I rarely rate restaurants at "excellent to extraordinary." As far as I can remember, I've reviewed only seven of that quality in the five years since I arrived in "America's finest city." It's no coincidence that two of them have had the same chef, Escondido's Riko Bartolome, whose cooking I first encountered at 150 Grand.
He has now opened his own restaurant, Asia Vous, a few blocks away, where once again he features fine ingredients in dishes that meld French disciplines with Asian flavors. What elevates his version of "fusion" is the chef's thorough understanding of Pacific flavors and his grasp of what tastes and textures work best together. I can't talk about every dish I've eaten at Asia Vous (not enough ink), but what stands out is the consistent level of quality and creativity.
The menu is divided into small and large plates (appetizers and entrées). The experience is the same at both sizes, and at dessert as well. Every plate is a complex experience -- not a sitcom, but a singular drama with a cast of interacting characters. The bill of fare changes constantly to reflect the seasons, and the chef's evolving ideas, but a few favorite dishes are always offered because the restaurant's regular patrons refuse to let Riko retire them.
One of these perennials is an appetizer of veal sweetbreads that turns the traditional treatment of this organ on its head. Where classic French chefs slather the unctuous meat with a rich sauce, Riko crisps the surfaces of the morsels and matches them to chunks of pineapple and disks of lap cheong (Chinese pork sausage), along with a heap of broccolini. The winey-sweet, chewy sausage is just what sweetbreads need for contrast, while the tang of pineapple and fierce greenness of wild broccoli complete the sharply focused picture.
Another unconventional menu stalwart is a delicate combination of potato gnocchi with Maine lobster and squash blossoms in a sauce perfumed with Tahitian vanilla. The secret to the ethereal gnocchi: Riko uses cold mashed potatoes, which (unlike hot potatoes) are sufficiently dry that they don't turn glutinous and sticky when beaten with flour and egg. The squash blossoms add a gentle vegetative note, and the buttery sauce is based on dashi (Japanese dried-bonito broth), which adds a mere whisper of fish flavor. Lobster and vanilla have become a popular pairing in recent years, and they do form an apt partnership. Here, the vanilla seeds in the sauce come as a surprise if you've forgotten the menu description between ordering and eating. Bite into one, and your mouth is flooded with tropical sunshine.
Hamachi cured in kosher salt and brown sugar is a sexy new favorite. The thick, translucent rectangles of yellowtail arrived on a hot plate, arranged like a flower over a plushy round of green heirloom tomato scattered with cucumber julienne. The dressing was a yuzu vinaigrette (a sour Japanese citrus fruit). The fish was toothsome, lightly cooked by the heat of the plate; the ripe tomato echoed its texture in softer form. Tomatoes may be out of season by the time you read this, but I trust Riko will find a suitable equivalent.
Instead of the ubiquitous warm goat-cheese salad, Riko makes goat-cheese tempura. Encased in a light, crisp coating, it looks like a big, tan meatball; when you cut it, it's runny inside. The dish is strewn with edible pink flower petals to complement luscious little Mara des Bois semi-wild strawberries. Alongside is a warm fennel compote with a melting texture, and underneath all is a reduction of balsamic vinegar and honey, cooked to the color and thickness of chocolate sauce, and tasting chocolatey, too. It fairly begs you to dip your strawberries in it.
Hawaiian-style tuna tartare is more familiar fare -- an upscale ahi poké; flavored with dark sesame oil and Asian chili oil, topped with a simple guacamole and microgreens and plated over grilled bread. Black tiger shrimps in red Thai curry are a reverie on the theme of Thai mee krob, replacing the rice sticks with crisp shoestring potatoes the size of wooden matchsticks and cutting the sugar of the original to just a hint of sweetness.
The entrées are divided equally between seafood and land creatures, plus two vegetarian dishes. All the seafood is in season, flown in from Kanaloa, a small company in Santa Barbara that Julia Child mentored during her final years there. (Chefs Charlie Trotter and Michael Mina use the company, too.) The meats and poultry are also aristocrats: The steak is Kobe beef from Snake River, Idaho, the pork is Kurobuta (the Kobe equivalent for hogs), and the chicken is Jidori, the Kobe of the fowl world. Celebrity chef Nobu Matuhisa turned Riko on to these birds when the latter was cooking at the Hotel Nikko in Beverly Hills and Nobu owned the restaurant next door. The chickens, raised here but highly prized in Japan, are free-range, hormone-free, and raised on natural food, so they taste like real poultry, not cardboard. (Riko is currently matching them with foie gras in various guises.) Some of the produce is locally grown and sustainably raised; twice a week, Riko shops at the farmers' markets in Escondido and Vista.
Miso-bronzed sablefish (black cod) was invented by Riko's old neighbor Nobu. Riko serves it with a crisp, salty skin that slips off the fillet, accompanied by shelled edamame that taste as if they were picked that morning, in a sweet sake (mirin) nage with smashed purple potatoes hiding under the fish.
"Duck liver enriched suzuki" is a dish of Riko's invention involving a mild Hawaiian whitefish -- not a motorcycle that ran into a waterfowl. It had everyone at my table asking, "Where's the duck?" because we couldn't locate any liver on the plate or on our palates. The twist here is that the fish is poached with dashi and shallots in clarified fat that Riko renders from duck liver or foie gras trimmings. It's a subtle touch, to say the least. The fish comes with butter-drenched napa cabbage, marinated slim green beans, and a cube of truffled potato purée with the flavor and texture of knish-filling -- if the knish had a little black truffle essence in the mash.