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I had two reactions looking over Roy Villacrusis' menu at his new Kubo Asiatic Cuisine.
And "Oh, shit!"
"Oh, wow!" because just reading the thing ("Green tea-cured salmon with longan, fried basil and yuzu kosho jelly," "Lao-grilled beef, somen noodles, romaine hearts and nouc nam") was like taking 220 volts straight to the taste buds. This isn't the stuff of one more generic "Asian McFusion" eatery, cranking out tuna tataki-black cod with miso-10,000 wackymaki cream cheese and spicy sauce on everything with the palate-numbing relentlessness of a franchise burger joint. This might actually be the real deal.
And the "Oh, shit!"? Well, what if it weren't the real deal? What if, just as zombies eat the faces off their victims and politicians act like rabid scum weasels, Villacrusis was another of those South Florida chefs who let their mouths write menus that their asses can't cook?
Go with the wow.
Go with the wow because Kubo Asiatic Cuisine is indeed the very real deal, and Roy Villacrusis can cook just about any menu his mouth can write. Go with the wow because he's not channeling Nobu or Morimoto or any of their dozens of tenth-rate imitators but drawing inspiration from the cuisines of his native Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries and crafting dishes that let you taste their flavors in a whole new light.
Go with the wow because he's surfing the culinary high wire without a net, not compromising on the quality of his ingredients or the purity of his vision at a time when many chefs are content to slap blue cheese, bacon, and belly-button lint on a meat patty and get the hell out of Dodge. And go with the wow because, frankly, if you don't, the restaurant that serves food this daring, this personal, this creative in the absolute best sense will be gone before you know it and you'll be left picking pieces of bacon and belly-button lint out of your teeth, wondering why somebody doesn't cook something, you know... exciting.
And Villacrusis' cuisine can certainly be exciting. One of the single best dishes I've eaten all year is described rather woefully as "Liver Surf 'n' Turf" ($22), which is kind of like calling the Hope Diamond a hunk of compressed carbon. It's simply exquisite. "Surf" is two thick coins of monkfish liver — the foie gras of the sea — at once dense and creamy and intensely briny, nestled on a citrusy yellow miso sauce, scattered with microgreens and guarded by a sweet-tart pickled ginger flower stem that glows purple like a neon porcupine quill. "Turf" is foie gras of the land — Hudson Valley, to be exact — a small lobe (with a regrettable vein) of indecent luxury in a pool of spiced chocolate sauce as delicate as a baby's kiss, flanked by twin marbles of caramelized banana.
Also from the cold side of the tapas-oriented menu (dishes are divided by cold and hot, specialty rolls, and sushi-sashimi) is gravlax-style green tea-cured salmon ($13). Here the chef's artistry at presentation makes even your eyes drool in anticipation. Long, twisting ribbons of pastel salmon march diagonally across a stark-white plate; at intervals like mile markers are globes of juicy, exotic-tasting longan fruit, their black seeds removed and replaced with golden cubes of spicy yuzu kosho jelly. Translucent petals of fried basil add color and gossamer crunch. Though the fish betrays the strong-tasting fat seemingly endemic to the species now that wild-caught Pacific Northwest salmon is all but unavailable, it's still a dish of uncommon sensitivity and imagination.
That Villacrusis has Captain Nemo's touch with seafood should come as no surprise, as he spent nine years crafting sushi and running the sushi bars at Mark Militello's eponymous South Florida restaurants. When the Militello mini-empire collapsed like a lead soufflé, Villacrusis left on a months-long journey of culinary rejuvenation through much of Southeast Asia. On his return, he went to work on Kubo, opening the restaurant in October in Crystal Tree Plaza, a meandering, upscale mall that feels in the middle of as much nowhere as you can get and still be on U.S. 1 in North Palm Beach.
The same artistry Villacrusis lavishes on his plates was applied to the restaurant's décor, done on a shoestring budget that couldn't afford the shoes. The black-and-red color scheme comes off as more contemporary than clichéd, lightened by paneling of what appears to be simply varnished plywood. The most striking design element is a big-screen TV blaring Japanese music videos mounted over the sushi bar. The effect is kind of cool, kind of kitschy: a poor man's South Beach.
At lunch, Villacrusis restrains himself a bit, offering bento-box-style dishes that range from the whimsical (Kobe hot dog with kimchee) to the practical (sushi and sashimi plate). One afternoon's special laid fillets of plush-textured freshwater and saltwater eel over rice, with seaweed and jellyfish salads and tamago (sweetened egg sushi) filling in as sides ($12).
Those elaborately composed sushi rolls — the ubiquitous wackymaki — are offered at lunch too, and while the ever-popular cylinders crammed with a kitchen sink's worth of disparate ingredients tend to make sushi purists (like myself) gag on their uni, there is nothing at all wrong with Kubo's Bakudan roll (panko-crusted fried shrimp, grilled pineapple, arugula, and avocado with coconut curry sauce, $14).
As for carnivores, start sharpening your manly incisors. You have nothing to lose but your hunger. The fact that Villacrusis uses only Wagyu beef for his meaty ménage à trois dubbed Gyu San ($27) should be enough to raise a woody. But the dish's precise cooking and thoughtful composition — Korean bulgoki (massively flavorful seared-raw short rib with kimchee), Japanese teriyaki (tender skirt steak with daikon makisushi called oshinko), and Philippine inihaw (marinated top loin and pickled vegetables) — makes for meat you just can't beat.
You can't beat Beef Nam Tok ($15) either, though you can wrap the tender slices of sirloin redolent of their citrusy marinade into whole romaine leaves, top them with a tangle of somen noodles, and dip the resulting sweet-tart-savory package in salty-spicy nuoc nam. You could, however, beat Kubo's lobster beignets ($10), preferably with a two-by-four. Despite their striking presentation, the beignets themselves were heavy and sodden and lacking any lobster flavor. That they hid chunks of tough, chewy octopus in their hollowed-out centers deserves an additional whack.
Ah, but then there's dessert. House-made sorbets and ice creams — the shiso-cantaloupe sorbet ($6) is really quite lovely — and chocolate won tons and tropical fruit sushi and fried cheesecake.
Fried cheesecake? Ohyesohyesohyes.
Villacrusis' "fried cheesecake" ($8) is what churros want to be when they grow up and get a PhD in deliciousness. Imagine cheesecake spring rolls — long, slender cigars of phyllo with a creamy-dreamy cheesecake filling, fried to bronzed, irresistible crispness. They're presented three to an order with a small glass of dusky caramelized banana sauce so wickedly indulgent that when you're done, you can't decide whether to slurp up what's left or smear it all over your body and invite your most significant other to lick every sticky-gooey-maddeningly luscious drop of it off.
Which, come to think of it, would be a pretty big wow too.