The Elements of Taste
A great restaurant, like love and immortality, is one of those things that money just can't buy. Then again, witnessing the winter/spring couples cooing around Palm Beach leads me to believe that maybe money can buy love, but I'm still pretty sure it can't buy a great restaurant. That doesn't stop people from trying, though. There seems to be an infinite number of investors willing to pour their finances into what often turns out to be a bottomless pit of pure futility. When sanity returns and these novices realize their money would be more profitably placed in something more stable (like the stock market or the horse track), they fold their glitzy tents. Most don't even last long enough to grasp what their Richie Rich ventures lacked.
The Flagler System Management, Inc. team, which owns the Breakers hotel, has certainly pumped plenty of greenbacks into its new Asian restaurant, Echo, located just three or four blocks away from the landmark resort. The opulence is obvious as soon as you pass through the sleek entranceway and take in the vibrant contemporary design of the 160-seat room, defined by dramatic curves, striking lighting fixtures, and richly colored fabrics. When you're seated you'll notice other pretty and pricey touches, like splashy glass plates, flashy flatware, and the name "Echo" embroidered on the sleeves of smart gray uniforms as the wait staff hands out menus bound in stainless steel. Actually I found these metallic binders rather cumbersome and am convinced that a clumsy person, with a single accidental, uncoordinated jerk of the arm, could poke somebody's eye out with the tip of one. Chopsticks too are stainless steel, the water glasses curvy and blue -- even the logos and menu fonts are tasteful. Money can't buy a great restaurant, but it sure can buy a gorgeous one.
The FSMI group not only owns the Breakers but developed and has been operating a $15 million-a-year restaurant in that property. They have, in other words, wisely backed their Echo bucks with food-related experience. This background affords them the expertise to orchestrate a professional and thoroughly pleasurable restaurant experience, which in turn greatly increases their chances for success. That they possess the know-how of fine dining becomes clear about the time you taste the first appetizers, but hints of their proficiency can be gleaned in the clarity with which the wait staff articulates the menu and is reinforced by a perusal of the menu items themselves. The cuisine, drawn from China, Thailand, Japan, and Vietnam, isn't fused into some pan-Asian potpourri but rather kept culturally distinct -- in terms of ingredients, at any rate. The menu geographically shuffles the dishes and rearranges them into five elements: Wind ("small plates to start your journey"), Water ("beverages and sushi"), Fire ("from the grill, wok, and fry pan"), Earth ("from the land and sea"), and Flavor ("desserts and sweets"). I'm not sure I like the idea of Flavor being designated only for desserts, but otherwise the classifications provide a clever way of presenting a wide spectrum of culinary options, each of which sounds extremely enticing.
We began with Water, drinking some and then ordering from that category. All selections from that page are prepared at the Dragonfly lounge, a lively cocktail-and-sushi bar that runs along the entire right side of the room. A quartet of chilled sakes, half a dozen Asian beers, and specialty drinks like the Dragonfly stinger, an equal blend of plum wine and sake, provide liquid fireworks; a small but sensational sushi selection overseen by chef Ha Khong supplies light bites. The sushi and sashimi include the usual suspects, such as tuna, salmon, and shrimp, along with more exotic sea urchin, smoked eel, and toro (choice tuna belly), for which I recently paid $8 a slice at a swank new Asian restaurant in South Beach. Here the toro was $3.25 per piece, and though Echo certainly can't be categorized as inexpensive, most other hot spots charge just as much, and sometimes more, for less impressive fare. The inside-out spider roll, featuring rice on the outside and tempura-fried soft-shell crab with green leaf lettuce on the inside, was simply delicious, and two variations on a California roll were as fresh as a dip in the Pacific. One was topped with conch, the other with a more flavorful baked scallop in a sweet and spicy wasabi sauce.
The four Asian influences converge in the Wind section: Thai shrimp soup, Vietnamese spring rolls, Chinese dim sum selections, and jumbo shrimp with a Japanese soybean-plum sauce. Both the shrimp, breaded in coarse panko (Japanese bread crumbs) and cleanly fried, and the spring roll, savory with ground pork, shrimp, and black ear mushrooms, came in the Dragonfly sampler for two. The sampler also included a skewer each of grilled chicken and beef and a generous pile of pork spare ribs that, while not yielding all that much meat, were tastily coated with a sweet and piquant lime-chili glaze -- a pretty good deal at $24. Crab-and-asparagus soup lacked pizzazz and was the least satisfying of the breezy Wind snacks. It was nonetheless fresh and impeccably prepared, snippets of both green and white stalks mingling with soft lumps of crab in a chicken broth made slightly tart with black rice vinegar.
Five wok-seared Fire foods made up the smallest grouping of dishes, but these, too, were deftly handled. Pad Thai contained numerous truly jumbo shrimp, firm and moist, tangled with rice noodles, bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, scrambled egg, purple basil, and just the right amount of spices to give the palate a stimulating kick. We passed up the fiery temptresses of shrimp in curry coconut sauce and lobster lo mein with ginger-tamarind sauce, settling instead on seared ginger beef, a generous plateful of thick, tender, medium-rare slices of succulent tenderloin and bright stir-fried asparagus, red peppers, and red onions in a thin, zesty brown sauce. Alas, the promised "crispy sweet potatoes" were feeble threads that lay limply atop the beef. To use a baseball expression, "There goes the perfect game."
The Earth section brought additional alluring choices, like steamed sea bass (Earth??) with soy-ginger glaze, tempura pork tenderloin with sweet and sour sauce, Vietnamese roasted chicken with lemongrass-chili sauce, and a Peking duck for two carved tableside. We went with two filets of panko-breaded chicken breast, crisply fried and stacked with stir-fried vegetables in a pool of wildflower honey-lemon sauce. The contrasting of sweet and hot ingredients is something at which this kitchen excels, never losing the balance between the two. Side dishes of steamed broccoli with oyster sauce and wok-fried green beans with shiitake mushrooms, sweet chili sauce, and roasted peanuts are other Earth picks, as are a sticky rice with corn, peas, mushrooms, and coconut milk and a version of fried rice -- not too salty, not greasy in the least -- with teeny dice of barbecued pork, baby shrimp, eggs, scallions, and ginger.
Desserts are uniquely inventive, especially the "Asian study of chocolate," which dazzles with fried, frozen, hot, cold, crunchy, soft, fruity, and nutty dark and white chocolate -- woo boy! More specifically: warm chocolate cake with an oozy liquid center; cherry truffle wrapped in rice paper and quickly deep-fried; frozen white-chocolate- and-pistachio ice cream topped with an almond truffle; and a tropical fruit slaw of mango, Asian pear, pomegranate, vanilla, mint, and Thai basil in a chocolate cup. The crème brûlée sampler tosses out just as many flavors, like chocolate cashew, mango lime, vanilla jasmine, mandarin orange, and raspberry/rose tea. A trio of sorbets and a medley of tropical-fruit dim sum dish out even more intriguing tastes, and just to cover all the bases, a duo of soufflés is offered as well.
Echo, in Greek mythology, was a nymph whose unrequited love for Narcissus caused her to pine away until nothing but her voice remained. I, on the other hand, am losing my writing voice after praising Echo the restaurant in paragraph after paragraph. Judging from the difficulty in securing a reservation, it seems that other diners echo these sentiments. Let's hope FSMI's aforementioned experience prevents the sterling qualities of the place from tarnishing with time. If they can manage that, there's no reason Echo won't continue to be a resounding success resounding success resounding success.
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