Lo Coastal Fusion hits no culinary high
I took my first cooking job in 1988. Fifteen years old, I walked into a neighborhood pizza shop knowing precisely nothin' about nothin' and proceeded to prove it at every opportunity. That I wasn't fired after my first night was odd. That I survived my first week, near miraculous. It wasn't like I'd taken this job because I had any particular love of cooking or cuisine; the husband-and-wife owners of the joint were simply the only people in town willing to take on an underage kid with a sketchy work permit and pay him actual cash for doing little more than regularly endangering himself and the customers.
For me, 1988 was a good year. I found my trade in that kitchen, a life-long love for the crashing din and clamor of a working galley, for the mindless, comforting tedium of prep and the somewhat laissez-faire attitude of kitchen crews and owners. They'd bum me cigarettes when I couldn't sneak across the street to buy my own and let me play with knives when I didn't have more pressing, equally dangerous tasks to perform. I remember my time there with a fondness completely out of proportion to how much fun it probably was in reality.
For food, though, '88 was not a good year. Neither was '87, and '86 was worse. In fact, the '80s were generally a terrible time for cuisine in this country, full of strange excesses and stranger obsessions. This was the decade when American cooks went crazy with coke and ready cash — a kind of American gilded age where nothing seemed too far out and ingredients from around the world began flooding into kitchens, going to cooks who had no goddamn idea what to do with them.
I, of course, was aware of none of this. Concerned only with turning dough, scraping trays, running the recalcitrant dish machine and huge Hobart mixer in the basement, I was shielded from the worst of the waning decade. In upstate New York, there was little opportunity to experience the madness that had seized kitchens on the coasts. Foie gras dumplings and wasabi and champagne-poached lobster wrapped in gold foil were not appearing on the boards of the restaurants in my home town. But just over the horizon, these things (and worse — much, much worse) would come with uncontrollable regularity.
It was a decade of experimentation — like the '60s had been with drugs and the '70s with sex, the '80s were about testing the boundaries of money, power and food. And an argument could be made that it was a necessary period of madness, a kind of pure-science time when cooks and chefs pushed the boundaries to find out exactly where those boundaries lay. But what's always fascinated me is how many ideas that came out of that time and previously uncharted territory persisted through the '90s and on into this decade. How many truly dated and, in some cases, terrible flights of fancy remain central conceits of menus still being cooked today, reanimated like zombies and left to shamble like bad dreams through the waking world.
Don't get me wrong: I loved the '80s. Still do. I believe "Safety Dance" was one of the greatest musical achievements of the twentieth century and that Wall of Voodoo never got the credit it deserved, particularly for the song "Mexican Radio." Some of the best movies ever made were made in the '80s (Blade Runner, Red Dawn, The Breakfast Club and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, just to name a few). I lost my virginity in the '80s, got my first car and had my first run-in with the cops. And in the dining realm, America's passion for sushi emerged in the '80s, along with the first, bare inklings of local cuisine.
But fusion was born in the '80s, as well, and fusion broke more hearts and destroyed more careers than Molly Ringwald and Ivan Boesky combined. I understand all too well the gravitational draw of the style for chefs — the chance to do anything, to exist in a culinary universe with no rules and no law — and fell victim to it myself many times over the years. When you think about the number of ingredients out there, the vast panoply of techniques, the temptation to stick wasabi in those mashed potatoes or to add a little Thai chile to the fried chicken is powerful. And even today — when everyone should know better — restaurateurs are still flogging fusion, still betting on the old combination of all things to all people rather than picking one thing and doing it really well.
Daniel Wong, owner of Lo Coastal Fusion, couldn't resist the siren song. When he opened his restaurant in 2007, he made it a time-warp portal back to the DeLorean days, with the extremes and culinary immoderation of the '80s just a jumping-off point. Lo has a raw bar. It has a sushi bar staffed by really well-trained guys who deserve better. It has a small-plates menu (another trend that just won't die), a large-plates menu, a tempura menu, two sushi menus and a kitchen crew that must be on a daily dose of Haldol just to keep the schizophrenia at bay. It is primarily a seafood restaurant, but it also offers steaks and a half chicken that alone straddles three culinary canons, coming with an apricot-molasses glaze and root-vegetable fricassée. It is an Asian fusion restaurant except when it is an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant, a Chinese-Japanese fusion restaurant, a Japanese-American-Italian fusion restaurant or something else completely indefinable, like when the kitchen cooks up a portobello mushroom bisque with gremolata or (deep breath...) grilled Hawaiian ono with cold soba-macadamia nut salad, grilled mango salsa and a reduced soy syrup.
All else aside, Lo is a beautiful restaurant — smooth and soft, with gentle green walls, black leatherette, shining rails, wooden chairs, stone and track lighting. It takes the best of the Asian minimalist design born of the '80s and tunes it perfectly to a modern taste. The servers are black-on-black shadows moving through a crowded, well-spaced room. They are friendly, but not overly so. And the volume on the floor never seems to rise above a murmur, save for the occasional explosions of shouts or laughter from the separate bar. Even when the dining room is three-quarters full, it is quiet enough to hear clearly the adult-contemporary soft rock drooling from hidden speakers.
Over the past year, I've made three visits to Lo, each time trying to unravel the skein of influence and traditions knotted through the menu, each time trying to figure out just what Wong was thinking. And each time, I've come away only more confused, more addled by the juxtaposition of grilled bread salads with grape tomatoes, corn and chipotle-buttermilk dressing, and crab cakes with green curry. On my first visit, I had edamame — very near a perfect food, steamed in the shell, lightly salted — and sashimi constructed by Paul Liu, ex of Sushi Den. Even on a Sunday night, it was excellent: maguro and kanpachi, tasting of nothing more than fish oil and the sea; a delicious spicy tuna sparked by chile, softened by stiff, sweet rice. To this point, my meal was like eating at a Japanese restaurant that'd colonized a small corner of a larger, stranger restaurant and operated with quiet impunity.
But then there were the Chinese pot stickers with sambal. The jalapeño poppers. The pork cotija and red currant empanadas listed right above the smoked salmon with potato-horseradish galette, fried capers and avocado — a real culinary whiplash. I ordered udon noodles with littleneck clams, and it was like some bizarre episode of Iron Chef — a Japanese chef who'd only seen it done in a book being forced to make linguine with white clam sauce with the wrong ingredients. The texture wasn't bad, and the garlic and pancetta were a nice touch — but the dish was so strange to me that I couldn't enjoy it in any sense other than one of head-shaking wonderment.
On my most recent visit, I had a plate of grouper crusted in crushed pecans, served over bacon-shot grits and sour, off-season asparagus with a brown-butter vinaigrette. It was almost inedibly bad — the grouper oily and old, soaked down with vinegar-butter that curled my tongue, the pecan crust another invention of the '80s. (Nut-crusted fish was one of the worst sins of the decade — the first thing I'll fix if I ever get my mail-order time machine working.) Oddly, the grits were excellent: Some wild streak of Southern tradition running through the crew made them capable of not just turning out a passable side of bacon grits, but one that would've been at home in a real Southern restaurant. Making matters worse, I'd paired the grouper with a couple of modernist, American-influenced rolls from the sushi bar. The lobster tempura roll was awful, spiked with chunks of cucumber rather than delicate and crisp batonnets, and cored with masago that was just plain weird and made every piece fall apart as soon as I touched it. And the five-fish rainbow roll was a piscine nightmare — the worst example of what overbearing American tastes will consider food.
I have to give Wong credit for his single-mindedness, because the strangeness extends even to the dessert menu. American apple pie, Italian sorbetto, panna cotta with biscotti, the ubiquitous flourless chocolate torte (jazzed up with ancho chile here, and goat's milk caramel) and French crème brûlée, served as three tastings (vanilla, chocolate and lemon), each with its own cookie. It's the '80s to the end.
At Lo, there's simply no escape from the time-warp strangeness and cross-cultural demolition derby. It is a completely realized, if misguided, concept: thorough in its consideration of the possibilities of fusion, completely blind to the pitfalls thereof. It's a restaurant straight out of the '80s, and the culinary collisions are just as dangerous today as they were back then.
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