The Hawaiians Are Coming! 

The new wave of Asian fusion comes ashore — in Walnut Creek

Back in the day when a splash of soy sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds made a dish "Japanese fusion," when California cooks got excited about coconut milk and wasabi but had no idea how to integrate dried shrimp or water spinach into our dishes, Hawaii had us beat. The food that emerged out of the state in the late 1980s made celebrity chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Sam Choy look like Socrates and Plato to our early Roman Republicans. Their food was flashy and inventive, seamlessly integrating Asian, Polynesian, and European techniques with tropical ingredients.

Looking at the ethnic makeup of the state, it's hard not to see why: Hawaiian kitchens are staffed with cooks who grew up immersed in Asian and native Hawaiian cuisines. Northern California has slowly caught up. Though our Asian-fusion trend has cooled, restaurants like the East Bay's Grasshopper and CreAsian are finally putting out smart, intricately worked dishes that deliver what the culinary movement promised.

Now the Hawaiians are moving east. Roy Yamaguchi opened Roy's San Francisco last year. L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, the fast-food chain that specializes in the "two scoops rice, one scoop macaroni salad" Asian-fusion plate lunch, recently set up an outpost in San Carlos. And six months ago, chef Kelly Degala brought Ono Mazé to Walnut Creek.

Hawaiian-born Degala and partner Randy Negi, a Bay Area native, sent out a talented crew of designers as their avant-garde. Sleek but not cold, the stylish space features mottled gold walls, dark gray carpet, an undulating bar, and an open kitchen. Lozenge-shaped paper lanterns of various sizes hang from the ceilings, and horn-shaped sconces illuminate the walls. The wood tables that fill the room suggest a Japanese simplicity. Square black bread plates on each echo a small sushi platform holding a single tea light, a miniature cast-iron teapot dispensing soy sauce, and an equally tiny teacup with Japanese pepper.

Ono Mazé's large menu, which changes monthly, is divided into small plates and large, allowing diners to choose how they want to eat. On my first visit I tried the appetizer-entrée-dessert approach, and on the second I ordered a proliferation of small plates. The reasonably priced wine list spans three continents, highlighting the light, floral whites and spicy reds that go so well with Asian cuisine. Of special interest to theater- and moviegoers is a simple four-course "sunset menu" -- for $19.95 -- served from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

While the decor aims for the sparse, the food takes the opposite approach. To a plate the plates look good, sometimes spectacular -- lush, colorful, and cleanly arranged, ornamented with triangles of seaweed and slivered scallion greens. For Ono Mazé's spider roll, for example, the chef rolls chopped, raw tuna poke in nori (sushi seaweed) and then coats the outside with slivers of phyllo dough. When the roll is fried, the phyllo stands out like crunchy hairs. The rolls are cut on the bias and stood on their ends. Even the straightforward-tasting miso soup sparkles with orange, green, and black julienned vegetables.

Though dishes rarely fail, the problems that arise are with substance, not style. A lighter, brighter hand is often needed to lift and separate the complex seasonings and rich flavors. Our delicately constructed poke rolls tasted like chopped meat and frying oil, with no acidic, sharp notes to highlight the seasonings they contained.

Small plates are organized into three sections: satays, starters, and soups and salads. Skewered, grilled items make up the satay list, each served with its own dipping sauce and paper-thin, sweetly pickled cucumber slices. Our selections included triangles of portobello mushroom basted in a salty soy and roasted until soft and meaty. Thick sea scallops were dusted with salt and pepper, grilled, and accompanied by a simple ponzu sauce made with yuzu (a Japanese variety of citrus, like a peppery lemon). Plump prawns had been grilled until their marinade of coconut milk and spices soaked up a pleasing smokiness.

Though ostensibly the center of the salads, greens faded in the background, shown up by the profusion of other ingredients in each. A small handful of baby spinach coated in a thick sesame vinaigrette held together bitter spikes of endive, sautéed rock shrimp, and sugary papaya. All the Thai chicken salad needed was a spoonful more of its lovely sweet, nonacidic peanut-ginger dressing. Without it the deep-fried vermicelli, soft wheat noodles, crispy won ton strips, and poached chicken -- all buoyed aloft by a few mixed greens -- remained an assemblage of textures rather than flavors.

Our service was both friendly and attentive. One server couldn't speak without giggling and the other overwhelmed us with triplicate verbiage, but both coordinated with their bussers to keep a well-paced flow of plates coming and going, never crowding the small tables. On my small-plates meal, the server skillfully divided the dishes into courses, creating a nice mix of cold and hot, spicy and mild.

Entrées showcased Degala's "pan-Asian" approach, combining Asian techniques and seasonings to prepare Californian ingredients, with a focus on seafood. (Even the restaurant's name mixes it up -- ono is Hawaiian for "delicious" and mazé, Japanese for "mix.") The Japanese seven-spice powder rubbed into a thick chunk of seared ahi tuna seasoned its mild flesh to the core; continuing the vivid contrasts, homey mashed potatoes vied with chili oil and a lively wasabi-tobiko beurre blanc. Unfortunately, the ahi went straight from fridge to pan, leaving its center icy.

Neither of the entrées we ordered was accompanied by side vegetables, so diners may want to scrutinize the list of side dishes more closely. They include Okinawan sweet potato puree and steamed baby bok choy. We tried two others: long beans stir-fried with a dark, salty black bean sauce, and sliced Japanese eggplant stewed with tomatoes in a similar soy-based sauce. Vegetarians can order a platter of side dishes and meat-free small plates.

Dessert magnified the style-over-substance dynamic. We, like the table next to us, gasped when their chocolate torte arrived. A thick wedge stood on end with a long, ruby smear of sugar-stained glass extending an extra six inches from its peak. But when our own dessert arrived -- a small round toasted-coconut bread pudding paired with a giant tuile cookie vase containing a scoop of vanilla ice cream -- the long squiggle of caramelized sugar that jauntily poked out of the ice cream turned out to be the most flavorful element on the plate. A coconut-milk sauce couldn't offer any relief from the whiteness of the too-dense cake and the tasty but one-note ice cream. A bombastic Valrhona chocolate "soufflé" proved too powerful for three accompanying sauces and almost too compact for my spoon.

On another visit, tea marked the best finish of all: I poured a fresh, almost fruity peppermint tisane from a gray Japanese cast-iron teapot into a matching metal teacup. In this sparest of fusions, style and substance merged with effortless grace.


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