Japan a Go-Go
Some people make it all look so easy. Whatever it is dressing like a minx on a pitiful budget, whipping up a 30-minute layer cake for your spontaneous midnight party, remembering who ordered the tomato pudding and who had the iguana soup. I'm always in awe of the smooth ones, the executors of graceful pirouettes in all genres. Our modern gods and goddesses, they beam down bemusedly on the rest of us while we grope, stumble, chew our pencils and fingernails, and spill cake batter all over our kitchen floors. That spilled batter is drying into a substance resembling concrete in my own kitchen even as I write.
Kevin Lee must be one of the divines. I've never met the man, but if the quality of the food and service at his restaurant, Japango, are any measure, he has only to lay hands on something to make it work beautifully. I love Japango enough to drive 35 minutes to get there, straight into the heart of Parkland real John Cheever country. Just west of Deerfield Beach, Parkland is placidly rich, its acres of horse farms the very color of money. A free 150-page glossy mag, Parkland Life, features stories like "No Horsing Around Here! Local Equestrians Place at the Appaloosa Youth World Competition," and "A Day in the Life: Top Real Estate Developer Makes Parkland Home." The average household income in Parkland was $102,000 in 2000, the population 90 percent white. Which indicates that part of Lee's "effortless" grace probably once included some hardheaded calculations about where an upscale Japanese-sushi fusion place was most likely to succeed.
Succeed, it has: With the rich and the richer, who glide their Lexus and Volvo SUVs through these pristine streets; with the young penny-poor but nigiri-wise who know good sushi better than anybody. And with the likes of me, a person who'll make endless trips in the rain for the promise of "duck two ways." Lee's menu redefines eclectic and includes many touches calculated to appeal to those of us who fancy ourselves fusion connoisseurs. Lobster, foie gras, and caviar are everywhere, along with American kobe steak, port wine reductions, and demi-glace. To give many of his creations the sexilicious sheen of Eastern silk, Lee suffers no compunctions about generous dollops of Western butter and cream, mayonnaise, and gorgonzola cheese ingredients mostly unbeloved of Asian chefs. With its understated-cool vibe and gorgeous clientele, if not its liberal use of saturated fats, Japango would fit seamlessly into any block of West Hollywood (in La La Land, that is). I haven't seen so many pairs of Taverniti jean-clad tushes in one place since the last time I flipped through US Weekly in the checkout line.
Eating at Japango has converted me into a paddlefish caviar addict. I can't, of course, afford beluga but I can empty the old change jar every couple of months and buy myself a tin of American paddlefish eggs, which have a delicate, complicated flavor, like ocean air infused with occasional whiffs of smoke from a campfire down the beach. (Two ounces online cost a mere $32.) Lee uses these little grayish-brown fish eggs, which look a bit like sevruga, as a condiment in some dishes, like the tuna foie gras with caviar ($15), a terrific sushi-bar appetizer that balances a blob of duck liver on thinly sliced, very lightly seared tuna, and then a mini-spoonful of caviar on top of that. You kind of roll the tuna around its decorations with your chopsticks, and each bite is a salty, smoky, fatty, creamy revelation of flavors you've probably never tasted all in one place before. Shallot-crusted tuna ($18) achieves a similar but tweaked effect by scattering crunchy bits of fried shallot over thin rectangles of bright-pink tuna, with green and red tobiko and more of the yummy paddlefish caviar on the side and a pretty, zigzagging trio of miso and mayo sauces, festooned with tiny swirls of scallion, to swoosh them through. You'll never again eat plain old tataki without yearning for Lee's version; it's like discovering a higher calling.
Salads and shu mai are equally scrumptious. Fancy mango seafood salad ($10) tosses chunks of shrimp, crab, octopus, and a delicate, lightly cooked white fish in spicy chili cream with sweet shocks of tart mango here and there an ideal combination of briny flavors and convoluted textures from the buttery mango to chewy octopi. It came molded into a handsome tower easily reduced to rubble with a flick of the fork. Spicy wahoo seaweed salad ($8) combines squares of raw fish (wahoo is a lean, mild mackerel) with green, red, and white seaweed in a dressing of fiery kimchee sauce, red pepper paste, sweet vinegar, and sesame seeds. All of it comes to the table dewily fresh.
Among the "apps from the kitchen," the lobster shrimp shu mai ($10) are very glamorous dumplings, tender skins almost too delicate to hold their heavy cargo of lobster and shrimp. Here's a good place to take advantage of Lee's generosity. He does not skimp on the seafood. I think back on the crabless "crab Rangoons" I've consumed, the minuscule shards of meat in so many "lobster salads," and I'm overcome with gratitude for chefs like Lee who must appreciate how fantastic it feels to stuff your maw with shellfish. Foams and airs are fine enough, but sometimes what you want is a lot of flesh-to-flesh contact a good, big bite of something.
Oh, and the soup! A bowl of hot and sour ($4) is viscous with wood-ear mushrooms floating just beneath the surface, like the shadows of koi in a murky pond, and slivers of bamboo shoot and tender, pounded chicken pieces. These are suspended in a broth of white vinegar, soy, and white pepper. Simultaneously comforting and intriguing, this soup. We also ordered a small banquet of rolls salmon and crab with a dab of cream cheese wrapped in cucumber ($9); spicy lobster roll with chipotle sauce, avocado, shrimp, and eel sauce ($14); a gigantic jumbo prawn roll ($24) that came with a pile of salty, fried rock shrimp on the side, like a seafood lover's cholesterol fantasy. These were all very good, but the spicy lobster, we decided after polishing off the entire plate with great relish, was a mite too mushy of texture it was the one dish where Lee failed to balance softness with crunch or crisp or brittleness.
Speaking of balance: The meal I'd return for indefinitely is the "duck two ways" ($22). I've been eating a lot of bird lately, but this is the essential duck dish. Two beautiful breasts are grilled, just the tiniest bit charred outside and pink within, deftly seasoned, sliced thin, and drizzled in hoisin lime sauce. They're exquisite, and they could easily have stood on their own. But Lee can't stop himself from flourishing talent everywhere: He pairs them with a crispy, oily, hot, fried egg roll stuffed with shredded dark duck meat and a little cup of homemade "duck sauce" (like the stuff you used to get in packets at Chinese takeout, only a million times better). The sauce tastes like slightly melted fruit and jalapeño jelly hot and sweet and one of those rolls dunked in it and then dissolved in your mouth is enough to keep your appetite primed for weeks. We ordered a side of puréed potatoes drizzled with wasabi cream ($5) to round it off.
I haven't said a word yet about the service, which was charming and exacting on two visits first during an absolutely crazy Saturday night, when people were jammed into this long, narrow space and crowding around the room-length sushi bar like so many smoked smelt (be warned, reservations for parties of four or more only!), and then again on a serene late Monday evening. Two different waitresses on both occasions managed to keep our glasses filled, our plates bussed, and our palates primed. They were just lovely friendly without being the least bit overbearing, thoughtful to the point of clairvoyance. I brushed away one waitress' query did I want an extra bowl to share the soup? She brought that bowl anyway, setting it down with a shy smile. Of course, she was right; I ended up filling it and refilling it. And silently thanking her, for knowing I'd want to.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.