Reversal of Fusion 

What happens when Asian-born chefs adopt Cali bistro cuisine?

Back in the days of the Asian-fusion boom, when every Californian-trained chef was parlaying a week in Phuket into "mussels in Thai coconut curry" and a fondness for sushi into "soy-ginger braised sea bass," I used to wonder: What would Asian fusion look like from the other side? In a sense, most of the Asian food we eat in the States has been fusioned, since restaurateurs have had to adapt to North American ingredients and tastes to keep their dining rooms filled. But outside of Hawaii and our own Christopher Cheung, few Asia-born chefs have tackled Asian fusion in bistro settings, and the genre has suffered from their absence.

Now that the fragile hipness of the trend has passed, a couple of Thai American cooks in the East Bay -- one in Berkeley and one in Benicia -- are offering their own takes on East-West food.

Vanni Patchara, the creative force behind Berkeley's DeVanni, which closed in 1998 after a five-year run, has returned to the restaurant scene with Vanni's Innovative Cuisine. After four years, Patchara was itchin' to get back in the kitchen, so he opened Vanni's II near the corner of Dwight Way and San Pablo Avenue a month ago.

Vanni sticks to the Thai idiom -- diners who aren't very familiar with the cuisine may assume they're getting straight-up Thai -- but he subtly alters the formula of each dish, giving it Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Californian shadings; he also uses only organic produce. Ninety-eight percent of Thai American cooks (a rhetorical statistic, by the way) mute the tart, spicy pungency of their cuisine and play up its sweet notes. Patchara goes one step further, amping up the fragrant herbs and spices in his sauces, eschewing fish sauce and shrimp paste, and keeping the sugar content high. Some of my companions liked the effect. I didn't.

Take, for instance, Vanni's tom kha. We smelled the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass coming before the waitress set the bowl down. The thick coconut-milk soup flecked with chiles -- we specified medium-hot -- contained fresh shiitake mushrooms, cloud ear fungus, red bell pepper slices, and chicken breast. With little lime to counteract the coconut, it tasted as rich as a cream-drenched pumpkin bisque. Vanni's perfume-drenched aesthetic worked better with deep-fried lumpia, which was wrapped in crisp rice paper and stuffed with sausage, vegetables, lemongrass, and fruity, fragrant lemon rind.

These big flavors can cover up sloppy technique. The black bean sauce on the stir-fried long beans and shiitakes was refreshingly salty after the soup. But the fibrous, nearly raw beans themselves had barely touched the wok. And Thai fried chicken had been unevenly dusted with a flour-coriander-seed mixture and fried in oil that was so hot that the coating scorched by the time the center of the meat cooked. Sure, it was tender, but that blackened, bitter aftertaste didn't win me over.

Two large fillets of salmon were covered in a shiny, red sauce (described as "hot basil sauce") that tasted like the ketchup-based sweet-and-sour I used to concoct from my 1970s-era "Chinese" cookbooks as a kid, except the anise-edged Thai basil sprinkled over the sugary tomato sauce set my taste buds a-jangling. However, the yellow curry on the Dungeness crab was perfectly calibrated. Each leg was cracked for us to suck out its moist flesh. The ginger, turmeric, and coriander of the mild yellow curry neither masked nor heightened the natural sweetness of the crab -- they added a dusky, warm note to it.

The waiters have yet to pick up some of the small flourishes of bistro-style service, but they have eager smiles working for them. And Vanni's new space, with exposed brick walls and rows of white tablecloth-clad tables, is date-worthy. The low-hanging, dimmed halogen lights make even the view of Dwight Way outside look romantic.

Kay Kalayanamitr Loyola, of Petals Bar and Restaurant, fuses Thai and Californian cuisines along completely different lines. After running the successful Sala Thai restaurant in Benicia for years, Loyola opened Petals on Benicia's main strip two years ago. On a wintry Wednesday night several weeks ago, the streets of downtown Benicia were deserted, and customers in the dining room were spaced out thinly. But it wasn't because of the food.

A whiff of turn-of-the-previous-century hothouse decadence perfumes Petals' decor, marked by dark pumpkin walls, gilt mirrors, and enormous sprays of fresh and dried flowers. Tightly rolled linen napkins rise out of every wine glass like rabbit ears, and the tables are lit by candles in beaded holders. The server didn't miss a beat, smoothly overseeing the widely scattered parties.

Loyola's more classic spin on Asian fusion starts with Californian bistro cuisine. She uses Southeast Asian spices, ingredients, and cooking techniques to Thai up dishes that just about anyone who's ever spent more than $10 on an entrée will find familiar. The plates match the high drama of the room: Loyola sprinkles rose petals over every dish and crowns the entrées with fresh flowers and piña colada paper umbrellas. Some of the elements can get lost in her exuberance, but the ensemble often comes together beautifully.

The Chinese mustard in the assertive dressing on the Petals salad left a faint tingling on the palate, but didn't overwhelm the delicate flavors of the mixed greens. Radishes and roses were tucked in amid the leaves. Calamari rings in puffy, crisp shells were glossed with a sweet-hot syrup that resembled the dipping sauce for fish cakes and egg rolls. The Thai salsa alongside -- pineapples, apples, mangos -- was dressed with salt and lime juice, keeping the sweetness in check. But it was best enjoyed as a side salad.

A different kind of Thai salsa was strewn liberally around several of the entrées. Combining coarsely chopped fruit and vegetables, it took the place of the traditional mixed-veggie medley. Sharp red peppers and onions vied for dominance over pineapple and apple chunks, covering up the subtler flavors of asparagus and zucchini. The sweet-savory mix blended in with the other complex flavors on the plate, such as lamb chops, moist and deep pink on the inside and dabbed with a bright smear of cranberry-red wine chutney. Or spice-rubbed, pan-fried prawns, drizzled with a sharp wasabi aioli and heaped over a scoop of wok-charred, spicy "dirty rice." The best dish of the evening was the most improbable: roasted yellow peppers, soft and sweet, filled with prawns, chicken breast, Japanese eggplant, tomatoes, and lychee. All the flavors were bound together with a creamy red Thai curry whose coconut milk united the sweet and the meaty and whose chiles and spices pulsed with flavor.

Considering that the Thai-American population of Contra Costa and Alameda counties is minuscule -- approximately 3,100, according to demographer John Haddington's analysis of the 2000 census figures -- the hundreds of Thai restaurants around the East Bay mainly serve non-Thai diners. I'm often disappointed but rarely surprised to see that most of these restaurateurs alter their food to suit American palates. I'm more excited to see what talented Thai-American cooks are doing -- with varying results -- when they abandon the pretense of serving "authentic Thai" food. Just as long as they don't spend a week in St. Helena and declare their Chardonnay-Massumon beef Wine Country fusion.


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