Asian-American cuisine is enjoying quite a growth spurt. Filipino sisig and Korean barbecued meat top French fries and nachos, ramen noodles are being fried into the shape of hamburger buns, and wild nettles are making it into fried rice. It's an inventive, open-minded time for Asian food, and it seems like anything goes.
A lot of the quirky, interesting fusion food happening now comes from second-generation Asian Americans who are as much influenced by their parents' food as they are by tacos and Chez Panisse. Or it's made by people who, regardless of color or upbringing, have as much passion for Asian food as for Western food.
But no matter where it comes from, successful Asian fusion dishes can be natural, with a lot of personality.
At Osmanthus, the new upscale pan-Asian fusion spot in Rockridge, that personality is low-key and understated, with dashes of aplomb. But when applied to dishes that are traditionally bold and, well, not understated, I felt like something was missing.
The space gives off a slick, city vibe, but still manages to feel cozy. The chef, Julia Klein, comes from Asian fusion restaurants Ame in San Francisco and Terra in St. Helena, where Japanese-style crudo is listed on the same menu as buttermilk-fried quail. The menu at Osmanthus isn't quite as lofty as at Terra — it's more comforting and familiar, with a focus on Northern Chinese cuisine and a strong showing of well-known, tried-and-true Asian dishes.
The green tea leaf salad, for example, seemed like a fresh take on a favorite, with its use of baby gem lettuces. I've always thought that tea leaf salad conveyed abundance by its wealth of texture and flavor, but in this case the green tea leaf, with its graininess, overwhelmed the salad, which on the whole tasted muddy and tannic. The tomatoes were not particularly flavorful, being out of season, and didn't contribute the brightness I thought it needed.
The Sichuan-style dry-fried chicken wings are battered and fried and tossed with fried peppercorns, garlic, and star anise. They are non-greasy and flavorful, with the spices providing a warm, numbing sensation to my tongue. I also liked the roughness of the peppercorns and their crunchy, earthy bite. But the dish was made with a shy handful of chili peppers, and I missed the aggressive, glowering heap of them that you'd find at Northern Chinese spots.
The dry-fried green beans, while cooked perfectly tender crisp with plenty of garlic, didn't have enough of the almost metallic flavor of a seasoned wok, nor was the skin of the green beans blistered.
The garlic noodles, although wonderfully rife with crunchy, sticky bits garlic, used plain spaghetti noodles, which perplexed me. It was tasty and garlicky enough, but the feel of them in my mouth was uninteresting.
Of the more traditional dishes, the chili broth noodles came out well. The broth was amazingly meaty, with sweet notes, and is made with delicately textured noodles and plenty of succulent ground pork. Although it also could have used more chili, it was tasty, priced well enough for a quick lunch and would probably cure a hangover in a pinch.
Aside from the chili broth noodles, I thought that some of the crowd-pleasing, easy-to-recognize dishes were executed with the rough edges taken off. Nothing was too spicy — the servers don't ask for the spice level you prefer — or too bold.
There are also a good number of dishes that are fried and feature Sichuan peppercorns and garlic, but there is little on the menu to balance that, like pickles, a vinegared salad, or kimchi. As a result, some of my meals there seemed timid and lackluster, and I found myself comparing dishes with their original inspirations.
That's always a pitfall with Asian fusion. Much of Asian cuisine has been in development for thousands of years. It's already delicious. There needs to be a good reason to change things.
For me, those palate-pleasing dishes came from those that were more off the beaten path. The smoked trout fried rice, for instance, was smoky and sweet, not fishy at all, and was as richly flavored as pork fried rice. It was incredibly light, with the texture of the smoked trout almost disappearing into the rice. And I could taste the kiss of a seasoned wok, although the dish itself wasn't greasy at all. It was a minimalist take that worked.
The Brussels sprouts made with salt pork, honey, and Sriracha came out wickedly delicious, the outside leaves curled and crisped from its deep-fried treatment, while the inside remained tender. The bitterness of the green was balanced by the honey soy glaze and tongue-pricking Sriracha. It was comforting, but still dazzled on all points of the palate.
My personal favorite was the salmon, presented on a mash of yams in a dish a-swim with a coconut-based red curry sauce. Visually stunning, the salmon was perfectly seared so that its salty edges had achieved a lacy crispness, and the Crayola-purple yam provided a nice counterpoint. I liked that the yams had been puréed, which provided sweetness without detracting from the delicate textures of the salmon. The curry sauce had a good amount of heat, while the shower of cilantro on top asserted a green note.
Dessert was drool-inspiring — a Thai tea-flavored crème brûlée, brown-sugar sweet with bitter, woodsy, and floral notes.
Also palate pricking were the cocktails, made lively with dashes of lychee, yuzu, ume, and ginger. My drink, Ms. Grant, was a clever balance of gin, raw ginger, lime, and yuzu bitters, with the ginger's peppery bite complementing the more pungent notes of the gin. Those looking for a globetrotting drink list would be happy here, with beers from Vietnam and Singapore, sakes from Japan, and wines from South Africa all on the offer.
I would come back to Osmanthus for a drink and a bite in a heartbeat — for all its slickness, it's a relaxed, non-stuffy place with an approachable waitstaff. And although I'm hoping that Osmanthus' kitchen will become more experimental and bolder with the chilies, there's a good dinner to be had here.