| SMALL SURPRISES: Small plates and unexpected tastes are a winning combination for Zengo . |
FEEL THE HEAT: The sexy decor at Chicago's Vermilion matches the spicy Indian-Latin fare.
PACIFIC RIM: Beacon dishes up California-influenced contemporary pan-Asian cuisine in a simple, neighborhood atmosphere.
| CROSS-CULTURAL CLASSICS: Le Lan marries Asian ingredients with French cooking techniques. |
In Miami, king salmon, guavas, carrots and mojito sauce come together for one of SushiSamba's Brazilian-Japanese "sashimi seviches." In New York City, a Vietnamese-and French-inspired salad of chilled poached lobster, tropical fruits and avocado is topped with caviar-chive crðme fraÓche at Sapa. In Los Angeles, Japan and California meet atop an ahi tuna pizza at Kazuto Matsusaka's Beacon.
Although fusion cuisine has had its share of detractors since the phrase was coined more than two decades ago, this blending of cuisines continues to result in success for operators and chefs who carefully execute it.
Fusion means applying techniques of one cuisine—say, French—to ingredients of another, like Thai. Fusion also refers to the pairing of foods and ingredients from parts of the world that are not geographically close, and combining those ele-ments that work together because they share some common qualities, such as Peruvian and Japanese, Chinese and Indian or Californian and Korean.
Good fusion hinges on a few keys: executing both halves of the equation authentically; choosing cuisines that have commonalities and can complement each other; and restraint. More—more ingredients, more spices, more layers of flavor—usually does not mean better. Vicki Fan, who owns Beacon in Los Angeles with her husband, renowned chef Kazuto Matsusaka, says that a lack of focus can turn fusion into something it's not supposed to be. "Sometimes people get a little carried away with the word 'fusion.' It's really much more simple than it sounds. It can be as simple as adding one new ingredient to an existing dish. It then creates a totally different kind of cuisine."
Many factors lie behind the emergence of fusion, including shifting demographics, the availability of fresh yet foreign ingredients, America's interest in all things Eastern and our lust for new, bold flavors. Chef de cuisine Andy Motto of Le Lan in Chicago puts it best: "People want intense, palate-awakening bites."
As for detractors? "There will always be those who call it 'confusion,' and who say we should all be more authentic," says Rohini Dey, owner of Indian-Latin concept Vermilion in Chicago, "And I wish I had the right formula for balancing restraint and innovation, but if it works, then who are we to deny it?"
Focused Fusion from an L.A. Legend
Lauded for its focus and simplicity, Beacon in Los Angeles is a good example of everything that's right with fusion.
"Fusion doesn't necessarily mean a dish that is, say, 50 percent Chinese, 50 percent French," says owner Vicki Fan. Beacon's menu has been described as Californian-Asian, but chef Matsusaka and Fan call it "contemporary Asian." In any case, the flavors are big and bold, and indeed, the menu is more reflective of Japanese and Chinese dishes. California, however, peeks through in the form of beautiful greens and other fresh produce procured from local farmers' markets.
Take, for example, the salad based on a very Californian ingredient—the avocado, which Matsusaka slices and tops with cilantro, Japanese scallions and a vinaigrette of soy, sesame oil and a bit of fish sauce.
Matsusaka and Fan think the reason behind the success of the year-old restaurant is its blend of the new and the familiar. "Chinese food has been popular with Americans for such a long time, so there's a little bit of familiarity in the menu, but we're also introducing it in new ways, with new flavors and new presentations," says Fan.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a celebrity chef in the kitchen, either. Matsusaka made his name more than two decades ago at Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main, where he incorporated Chinese and French dishes for Americans starved for something new. Matsusaka's resume also includes stints at Puck's Ma Maison, Michael McCarty's Michael's and Michel Blanchet's L'Ermitage, all in LA, then at Paris's Buddha Bar.
The couple's return to LA and the opening of Beacon represented a return to basics. The restaurant, located in the Culver City area, is casual and simple. The focus is on small plates, and it's designed to be used as a regular neighborhood spot.
Best sellers include a kakuni udon appetizer ( Japanese noodles with braised pork belly, bamboo shoots and choy sum); the kaki fry, a small plate of fried oysters with yuzu-tartar sauce; and the ahi tuna pizza, with raw ahi, wasabi mayonnaise and pickled ginger. The most popular entrees include miso-marinated black cod served with sesame-tossed green beans and the grilled hanger steak with scallion-ginger potato salad and wasabi relish.
The menu is kept fresh with daily specials and seasonal items. A fun take on the BLT was a hit last summer. Matsusaka assembled bacon, tomatoes, mixed lettuces and slices of raw albacore tuna seared at the edges. It was topped with wasabi mayonnaise. Fusion is also seen in the dessert menu, which includes a green tea and white chocolate cheesecake and a coconut rice and mango brulee that's a play on rice pudding.
"As Kazuto and I have gotten older, we have become simpler in the way we eat, the places we go," says Fan. "Beacon is a reflection of that change."
French Classics with Vietnamese Flair
Two of Chicago's most prestigious chefs collaborated last year to open Le Lan, one of the newest of a handful of French-Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. Roland Liccioni of Les Nomades and Arun Sampanthavivat of Arun's, along with restaurateur Howard Davis (Marche, Red Light, Gioco, Opera and Saiko), describe the menu at Le Lan as a "savory marriage of East and West," where the goal is to modernize classic dishes from both cultures while still keeping them close to their roots. While some offerings from both backgrounds remain untouched, in other dishes, the indigenous foods of Vietnam are prepared using French techniques, taking Southeast Asian fare to a higher plane. Other offerings present traditional French fare punched up with Vietnamese flavors and ingredients.
Liccioni, himself of both French and Vietnamese ancestry and classically trained in French cooking, takes the lead in the kitchen. Arun, raised in southern Thailand and a student of Southeast Asian cooking, is his complement. Chef de cuisine Andy Motto, whose resume includes positions at Charlie Trotter's, the French Laundry and, with Liccioni, at Les Nomades, helps fuse the two styles.
The concept for Le Lan (Vietnamese for "the orchid") was influenced by the French colonization of Vietnam in the early part of the 20th century. This, of course, was when French and Vietnamese cuisines were first "fused," but American experiments like Le Lan have served to elevate the marriage. Liccioni and Sampanthavivat, while still holding on to their posts at Les Nomades and Arun's, have come up with items such as a Vietnamese glazed ribeye with a red wine sauce, served with bok choy, pearl onions and fried rice risotto; and roasted rack of lamb with red curried loin, served with fennel salad, sweet gnocchi and eggplant chutney.
In the past year, Le Lan's menu has evolved because, Davis says, the original leaned too heavily on the French, too lightly on the Vietnamese. "Our guests were telling us that they weren't picking up the Asian part of the dishes, so we adjusted them," he says. The revised menu incorporates more spices and fewer herbs and relies more on Vietnamese ingredients.
A best-selling entree illustrates the East-West nature of Le Lan's cooking. The roast duck breast with seared foie gras is prepared with traditional French techniques, roasted for several hours and given a heavy sauce, but is imbued with Vietnamese flavor through a lemon grass and kaffir lime rillette and a green cardamom jus.
The space itself, housed in an older two-story building, was designed under Sampanthavivat's direction. The main dining room, which seats 80, is casual and sleek with rich walnut finishes, deep jade tiles, fresh bamboo, orchids and French and Vietnamese artifacts. A mural of a dragon hanging opposite a painting of a French cafe symbolizes the meeting of the two cultures.
At first blush, the concept of Latin-Asian fusion might seem unlikely, even gimmicky, but Denver's Zengo restaurant is merging these two surprisingly similar and ultimately compatible cuisines and reaping the rewards of this cross-continental experiment.
Zengo takes inspiration from the immigration of large numbers of Japanese to Brazil and other South American destinations at the turn of the last century. The chefs among them applied their Japanese techniques to the indigenous ingredients of the new world. Mexico City-born chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval says he founded Zengo "to bring my Latin roots to Asia in a similar manner."
But don't call it fusion. Or Latin-Asian or Asian-Latin. "We don'teven use the word 'fusion,'" Sandoval explains. "The restaurant is more of an incorporation of two cultures." Helping Sandoval execute this union is Alan Yu, a classically trained chef of Asian parentage, who shares Sandoval's sensibilities when it comes to authenticity and the urge to innovate. "I will come up with something from my background, and Alan will Asianize it," Sandoval says. In turn, Sandoval " Latinizes" Yu's Asian dishes.
Zengo has earned the admiration of both the Mile High City's hipster diners and food critics alike. The restaurant's Japanese name translates to "give and take," a theme that permeates the entire operation—the dynamic between the two chefs; the communal, platesharing nature of the concept; and the complementary character of the cuisines they fuse on those plates.
But why does the pairing work, and is the result some sort of strange sashimi quesadilla? Hardly. The cuisines share many similarities, making them natural partners. These include an emphasis on seafood, rice, beans, chiles, cilantro and other ingredients indigenous to both parts of the world. Both cuisines also blend sweet and sour or sweet and spicy flavors in many dishes, as well as contrasting temperatures on many plates. "The most important thing with fusion is that the cuisines are similar and that all the ingredients come together and balance each other," explains Sandoval.
Much of Zengo's menu comes in the form of small plates. Servers encourage guests to sample at least one item from each section of the menu and share with the entire table. Across the menu, examples of the Latin-Asian give-and-take abound. Take, for example, the arepas puercos. The little pockets are stuffed with pulled hoisin pork and topped with guacamole and crema fresca. Then there's the sopa Asiatica, a good example of the sweet-spicy principle, combining guajillo pepper broth, coconut milk, chicken and red curry. Sushi rolls, tiraditos and entrees are also given the cross-cultural treatment. The yellowfin tuna roll features avocado, pickled cucumber and sesame chipotle rouille. A seared red snapper tiradito features white soy, jalapenos and truffle oil.
Sandoval believes the unexpected is the secret to Zengo's success. "It's what happens when the food hits the palate, the contrasts in tastes and textures, the ups and downs. It's the play in your mouth, keeping you guessing and thinking."
Red-Hot in the Midwest
At Chicago hot spot Vermilion, East meets West in a dramatic way. Here, the distinctive, bold and often spicy flavors of India meld with the equally distinctive tastes of Latin America. The food and flavor combinations—unlike anything Chicagoans have seen before—have knocked the socks off the city's most experienced palates.
The combination of Latin and Indian, which at first blush may sound a bit much, actually works for a couple of reasons. One is the restraint practiced by executive chef Maneet Chauhan and Rohini Dey, Vermilion's owner, when coming up with menu items. Although they'll "try anything" when they're in creative mode, Dey says precious few combinations make it to the menu. Good fusion isn't about randomly throwing every ingredient in the pot, they have found, and the simpler dishes are usually better. "All innovation comes from change and I'm open to anything that tastes good and looks good," says Dey. "But you have to make sure you don't absolutely kill your cuisine in the process."
Secondly, this experiment has proved successful because, like other Asian foods, Indian cuisine shares certain common threads with Latin. "A lot of the ingredients and spices are similar," says Dey, making for natural combinations. Most of Vermilion's offerings team Latin ingredients with Indian techniques. Take the skirt steak, for example, which Chauhan cooks in a tandoor (an Indian clay oven) and serves with plantain chips. (Plantains are common to both India and South America.)
The marriage of East and West can also be seen in Vermilion's seviches. You'd never find this type of meat and fish preparation technique in India, but when Chauhan adds amchur (a tart, fruity Indian seasoning made from unripened mangoes) to the beef, this South American dish takes on an Indian accent.
Dey says the success of her restaurant can be attributed to its level of execution as well as its unique concept. "I just wanted to push the frontiers of fusion. We see a lot of French techniques; Japanese-French, Indian-French, but we haven't seen anything along these lines," she says.
While not discounting the menu, Vermilion's vibe probably has much to do with the total package. When your stock in trade is hot food from hot regions, it doesn't hurt to sell it in a dining room that's ultra-sexy and decked out in sleek, fiery red—hence the name. Vermilion is powdered red lead, sometimes applied by Hindi women to their foreheads, like the more common "bindi," as a symbol of love for their husbands.
A "celebration of Indian women" theme permeates the concept and is seen throughout the restaurant. Images of gorgeous Indian models are everywhere, from the menu to the walls, and are meant to symbolize a "new India," one that has produced "a generation of the world's most beautiful women," not "the India of sacred cows and starving people," according Dey. Those may not be the best images to mention when promoting a restaurant, but the point is clear: Vermilion is a far cry from your neighborhood Indian buffet.
Chains Cashing in on FusionThink fusion is the sole domain of chef-driven restaurants? Think again. Some of the country's biggest chains are getting in on the culture combinations.
Avocado eggrolls: Chunks of fresh avocado, sun-dried tomato, red onion and cilantro deep fried in a crisp Chinese wrapper, served with tamarind-cashew dipping sauce. —The Cheesecake Factory
Banzai burger: Teriyaki-marinated beef, topped with pineapple and cheddar cheese. —Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
Buffalo chicken wontons: Fried wonton wrappers filled with Buffalosauced shredded chicken and cheese. —Ruby Tuesday
Boneless Shanghai wings: Crispy breaded chicken breast topped with sweet and spicy ginger-citrus sauce and sesame seeds. Served with spicy-cool wasabi-ranch dressing for dipping. —Chili's
Thai chicken pasta: Linguine tossed with sauteed chicken, julienne carrots, green onion, roasted peanuts and spicy hot peanut sauce. —The Cheesecake Factory