When the Four Rivers restaurant closed late last year, we fusion freaks found ourselves locked out of the space owners Paula Palakawong and Ravin Nakjaroen had composed with such good taste, its raised water pools, Buddhist bas-relief sculptures, mood lighting, and handcrafted tableware. Missing Four Rivers, there were a lot of people who seemed to be taking the loss so hard that it seemed personal.
"One nail drives out the other," goes the old proverb. The fastest way to recover from lost love is to fall right into it again. Before we knew it, we had a suitor knocking politely at the door, proffering a bouquet of orchids: one Thanu "Joe" Sinevang. In February, Sinevang; his daughter Lena; and her husband, Prepast Sumonthee, opened a third branch of their Pan-Asian restaurant, Origin, in the space the Four Rivers had vacated. They'd brought their own menu but thankfully left the gorgeous décor almost entirely intact. Sinevang had arrived in Miami in 2003 after stints at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok and at Windows on the World and Rain in New York. The Pan-Asian place he opened in South Beach was his first solo restaurant. He'd come up with a menu that drew on Malaysian, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian dishes. That South Beach Origin has since closed, but outlets in South Miami and Key Biscayne have been happily received. Our own Origin, it seemed, was just the medicine we needed to heal our broken hearts.
In the past couple of months, smitten food critics at the Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel have bestowed a shower of stars upon Sinevang's new Fort Lauderdale venture. Not only are they head over heels in love but they're already planning the wedding. Myself, I'm charmed by Sinevang and company, but I'm not ready to use the L word just yet.
For one thing, it's almost impossible to refrain from comparing Origin to my old heartthrob. Sinevang's aesthetic, his take on Asian fusion, is nothing like Palakawong and Nakjaroen's. The food at Four Rivers was precious, sometimes annoyingly so. But when those little dabs of flavor worked, the results were so graceful and impeccable that you forgave them the vast swaths of white space on your plate and also the high prices they were charging for every mouthful. Each bite of raw fish or rare pork loin they put in front of you sparkled like it had been conjured out of thin air, and the accompanying drizzles and minuscule snippets must have been placed with tweezers: a single nut, a lacy bit of kale, a winged taro chip so transparent that it threatened to take flight.
Sinevang's plates are the opposite: They're heavy and grounding. You will never go hungry dining on his curries or stir fries, his mountains of noodles. You wouldn't dare complain about Origin's prices either: Most of the appetizers hover around $8, the rice and noodle dishes are $9 to $11, entrées average $18 to $24. Where Four Rivers was a restaurant you saved for special occasions, a place to woo a lover or impress a boss, you could happily lunch at Origin three times a week and then meet your pals there every Friday night to get lit on sweet and sour lychee mojitos.
I don't want to give the impression, when I say the food is "grounding," that it lacks technique. Some of the dishes we sampled at Origin were as good as any I've ever had in an Asian restaurant. The Cambodian-style fish "amok" ($18) is a real star, and if I were a regular customer, you'd have a hard time prying me away from it to order anything else. It's a kind of fish custard made by combining coconut milk, coconut cream, egg, Napa cabbage, and thickly sliced snapper, steamed inside a banana leaf with flavorings of lemongrass, fish sauce, and kaffir lime leaf. You spoon the warm, savory, citrus-inflected custard and fish chunks out of the leaf or mix in a bit of sticky rice that comes alongside in a mini bamboo steamer. It's to die for, and that's just fine, because I can't imagine a better last meal.
Some of the chef's specialty dishes, like the amok, can be ordered as either appetizer or entrée: a seafood version with shrimp, fish, and scallops sells for $9 as a starter. Or Sinevang will work variations of meat and fish across the menu: a plate of six sizzling barbecued lamb ribs are an excellent $9 appetizer, larded with carmelized fat in a thick, gingery sauce and retaining a pleasant hint of slightly soapy, gamy flavor that lets you know you're eating lamb. As an entrée, Sinevang serves the rack of lamb pan-roasted, accompanied by shiitake mushrooms, green peppercorns, and brandy mustard curry sauce for $26. A pan-seared salmon appetizer comes with chu-chi sauce, a Thai red chili curry, or as an entrée with warm spinach salad and mango salsa ($18).
Other favorite dishes at our table included a sour, vegetal, green papaya salad with string beans and tomatoes accompanied by intense, chewy cubes of Thai beef jerky ($10). The sour-salty notes of lime and fish sauce in the papaya salad weren't nearly as opulent as I like them, but the smoky beef jerky remedied that. You could shove a piece of this stuff into your cheek and probably keep extracting its flavor for days. There was a wonderful plate of ultrasoft shrimp ravioli ($7), fat chunks of pink meat, crunchy water chestnuts, and pungent shiitakes stuffed into a supersoft pillowcase made from boiled sheets of rice pasta — hard to maneuver but, dipped into nuoc nam fish sauce, delicious.
Other dishes weren't exactly bad, but they didn't completely hit it either. Ahi tuna two ways ($22) offered a couple of pieces of raw tuna sushi next to a perfectly seared fillet of ahi brushed with honey sesame soy citrus glaze: The glaze had a bitter taste we guessed came from either citrus pith or grapefruit, and it didn't do a thing for the tuna. Seared sea scallops ($18) came with three thin, ho-hum dipping sauces based on nuoc nam, a red chili, and sweet lemongrass, along with sautéed vegetables and a steamer of sticky rice. And the pad sieu ($9) with tofu, broccoli, hard-boiled egg, and chopped peanuts was so bland that it barely qualified as Thai.
That blandness is one of my main issues with Origin: Sinevang may be toning down the kick of his Asian spices for American palates. Even relatively mild Vietnamese cuisine often works on a frequency you feel buzzing in the back of your throat, and Thai ingredients, with all that distilled fish sauce, pounded shrimp paste, basil, lemongrass, and hot chilies has been known to generate serious head rushes.
Real Asian cooking is a symphony of stinks: The cultures Sinevang is drawing on for his fusion cuisine have spent several thousand years mastering preservation and extraction, wringing molecules out of salted fish, mushrooms, and soybeans that contain universes of flavor. For me, this loaded syntax of taste is what keeps me falling in love over and over with pad Thai or Panang curry. Without those cadences, even in the crowded babble of voices that the term fusion implies, I still feel lonely.