Passport to Asian flavors: as a menu focus or influence, the cuisines of Asia offer culinary discoveries and delights.
Restaurants & Institutions; 9/21/2004; Gerst, Virginia
Thai food is hot and Japanese cuisine is jumping. Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants also do big business. Americans clearly are hungry for Asian flavors, and foodservice operators are happy to serve them.
Some focus on the cuisine of a single nation, offering authentic dishes or adapting traditional preparations to American palates. Others stock their storerooms with lemongrass, cardamom, wasabi, chiles and fish sauce to present a Pan-Asian experience.
In New York City, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz take the latter approach. The famed chefs serve interpretations of Asian street food at Spice Market, Vongerichten's new restaurant in Manhattan's Meatpacking District for which Kunz consulted on the menu.
Seated in the 12,000-square-foot converted warehouse, diners tuck into such continent-trotting dishes as avocado and radish salad with Chinese mustard and tempura onions, mushroom egg rolls, char-grilled chicken with kumquats and lemongrass dressing and pork vindaloo. The chefs spark chicken samosas with cilantro-flavored yogurt and add tomato pur6e to egg-drop soup.
Zyng Asian Grill, a chain of fast-casual restaurants based in Alexandria, Va., also roams the map, offering signature dishes from China, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam with locations in more than a dozen cities including Columbus, Ohio; Wichita, Kan.; and Sacramento, Calif.
Zyng dining rooms are designed to suggest an Asian market, and food is prepared in exhibition kitchens by cooks working on teppan-yaki grills. Menu choices include pad thai from Thailand, pho from Vietnam, Chinese kung pao chicken and Japanese teriyaki. Diners also can create their own dishes in a bowl, choosing a protein (beef, chicken, shrimp, tofu or soya), a sauce, unlimited vegetables, and a noodle or rice. Nontraditional dishes including Chinese chicken salad and all-American chocolate cake also are options.
There is nothing American on the menu at The Slanted Door in San Francisco. Executive Chef Charles Phan recreates the dishes of his native Vietnam for some 800 diners daily at the 9-year old, 200-seat restaurant. Vietnamese street food is featured at lunch, with more structured meals at night.
Phan, who left Vietnam at age 13, creates his cuisine from memory, striving to duplicate authentic flavors while working largely with organic, locally grown ingredients.
"If you are coming from a childhood memory, you have eaten it a lot more than someone who travels to Paris and eats a dish and remembers it is really good," he says.
With a clay pot, grill, saute pan and wok, Phan prepares traditional dishes such as daikon rice cakes, crispy five spiced duck legs and stir-fried chicken breast with Chinese dates, walnuts, fresh ginko and cashews.
His cooking techniques would be familiar to his Vietnamese grandmother, but he makes some concessions to American palates. For example, a native dish called Shaking Beef traditionally consists of small cubes of well-done beef. But at The Slanted Door, Phan cuts tenderloin into more sizable cubes and serves them medium rare, because his customers prefer it that way.
"But we don't put blue cheese in it," says the chef. "'We don't go crazy like the fusion cooking. I'll change the shape a little to make meat medium rare, but I'm not going to introduce things not [part of] the culture."
Pho Hoa, a chain of quick-service Vietnamese noodle shops operated and franchised by San Jose, Calif.-based Aureflam Corp., spotlights pho, the beef-noodle soup synonymous with Vietnamese culture. Located in cities from Seattle, Wash., to Falls Church, Va., the restaurants serve pho in the traditional manner--accompanied by add-your-own condiment bowls filled with fresh coriander, bean sprouts, hot peppers, mint and lime wedges.
The menu is in English and Vietnamese, and divides soups into categories. Pho "For Beginners" is made with round steak, brisket or meat balls; "Just the Regular" boosts the flavor with a bit of fat, and "The Adventurer's Choice" tosses tripe or gelatinous tendon into the broth for texture. Chicken, seafood and vegetarian pho variations also are available, along with a small selection of appetizers and combination plates.
With more than 95 restaurants in 30 states, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro specializes in traditional and contemporary Chinese cuisine served in a modern setting, complete with an open kitchen.
Many of the dishes, such as Chicken in Soothing Lettuce Wraps (the biggest seller nationwide), Peking dumplings, crab won tons, Mongolian beef and spicy chicken, have been on the menu since the chain was founded in 1993.
Others, such as Shanghai Street Dumplings, Wok-Seared Lamb and Spicy Salt and Pepper Prawns, are recent additions, inspired by foods that Corporate Executive Chef Paul Muller sampled during his nearly monthly trips to the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong. He gets ideas from his travels, but not precise recipes.
"We cut a little salt out, and remove some of the fat," Muller says. "And we sometimes tone down the spice levels to be a little more reasonable for American palates."
Cooking styles are unchanged. In the open kitchen, chefs prepare food just as they would in Beijing or Shanghai.
"We absolutely hold our cooks to the specific techniques of China--stir frying, braising and steaming," says Muller. "Those techniques are very old and produce great products."
At India's Restaurant in Denver, Kris Kapoor tones down the spices on dishes of Northern India, but only on request. The New Delhi-bred chef keeps the shelves of his 15-year-old restaurant stocked with cumin, coriander, ginger, turmeric and garlic to make his own curries.
"If you ask for a vindaloo in India, it would come out hot and sizzling," he explains. "Here we prepare each dish individually, so we can do it mild, medium or hot."
He takes pride in the fact that his customers know more about Indian food today than they did when he opened.
"People used to come in and say they hated curry," he recalls. "They had only tasted what they got off the supermarket shelf, and they didn't like that mix. But I told them, 'We have never seen curry powder in India. It's a quick fix if you don't want to go to the trouble of gathering the different spices.'"
Kapoor not only troubles himself to mix spices for curry, he makes his own Indian paneer (a fresh cheese) and breads: naan, roti and breads stuffed with onions and garlic, grated cauliflower or lamb.
His kitchen boasts a tandoor clay oven that he fires with charcoal, a fuel he feels is more authentic.
"A lot of places take the easy way out and use gas tandoors," he notes.
THE REAL THING
Mark Fischer does not take the easy way. The American-born chef, who cooks creative and much-praised continental fare at SIX89 in Carbondale, Colo., outside Aspen, challenged himself by opening Phat Thai in the same town in December 2003. The 70-seat restaurant claims to serve "the only authentic Thai food on the northern slope."
His motives for opening Phat Thai were largely selfish. He was looking for a new challenge and loves Thai food, but couldn't find it in the area. "There were a lot of bad knockoffs," he says, "but nobody was really doing it justice."
Fischer researched original recipes, then searched for the ingredients he needed to make them, seeking out locally grown organic produce when possible. He polished his skills with a steamer to prepare Vietnamese rice dishes and learned to work with rice paper for a selection of appetizers.
"One of the central themes of the country is the combination of disparate ingredients," he says. "Shrimp paste on its own is obnoxious; chiles are really robust, to put it nicely. Lemongrass is really pungent. But when you put them together, they really work. They create a certain synergy."
Fischer's culinary combinations are evident in dishes such as grilled chile salsa with crispy rice crackers, chicken fillets with curry sauce, pan-steamed mussels with red curry and coconut, and whole crispy fish with chile sauce.
"We make a green-curry dish l could eat every day," he says.
Customers at Japonais, a trendy 300-seat Chicago restaurant, feast on what Chef Gene Kato describes as "Japanese tradition with European elegance."
Don't call his cooking fusion. He subscribes to the theory that "what grows together goes together," and uses all Japanese ingredients.
"In Japan, we have fish, vegetables, rice, soy sauce and wasabi," he explains. "No matter how you put those ingredients together, they match well. Add mozzarella, and it doesn't make any sense."
Kato prepares Kobe beef osso buco with California-raised Wagyu beef, and he serves bonito-encrusted salmon with a Japanese potato salad spiked with peas, celery, wasabi and Japanese mint leaves. Le Quack Japonais, which translates as duck served mu shu-style with hoisin sauce, is a guest favorite. So are sushi and sashimi rolls from the restaurant's sushi bar.
A shallow clay dish called a toban-yaki gets plenty of use in the Japonais kitchen. "You throw everything into it--fresh seafood, sake, some spice, cover it and let it cook, then serve it steaming," Kato explains.
His seasonal, multicourse menu also includes a dish of beef customers cook themselves on hot river rocks.
Rocks from Mexico, well scrubbed in the kitchen, are heated for a day in a 500F oven, then coated in oil and brought to the table along with slices of Kobe beef or New York strip steak in a soy marinade. Diners cook their own beef on the rocks.
"The great thing about it is that it is fun to play with, you get the full aroma, and you can control how you cook it," he says.
While he finds that "the American palate does not understand" some Japanese dishes, particularly the lighter, clean-flavored soups and broths that are "too plain for their palates," he generally gives his clientele high marks for its sense of culinary adventure. "This country is very open," he says.
RELATED ARTICLE: Pan-Asian studies.
Asian food appears not only on American restaurant tables. Chefs at colleges and universities are tending tandoor ovens and working at woks to bring the flavors of Beijing and Bannock, New Delhi, Hanoi and Tokyo to campuses.
Their students expect no less.
"Years ago, when you asked students, 'Do you like Asian food?', they thought China or Japan," says Rafi Taherian, associate director of resident food services at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. "These days, you have to ask what kind of Asian. Our students know Thai coconut. They know peanut sauces."
Hungry undergrads line up in Linx, the 240-seat main dining center, for dishes at Pao!, a food station presenting the cuisines of Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and China. Those with a taste for Indian cooking head to Mosaic.
Regularly scheduled theme dinners in the residential dining facilities continue the Asian focus, spotlighting the foods of a particular nation, complete with tables of spices and displays of cookbooks. "We even pop some spices to get the smell of the country into the serving area," says Taherian.
University chefs take courses at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., and chefs from area restaurants visit campus to work with kitchen staff. The dining center at the University of San Francisco (USF) features a global dining station, showcasing cuisines of different countries on a weekly rotation. Wok and steam stations provide daily servings of Asian fare.
Recipes and techniques are homegrown. "We are lucky enough to have Asian employees who bring their home styles to us," says Billy Krupp, executive chef for Bon Appetit Management at USF.
Recent dining center meals have included sweet-chili calamari, scallion honey beef, yellow curry tofu with greens, vegetarian pad thai noodles, pea shoots with black vinegar and shiitake mushrooms, green onion beef with egg and hot garlic pork.
Virginia Gerst is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
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