Asia Like It

When Andy Ho and May Giang announced they'd be opening a new restaurant at 603 East Sixth Avenue, in the space that had been Emma's, I didn't shed any tears. I'd never been crazy for Emma's the way some people were -- for that slightly stuffy, somewhat over-romanticized Victorian house restaurant that held down its post on the corner of Pearl Street for years, like a signpost marking the border between normal Sixth Avenue and gourmet Sixth Avenue, like an ever-present reminder of Valentine's Days gone by. And L'Asie -- back when that was the only name listed on the construction permits and liquor-license applications hung in the window -- sounded cool, sounded hip. I was hoping for some sort of Parallel 17/Z Cuisine-style French/Vietnamese restaurant -- a hot spot along the lines of Cyclo in New York, or like Sapa before it imploded in Centennial.

But my hopes plunged the day I discovered that the restaurant's full name would be L'Asie Fusion Bistro. Asian fusion? Again? Really? It seemed to me that a restaurateur would have to be blind or deaf, have recently suffered some sort of major head trauma, or been living in a cave (or in Highlands Ranch) for the past five or so years to think that Asian fusion (or any kind of fusion) was a good idea. Like California cuisine (see review) ten years ago and molecular gastronomy last year, Asian fusion was a fad whose time had come, gone, resurfaced briefly with some interesting, sushi-style amalgamations (Italian sushi, Latino sashimi, a thousand versions of tuna tartare...) and then been beaten to death by hordes of half-talented rookies coming late to the party and hell-bent on smearing wasabi on everything. At this point, calling yourself an Asian fusion restaurant is like filling in your voter-registration card and allying yourself with the Whigs or the Bull Moose Party.

When I spoke to Giang just before L'Asie opened in January, she told me a few reassuring things. For one, she and Ho were hardly rookies. They'd been in the industry for ten years -- Ho as a cook, she working the front of the house. And second, their notion of fusion wasn't. At least not in the bad banana-leaf-wrapped-fish-over-wasabi-mashed-potatoes sense. And third, Giang just really sold me. She talked about their dedication to the Southeast Asian cuisines for which I'm such a willing sucker, to the pure ideals of French technique for which I'm an even bigger sucker. She explained that the "fusion" in Fusion Bistro was really a reference to the way the menu would be arranged: a combination of Southern Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai dishes, each one traditional in itself, Frogged up where appropriate, but fusiony only in that the appetizer menu, for example, would put Vietnamese spring rolls alongside Japanese edamame and gyoza, golden tofu with soy by wontons and soft-shell crabs.

And Giang didn't lie about anything. When I first walked into L'Asie, I found a Chinese restaurant. And a Vietnamese one, and a Japanese spot, and a Thai joint. L'Asie is split the same way so many other Asian restaurants are these days, mixing mu shu and noodle bowls and lettuce wraps and satay and spring rolls, offering a jumble of everything in order to capture the largest slice of the neighborhood dining dollar. And while the menu might look like something stolen from Mr. Super Dragon Panda Buffet out in the 'burbs, the French influence also makes itself known in the cooking.

Those gyoza were fantastic -- handmade, their shells crisp and doughy, almost like an empanada, the pork filling a gingered and oniony forcemeat with the texture of a rough, country-style pâté. The golden tofu was cubed, carefully breaded (no small trick, that) and perfectly fried. There was a note of obsessive authenticity in the vermicelli noodle bowl, in the biting astringency of the house nuoc mam and the onion-shot curry over the Singapore rice noodles. Ho and his crew do shrimp with straw mushrooms in a tomato and acetylene gravy; shrimp rice-paper wraps with rice noodles and toasted coconut, peanuts, pickled carrots and lime-spiked nuoc mam; and shrimp Cantonese style -- sautéed in butter. The mango chicken could have (and probably should have) been a disaster -- all sickly sweet and citric -- but chef Ho smartly pulled it back from the brink of strip-mall saccharinity by leaning on the innate, soft sweetness of bell peppers and onions to counter the pure sugar of the mango. He also offered minted chicken (a new one for me, alternating between a cut-grass freshness and something akin to chicken in Altoid sauce) and a beef vinaigrette that, historically speaking, wouldn't have been out of place on Escoffier's table.

Okay, maybe not that of Escoffier himself. But definitely the table of the guy who lived next door.

L'Asie is not the groundbreaking restaurant I first hoped it would be, nor is it the dreadful restaurant I next expected it to be. It's the restaurant that I was told it was going to be all along. It may not be the restaurant that belongs in the space it occupies (the dimness and candle-studded brick, low ceilings and short bar put me more in mind of a true bistro or sexy night spot), but it's the one in that space now, a better-than-average neighborhood Asian restaurant set in a much-better-than-average space. Now they just need to get rid of those two large banners hanging on both street-facing sides of the building, which make the place look slightly more tawdry than it is and smack of desperation.

Great expectations: The difference between my assumptions about L'Asie and reality made me think about the stories I hear from people who've gone to Frasca (1738 Pearl Street in Boulder) for dinner and come away unimpressed. I've gotten letters, phone calls, seen their harebrained ranting on the foodie message boards. Almost without exception, they begin with something like "...heard this was supposed to be the best restaurant in Colorado, the best restaurant in the West, one of the best restaurants in the country" and end with "...a perfectly good meal, but nothing like I expected from the best restaurant in the world."

These people aren't stupid. They're not even wrong. What they are is deluded -- mostly by people like me. Is Frasca the best restaurant in the area? Yes, it is. Most likely, it's the best in Colorado, and I could certainly make a case for it being the best in the West. In fact, I wouldn't hesitate to put it up against any restaurant in the United States -- because even if Frasca didn't come out on top, I know the guys wouldn't embarrass us. But the people who go there for dinner and come away less in love with Frasca than I am are doing so because they've been hearing things like what I just said for years. They've seen the fawning hand jobs in the press; they've read about the awards and nominations that owners Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and Bobby Stuckey have chalked up. So these people walk into the place expecting not just dinner, but an epiphany. Demanding it, in some cases. And providing that to every person at every table at every dinner service is a tough job for anyone. Even God is stingy about handing down epiphanies to us hairless monkeys, and he's God. If he felt like it, he could give me a brand-new Ferrari every day of the week.

Starting now.

While I wait for that Ferrari, the guys at Frasca are revving up for their latest enterprise: not just selling wine, but making it. Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson are teaming up with sommelier Richard Betts from the Little Nell in Aspen to produce the initial batch of Tokai Friuliano "Scarpetta" (which is Italian cook slang for the bread used to wipe sauce off a plate). The wine will be available soon -- but how soon?

"I don't want to jinx it," Stuckey told me when I talked to him late last week, just before he headed to the Taste of Vail to meet up with Mackinnon-Patterson. After that, the partners were off to Friuli, Italy, for a final tasting before the bottles start to roll. "I'm a nervous Nellie -- you know that. I'm afraid that if I say anything, this whole thing is going to blow up in my face."

The partners first went to Friuli last year, to get contracts for the juice produced by a small family vineyard. The magic that turns plain grape juice into wine is now done, as is the blending. All that's needed is a final sip, a nod, and then a bottle. When finished, the Scarpetta will be available from the cellars at both Frasca and the Little Nell. Stuckey would like to see it in stores, too, but "I want to make sure I know what I'm doing, right?" he says. "On our last trip, everything tasted great, but you never know."

Loose lips sink sips.

Leftovers: Celebrate the coming of summer at Marczyk Fine Foods when the market, at 770 East 17th Avenue, fires up the grills at 5 p.m. Friday, April 20, for the first Burger Night of the season. And there's more reason to celebrate: Marczyk marks its fifth anniversary this weekend, with storewide discounts and plenty of local vendors' free products to taste all day Saturday, April 21.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan