Here's how Cuvae, a new bistro on the Oakland end of College Avenue, justifies its name: "Cuvae (koo-vay). n. Derived from the French word meaning 'blend' [cuvé]. The 'a' is inserted to represent 'Asian' and 'American,' thus creating 'Asian-American blend.'"
The name is the most recherché thing about Cuvae. In fact, the restaurant itself is downright homey. Cuvae serves everyday Asian-American food, the kind that comes to you naturally when you grow up in a Chinese restaurant in America.
As did Jeff Cho, whose mother owned Best Taste, a small "barbecued duck and noodle soup" restaurant in Oakland's Chinatown throughout his childhood. Cho worked in restaurants and catering throughout college, taught himself to cook in China and the United States, and finally opened Cuvae's doors three months ago.
Twenty years after Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main rocked California with barbecued duck pizzas and catfish in ginger sauce, Cho's culinary mixology feels as familiar as Puck's Chinese chicken salad. Even the focus on small plates -- which make up two-thirds of Cuvae's menu -- comes as close to the cutting edge of fashion as the Gap.
Though its flights of fancy never leave the ground, the restaurant's simple food is fresh and comfortable. The cooks have a solid sense of how to grill a steak and roast a duck breast Western-style, and assemble Asian flavors easily, with no clumsy off notes.
The ahi poki that started my meal one night came in crisp wonton-skin cups that broke apart into chips for scooping up the chopped tuna. The toastiness of the sesame-oil dressing gave the dish its main note. Slices of tender, pink-centered steak sprawled across a mixed green salad, with pine nuts and sliced red onions scattered among the leaves. The mayonnaise-like sesame dressing that was drizzled around the plate worked better as a steak sauce than a dressing for the fragile greens.
Salt coated my tongue when I bit into a Kalua pork spring roll, a house specialty. Kalua pork is slow-roasted, Hawaiian-style pork, which breaks down into shreddable, juice-saturated meat once the fat and collagen slowly melt away. The cigar-sized spring rolls were wrapped in a thin skin that crumpled with a fine papery crackle, the insides a compact mass of moist meat. Things improved when I stopped dipping the rolls in the salty-sweet soy dipping sauce, thus abandoning complexity for tolerable sodium levels.
Sometimes Cho and his cooks make no effort to blend cultures. There was no ginger or wasabi in their Caesar salad, thank God, just pale green romaine leaves, crisp and light, tossed with a dressing lit from within by lemon. Deep-fried tofu pieces were coated in a thin rice-flour batter that bubbled up in the oil. The puffy, soft-centered cubes were stacked in a pool of soy and rice wine and topped by a shower of green onions and pink bonito flakes, which fluttered like moths as they melted. And the vegetarian entrée -- skinny, kinky egg noodles stir-fried with red onions and shiitakes -- tasted as if it could have been made by your local Chinese restaurant. Less traditional was the plating -- the tuft of julienned green onions on top and the baby bok choy blanched just until its green ends melted, ringing the plate.
The chefs pay as much attention to the simple sides that come with the entrées as they do the main events. Both of the dishes I tasted were plated with asparagus and a mound of jasmine rice the shape of an overturned bowl; others come with garlic mashed potatoes and green beans. Each grain of rice stayed sticky but distinct, and the asparagus hadn't given up its snap, yet there was no crunch of the raw.
But at fifteen to twenty dollars a pop, the entrées could have shown a little more finesse. With fish, for example, there's a small window (some call it medium rare) between raw and flakily dry. In that window, the flesh peels apart into silky, translucent chunks that taste cooked yet melt in the mouth. Unfortunately, the poached salmon we received one night hadn't yet arrived at that point. We picked off the edges of the too-rare fillet, swabbing it in a black bean sauce mild enough to keep the salmon in the foreground. Similarly, the cooks didn't do much to broaden or temper the flavor of the hoisin sauce they lacquered a pan-seared duck breast with. There it was, tasting just like it does when you spoon it out of the jar. But they brushed on only enough to tinge the meat with hoisin's musky sweetness. Under its cap of crisped, fatty skin, the glazed duck tasted most like duck.
Desserts kept to this side of the Pacific: Chocoholism still seems to be an American disease, and Cuvae's fix came in the form of a chocolate cake layered with mousse and coated thickly with ganache. Its exceptional vanilla crème brûlée was a milky caress, served in a shallow, scalloped dish big enough for two.
Cuvae is just far enough toward the Broadway end of College Avenue to feel off the beaten path. The building can't shake its Miami Vice look -- the rounded stucco front, the large patio buffered from Northern California by heat lamps and umbrellas. Inside, however, the owners have recast the South Beach deco with new-millennium colors. One slim row of tables lines the front wall, spectator distance from the semi-open kitchen, and further from the chill is the windowless back room. It's the color of fresh butter, with sleek wood tables and architectural collages.
Despite the slick ambiance, Cuvae still has a mom-and-pop feel. Perhaps it's because the young waiters, casual but not sloppy, almost twitch with their eagerness to please. Or because there's no wine list -- if you want to see what's available, the waiter will bring over a couple of bottles of wine of the Clos du Bois ilk to show you.
Cuvae's guileless Asian-American cuisine is meant to be eaten, not contemplated. There are no witty cultural collisions to ponder, no novel preparations. It's just simple Chinese-Japanese-Hawaiian food married with simple bistro food. What the marriage could use is a little more romance.
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