in 2000, this fast-casual sibling of P.F. Chang's has opened in more than 50 locations, all near a full-service Chang's. Mongolian barbecue, Pad Thai and lettuce wraps are menu stars.

Pho Hoa

Focusing on the Vietnamese specialty, pho (noodle soup), this quiet two-decade-old company has 33 fast-casual units in the U.S. and about 90 worldwide, with most growth centered in cities with sizeable Asian populations. The company plans to expand by 30 to 40 units in the next five years and get more aggressive about growth in the U.S.

Zyng Asian Grill

This full-service, midscale casual dining pan-Asian restaurant is open in 12 North American locations and plans to add 15 units in the coming year. An open kitchen with a teppan grill produces dishes from China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore & Korea.

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