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Some things just don't go together well. Take, for example, liquor and red wine. Ammonia and bleach. Or Jacko and Lisa Marie. However, some things, strange as they may seem, make sense together, like Bowie and Iman, Woody Allen and Soon-Yi... even Martha Stewart and her jail cell.
When it comes to strange bedfellows, the culinary world is no exception. Restaurants that serve meals put together from the foods and essences of different cultures are referred to as fusion dining establishments. The history of such food preparation is difficult to pin down, but some claim it came from the 7,100 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago. For more than 1,000 years, Filipino foods have been touched by flavors from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Spain, Mexico, Japan, and the United States.
One of the fathers of American fusion is Roy Yamaguchi, who opened a Los Angeles restaurant in the early '80s with a Euro-Asian menu. In 1988, Yamaguchi opened Roy's, a chain of upscale restaurants featuring Hawaiian dishes with French, Italian, Thai, Japanese, and Chinese influences. Though I had the pleasure of devouring an incredible butterfish entrée and a sinful hot chocolate soufflé at Roy's just after it opened in Boca Raton a few years ago, it seems other diners in the area didn't share my affection for the place, which closed within months -- though four other locations north and west of Palm Beach County survive.
Bong: 150 E. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, 561-368-3338. Lunch 11:30 a.m. till 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5 till 10 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday, till midnight Friday and Saturday.
But few restaurateurs in Palm Beach and Broward have entered the fusion dining market since. This seems strange, since one would think South Florida's veritable "mixed salad" of cultures would enjoy seeing their traditional foods united.
Then, egad! A few fusion spots recently sprouted up in our neighborhoods. For those who wish to examine how India and the Caribbean fare on a plate, Boynton Beach's inconspicuous new fusion sensation is Nirvana. If Asian fusion is more to your liking, you won't have to travel too far east to find Bong in Boca Raton. Both have managed to dress up plates nicely, combining ethnic influences in colorful arrangements. But only one of these two restaurants has managed to consistently bring opposing flavors together in perfect harmony.
Nearly a year ago, Ernesto "Bong" Santa Maria, a small Filipino man with a funny nickname and big dreams opened his eponymous place. "I spent about $2.7 million to put this together," he said. "[And] I did a lot of research. I traveled as far north as Orlando and as far south as Miami looking for ideas."
The result is a space that looks inspired by the three cities. It has the oversized objects (dragons, parasols, warriors, rickshaws) one would expect in an Orlando theme restaurant, the optic light show and unique verve of a Miami spot, and the colorful but not too trendy feel of a Boca establishment.
The crowd is definitely not one you would find hanging out at Las Olas Riverfront. Nor is it one you would discover while visiting Denny's for the Grand Slam. It's more of a Rolex-wearing, middle-aged Boca crowd, yearning for something new. I overheard people sitting on the outside deck say they frequent Bong for green tea martinis ($12) and other unique drinks, but I wondered if the food was good enough to keep them coming back.
When Bong, which is Santa Maria's first restaurant, opened, the menu consisted of traditional dishes and some fusion concepts. But, through time, Bong explains, it has become apparent that the fusion selections and sushi offerings can stand alone. Today, staples like pork, Chilean sea bass, lobster tail, duck, and lamb are treated with flavors and spices inspired by China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. And then there are the oddballs, like Cornish hen soaked in an adobo dressing (typically a Mexican marinade) and ostrich, pan-seared and swimming in plum wine sauce with various veggies.
Entrées generally range from $20.95 to $34.95, but the big kick in the ass is the wok-seared Kobe beef dish at $59.95. The flesh is analogous to a high-end tourist at the Breakers; it's fatty, very rich, and has been massaged since birth. Since my reputation as an efficient critic was on the line, I was forced to order it (insert sarcastic look and evil giggle here).
While we waited for the Kobe, my guest and I tried the sake soy sparerib appetizer ($11.95). Thankfully, we weren't presented with a scrawny row of lacquered, toxic red sticks as I expected. But these ribs, lightly sprinkled with sesame seeds, lacked zest.
And the sushi? A new guy was still in training when I visited, but the Vietnamese chef showing him the ropes was solid. Per the recommendation of John the Bartender, I ordered two rolls -- Fusion Unagi ($13) and the inside out Deep Sea Volcano Roll ($12.50). Bless you, John. The perfectly crisped unagi (barbecued eel) roll was edible art, combining silky cream cheese and crisp flying fish eggs with velvety mango and eel sauce touched with vanilla. The volcano roll was a plain ol' crab and cuke deal, but when topped with the spicy baked white tuna and salmon combination, it sent my senses soaring.
Finally, without further ado, the Kobe arrived. To maintain its regal birthright, the sliced beef is served with an Asian pesto sauce and dressed up on a plate ready to go to the prom. In sharp contrast to the deep brown beef is a kaleidoscope of red-veined taro fries, enokitake mushrooms, grilled Chinese eggplant, charred garlic, asparagus, mashed sweet and garlic potatoes, and fried vermicelli noodles. Though the plate was a treat for my eyes and stomach, my tongue was slightly disappointed. The mashed potatoes and taro fries weren't hot enough, and the beef, which was also tepid, wasn't as tender or melt-in-my-mouth flavorful as I had predicted.