Kurobuta pork confit is another original creation, treating the pedigreed pig the way Gascon chefs treat duck legs. A hefty shank is cooked in its own rendered fat, arriving crusted on the outside but moist inside, served atop a slick of cider jus. The accompaniment is an ideal match for the weight of the meat: a sparkling salad of apple and watercress scattered with batons of applewood-smoked bacon.
Hoisin-caramelized Australian lamb rack with "peas and carrots" features tender meat with a just-right amount of fat, which arrived roasted to our order of medium-rare. The Hoisin sauce lends a nip of spicy sweetness. The carrots are mashed, looking like a serving of Thanksgiving yam casserole but tasting lighter, with strips of deep-fried carrot chips for garnish, plus a scattering of English peas that were the best we've tasted in this year of mealy peas. Re-emphasizing the color scheme, a handful of marigold petals serve as garnish.
There are very few chefs who can create desserts as brilliant as their entrées, which is why most restaurants have dedicated pastry chefs. Riko is one of the exceptions, and his desserts are comparable to those of 910's Jack Fisher in their lightness and inventiveness.
He's mastered the arcane Tunisian brik pastry, three layers of phyllo leaves buttered, crumbled, and compacted together again into a less frangible form before baking -- it has the same delicate flavor but doesn't shatter at a touch of the fork. I was sorry to miss a brik-crusted bluefin tuna but was delighted to find this delicacy in a yuzu-curd Napoleon, with thin but sturdy vertical pastry layers separating puffs of citric custard. The pastry is served over blackberries and their syrup, yin-yang with green-tea syrup (sugar syrup with an elusive touch of tannin) of a brilliant chartreuse. "What's the green stuff?" asked posse-member Dave at one visit. "Maybe it's the duck liver for the suzuki, at last," Marty answered.
Marty is a chocoholic, while I'm a nut for coconut, so we ordered the warm chocolate torte with coconut béchamel sauce and pecan nougat. The torte was molten in the center, of course, and the coconut sauce was suave and not too sweet. The plate included a limp chocolate finger along with chocolate-nut nougats, so the dish could be called "all about chocolate," showcasing the ingredient in cakey, liquid, nutty, and candy formats.
The restaurant's interior was designed by the chef and his wife as a handsome, comfortable bistro, with dark woods, carpeted floor, soft banquettes along two walls, and a small bar (that's mainly a service area) facing a wall bearing mirrors in heavy frames. Presiding over the far side of the room is Riko himself, visible behind the glass of the open kitchen. His wife Kim is in charge of the front of the house, and the service is exceptionally considerate. The feeling is of a "we," not an ego, and even the busser is in on the scheme. If Riko were working in a fancier setting, his restaurant might get five stars -- but it's more fun to eat at Asia Vous, where he's his own boss and can cook what he wants to cook, while his staff takes pleasure in your pleasure.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Riko Bartolome started out hoping to be an architect but got sidetracked when, at 17, he took a job flipping eggs to earn college money. "I was working with two German chefs who took such pride in what they did... Trying to do something perfectly while in a rush satisfied my competitive nature." He got hooked on cooking, and his bosses steered him to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he graduated in 1989. After that, his gigs included the Hyatt Regency La Jolla and restaurants in Maui and L.A., all of which helped him develop his knowledge of Pacific Rim cuisines. Drawn home to Escondido, he cooked for several years at 150 Grand but developed an ambition to work in the big city. This led to a period of wandering in the culinary wilderness, with several creatively unrewarding gigs, until he could start his own restaurant. He opened Asia Vous 16 months ago, and it's all his own (aside from a bank loan), with his wife Kim as hostess and sole business partner.
"The name Asia Vous actually started out as 'Deja Vu,' but then we decided to get rid of the d," he says. "Of course, the combination of Asian and French in the name reflects what we do there, and our concept of the restaurant as 'old school/new school.' And then, a lot of people didn't know where I went after I left 150 Grand -- I just sort of disappeared and then reappeared in Escondido. So I've sort of been reborn here, and that relates to the name, too.
"I'm living the dream of a lot of other chefs. They're looking at me right now and saying, 'Hey, how's he doing?' because they want to do the same thing. It's not the same to have a lot of partners and investors -- I'm the chef that went out on his own and has only the bank to answer to, and Kim, of course. The reason why the restaurant exists is all the work we've done. I put in the tiles in the bar at three in the morning, after working all day. Aaagh! The design of the restaurant, the objects in the bathroom -- everything has to do with us. We bought some things from Home Depot, some from Expo, and from some of the furniture shops in San Marcos. I can tell you about banquettes, about colors...
"The menu evolves all the time. I'm not the same chef as I was 14 months ago. I can change the menu on a daily basis if I want to. Eventually I'd like to be able to serve a 'tasting menu' again." Some dishes are recycled seasonally. Other bold ventures, such as a sea-urchin custard from the original menu, have disappeared because too few customers understood them or ordered them, although a brave few loved them. "I have to hold back on my menu to some extent," Riko says, "because I'm in Escondido and some people don't understand this [cuisine]. The saying is 'If you can make it in Escondido, you can make it anywhere.'