By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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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.
I was on the verge of giving up hope, but then our cordial, slightly overattentive waitress suggested we try the raspberry coconut key lime pie ($5.95). Though this was certainly not a delicacy in any Asian country I was aware of, after one bite, I found the yin to my yang. Understand, as a near native of Florida, I have forgone key lime pie for years after being spoiled by the perfection on a plate that is served only at Camille's in Key West, home of the namesake fruit. I decided the pastel green, stale-crusted varieties served anywhere else were merely a waste of caloric space. But this time, I was glad I made the sacrifice. The pie was so refreshing, so tangy that my taste buds went as crazy as an Indiana Pacers player. Omigawd. The white chocolate macadamia nut cheesecake ($5.95) was no slouch either. The nuts added a nuance of flavor and a pleasantly surprising crunch in every bite.
So it seems that, at Bong, Asian flavors can sometimes live together in harmony with down home American foods. But what of other parts of the culinary globe (and further south in Palm Beach County), where Chef Ricky Gopeesingh fuses Caribbean and Indian fare with French style at Nirvana?
After earning a degree of local fame as chef at the Pineapple Grille in Delray Beach, Gopeesingh opened Nirvana in Boynton Beach a year and a half ago. The location is a bit strange, since this tastefully decorated, upscale gem is wedged in a strip mall neighbored by a Best Buy and a McDonalds. But once my guest and I were inside, the sounds of steel drums and live acoustic guitar and reggae combined with soothing bubbles from a fish tank and warm, dark wood furniture, to take us away like a Calgon bath.
The small restaurant was pretty empty when we arrived, but eventually, nicely dressed, respectfully quiet, middle-aged couples and small groups occupied some of the tables. Nirvana is geared to parties of six or fewer, so one will rarely be forced to listen to a group of giddy bachelorettes discussing their latest eyeliner application revelations. Plus, you get lots of personal attention from the wait staff and bartenders, since the compactness of the space encourages intimacy.
Our curiosity was piqued when the waitress served rolled Trinidadian flatbreads and foccacia with pools of green apple chutney and sweet and sour tamarind for dipping. But when she brought our appetizer to the table, we knew we were in for a treat. The plantain-crusted crab cake ($8) showed up in no time and looked like a carnival on a plate. Picture a nest of young, leafy greens topped with a hearty slice of beefsteak tomato. Spiraling out from the nest are curved slices of avocado. The lightly coated crab cake sits proudly in the center of the plate, topped with a scoop of goat cheese, speared by a sugared wonton. It looked as good as it tasted.
Every item on Nirvana's menu is just as complex. If you are in the mood for a plain burger and fries, buddy, you're in the wrong place. Here, you can choose from a number of proteins, including peppered lamp chops served with their pencil-thin bones sticking out ($27) or Bahamian marinated spiced salmon ($19). Each plate has so many explosive colors -- deep curry yellows, bright red peppers, rich green herbs -- that your stomach will think it's at the circus. Take for example our entrée, a mango chicken dish with goat cheese and mixed vegetables ($23). Can you picture the sunset-orange mango contrasting with the pale white of the chicken and the jade green of shredded zucchini skin? Now surround these victuals with a moat of purple port wine berry sauce and you have a rainbow the likes of which Pride Fest attendees have never seen. And the best part is, all the components were perfectly prepared. The cheese was chilled, the chicken was hot, and the vegetables were crispy and flavorful. And, lest I forget the humble side salad, which I usually forego: This time, I couldn't resist digging in to the pile of mixed greens, sprinkled with shreds of green apple, carrot, and jicama. The magnificent crunch was only enhanced by a light-handed splash of champagne vinaigrette dressing.
The chicken entrée obviously leaned more to the Caribbean side, so we ordered a curry dish to test the Indian balance. Our choices included chicken, shrimp roti, or lemon caper cilantro trout ($19), which we thought looked most interesting. To this day, I don't know if we got lucky or if this is how this divine creation always tastes, but the fish was so delicate that it barely hung on to our forks. And for those who aren't big fans of seafood, this selection is worth making a sacrifice. Somehow, the chef has devised a way to bathe the trout in just the right amount of lemon, caper, garlic, orange, and butternut squash to add acidity, creating a plate with no fishy taste but loads of succulent flavor.
If you are concerned that pairing your meal with a piña colada will put you over the fruity edge, don't fret -- you won't find any frou-frou drinks here. Only wine and beer are offered. But with more than 200 types of wine, 16 of which are served by the glass and others served as half bottles, you won't feel a loss. However, if you have to tame your uncontrollable sweet tooth, look to the dessert menu. Our slice of lemon coconut cake ($6) was refreshing and light, and the crème brûlée topped with wild berries ($7) was certainly worth a taste.
To conclude this study of South Florida fusion finds, here's what can be deduced: (1) though a fusion restaurant may claim to combine various influences, it may not happen equally on one plate -- or at all, for that matter, (2) just because the dish is pretty doesn't mean it tastes like a dream, and (3) unique combinations can sometimes result in divine unity. Tell that last one to your mom if Dennis Rodman comes to pick you up for a date someday.
Granted, neither of these restaurants will appeal to the budget conscious, but hey, a trip around the world wouldn't be cheap either. Think of it this way: For the price of one entrée at Bong, you will be exposed to at least four Asian countries. For less than $30, a plate at Nirvana will take your taste buds on a trip from India to the Caribbean and back. Either way, it's a lot cheaper than getting a master's in international affairs and certainly more pleasurable.