Don’t Fear the FusionBy: Brian Berusch
THE TWO WORDS TOGETHER, from the onset, always make me cringe a little bit. Our nation’s affinity for merging seemingly different entities-the more foreign and polar opposite the better- and hacking the most rudimentary elements of them into one recognizable, tolerably palatable (albeit still marketable) “thing” is utterly American. And probably the reason why we are constantly blown away by the food in foreign countries, namely Europe, where Greek food is nothing but Greek; Italian is unabashedly Italian. You see where I’m going?
This melding of cultures is a concept, in my opinion, best left in, say, fashion. Or, on the floor of the U.N. Not on my dinner plate.
However, the O’ahu restaurant Japengo is a pleasant, somewhat surprising exception to this notion.
Chef Michael Imada has managed to delicately balance the fare at this eatery by spotlighting the top one or two dishes from ports like Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Manila and Korea, as well as Moloka’i (in a side dish) and Paris (dessert). Imada keeps it real throughout preparation and plating of these offerings, avoiding the tragic pitfalls most chefs fall prey to in these times of would-be celebrity chefs scribing their “mark” on every dish. He knows the best plates from these countries were perfected long before he picked up a knife; and he presents them in all their straightforward glory.
That is, beautifully plated, not short of portion and full of flavor.
Of course, the latter is done by acquiring the best ingredients, which he does-local and fresh when possible, without beating diners over the head with it. But the king crab legs of the “Singaporean Chili Crab” that form the heap just delivered to my table couldn’t have come from nearby. And yet, glistening orange shells stacked high on a large plate, smothered in a burnt sienna-colored chili sauce thickened with egg, I finally get to taste the flavors that I’d been relegated to watching Anthony Bourdain coo over a few too many times.
The fun doesn’t stop here-as it shouldn’t. Imada’s crab comes with a seemingly limitless supply of fresh-baked man tou buns, the buttery, crescent rolls of Asia that Pam, our waitress, insists “I’ll just keep bringing until you can’t take any more.” She hold true to her word, even though two of us could never finish the stack of sumptuous crab and manage to sample anything else on the menu. And for this, I love her.
A lovely complement to the spicy crab is the “Korean Style Kalbi Short Rib,” which arrives with a small plate of homemade kim chee, namul and watercress, evoking the accompaniment-laden dishes found at more traditional Korean eateries. But the beef commands the spotlight here, in all its tender, slightly smoky goodness, pre-cut into bite-sized cubes. Again, in true Korean fashion, the chef leaves the oversized rib bone-completely cleaned of meat-on the plate for those keen on inhaling the marrow. Sweet blessings.
We sample the “Miso Glazed Wild Salmon,” a fish not associated with Hawai’i in any regard, yet somehow this ample-sized slab filet maintains moistness while floating atop a pillow of white rice. The Mirin butter reservoir in which it sits is utterly elegant, a fine complement to the Saikyo miso that gently glazes the topside of the fish. The preparation here isn’t wholly identifiable with a specific country; the spinach-basil salad makes me think it’s Thai, but after a few bites, the reporter in me ceased caring.
To accompany these hugely flavorful main dishes, we opt for a simple side of the house-made fried rice. Pam is quick to enlighten us with a highlight reel of the 24 ingredients that make up this dish. When it arrives, the lightly crisped top gives way to caramelized onion, char siu pork, plump bay shrimp, sweet egg, shiitake mushroom and a host of other gems that don’t overpower-ideal for a “side” dish-yet boost any of the main plates we paired it with. Fantastic.
Working backwards, there were a few starters worth mentioning that should not be missed, that we chose to break up main dishes and scatted throughout this dining extravaganza. The “Scallop Butter Yaki” was an eyes closed, chew in slow motion fantasy that I am still playing out in my head. Topped with a generous dollop of black tobiko (essentially caviar without the heavy salt intake) and served over a single shiso leaf (which we ate with each bite; try it, you might find a new favorite herb). This was nothing short of an “experience,” with huge, bursting scallops seared yet absolutely tender throughout.
The next intermezzo was the equally elegant “Torched Hamachi,” a dish that Pam explains was a huge hit at the shuttered Colony restaurant (also at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki), and now tucked into the Japengo menu. Here, a two-bite-sized slab of yellow tail is topped with a kaiware-sesame-lemon “spread,” and then torched, which crisps the sauce as well as the top of the hamachi. The result is a unique take on a Japanese staple, exploding with flavor in the mouth.
Desserts did not over-power, nor disappoint. The “Japengo Cooonut Crème Brulee” with chocolate shavings was a highlight, as was the surprisingly light “Molokai Sweet Potato Cheesecake,” a purple pillow of a dessert. Chocolate profiteroles were light on the sweetness, delicate on the texture (the pastry was airy, the hazelnut gelato silky).
There’s no reason to fear a jaunt through the regions covered by Japengo’s menu; I would be more than pleased to rack up frequent flier-diner miles at this sure-to-please venue.