Cafe Society

Japoix and its kitchen are moving food forward

The great leap forward: Was it an early cook in France or China who first got the idea of using frog's legs as food? For as long as Parisian chefs have been crisping up the amphibian's extremities and dousing them in garlic and butter, cooks in Beijing have been stir-frying those same body parts to adorn a variety of dishes. And both countries were most likely responsible for frog's legs jumping into Indochina, where Chinese tradition and French culinary standards met in the nineteenth century, spawning new cuisines. That might make the Southeast Asian peninsula the first outpost of modern fusion. But then, you could also argue that modern fusion started when wheat noodles migrated from China to Europe and inspired pasta. Or when beef became a popular ingredient in many Asian cuisines after Europeans visited that continent.

Cuisines have mingled throughout history. The fusion never stops.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, when a group of chefs capitalized on fusion in a much more ostentatious way, taking Asian flavors and marrying them purposefully to European and Latin American cuisines. In this new fusion, Chinese met Spanish, Thai met French, and Vietnamese, once a fusion cuisine itself, met Mexican. But rather than subtly integrating like elements, the resulting menus pitted bold flavor against bold flavor, highlighting contrasts, making a global culinary statement that was intentionally all new. It didn't take long before fusion was so overdone, it became a culinary F-word.

But true culinary fusion never stops. Food is always evolving, and Japoix offers one look at where it's going next.

"Japoix is a combination of the words 'Japan' and 'mirepoix,' which is part of the base of French cooking. Our dishes combine those two cuisines," noted our incredibly efficient server during my first meal at Japoix. And not just those cuisines: Although chef Jay Spickelmier's menu includes noodle bowls and frog's legs served French style with an Asian dipping sauce, it also takes some of the greatest hits of '90s fusion — wonton tacos, sliders and flavor-injected sushis — a step further. And it's doing so in a space whose previous tenant, nine75, was renowned for its comfort food with a rock-and-roll twist, which really meant big — often Asian — flavors applied to continental classics. Nine75 went through several incarnations before it closed in mid-2009, with its latest owners citing parking problems and poor street visibility. The fact that fusion's time had long since passed didn't help.

Those location issues haven't completely been resolved today, even if the scaffolding is off the Beauvallon. Which makes Lawrence Yee's decision to open this particular restaurant in this particular space an interesting one, since his culinary concept isn't a far cry from that of nine75's. But while Spickelmier's menu recalls some of the dishes served by that restaurant, it's also a reflection of his training. Spickelmier started his career under master sushi chef Takeshi Osaki at Osaki Sushi before moving up to Vail, where he cooked at the Left Bank, an upscale French spot, and Spago at Beaver Creek, the Wolfgang Puck restaurant that represented his first foray into the fusion of Asian flavors and other cuisines. Back in Denver, he became the executive chef at Jing in 2009, where he worked with his old friend Yee, a managing partner at that restaurant. And when Yee was offered what he describes as a deal he couldn't refuse on the nine75 spot, Spickelmier agreed to come on and helm the kitchen of Japoix, which opened last August.

Nine75 haunts not just the menu but also the physical space, because considerable furniture came with the lease. Yee also preserved much of the interior aesthetic: the dimly lit, dark-wooded dining room up front, with screens and fake walls giving the awkward shape some intimacy but leaving much of the space empty. And you still pass by a couple of strange little booths as you head to the bathrooms, the awkwardly located garage or the large lounge in back, with its picture-window views of Denver.

That first night at Japoix, we listened politely as our refreshingly confident and competent server walked us through the menu, highlighting his favorites, and then proceeded to err gravely by ignoring every piece of advice he'd given us. I love frog's legs — for both their culinary backstory and the contrast between their tender flesh and crispy skin — but these were a letdown. The legs, which arrived stacked one on top of the other next to a little dish of chile sauce, were meaty, but hadn't been fried in a hot enough pan to attain that satisfying crunch. They were bland, too, and I longed for some strong flavor, like garlic, to punch up the herbs de Provence. My real gripe, though, was with the honeyed sauce, which had a synthetic taste that suggested it came from a bottle (our waiter confirmed that it had).

A French dip sandwich had no more kick than those frog legs. The shaved slices of dry beef came on a spongy French roll with a side of watery au jus; the sandwich could have been an entry in a low sodium-diet cookbook, it was so devoid of salt. But there was no shortage of truffle flavor in the accompanying paper cone of fries; the spuds were doused with so much pungent oil, they were almost sickening. The duck ramen had sounded good, and the springy egg noodles and crispy, fat-laced pork belly looked promising, but they swam in a broth that was no more than lightly flavored water. And the chunks of duck, normally one of my favorite meats, added nothing more than an unpleasant, slightly rubbery texture. We ate the pork belly out of the bowl and used soy sauce to spice up the rest, but left most of the soup on the table.

When I returned a week or so later with friends, I was lucky enough to be seated with the same waiter — and this time, I let him take control of the order. "The ahi poke might be my favorite appetizer," he said. With good reason: Cubes of rosy, raw tuna had been mixed with sharp red onion and smooth avocado and bathed in a tangy jalapeño-sesame vinaigrette, then formed into a cylinder and served over a bed of slick, vinegary seaweed salad. A couple of chunks of tuna were still slightly frozen in the center from being on ice too long, but otherwise the dish was perfectly prepared, light and fresh, with just enough heat and tartness to arouse the palate — exactly what you want in an appetizer.

Next up, the electric eel roll — with the electricity provided by Buddha buttons, tiny yellow flowers at one end of a sushi concoction that also included barbecued eel, avocado and cucumber. "It'll be kind of like touching your tongue to the end of a battery," our server said. I've also heard the sensation compared to chewing tin foil or undergoing dental surgery, though not unpleasant. Those descriptions were all correct: The flower was definitely a jolt to the tastebuds, a bitter-sour flavor that raced over the surface area of my mouth, leaving my tongue slightly numb so that forming words suddenly became perilous (I was at least a little afraid I would drool). I was glad I had a Kirin to wash it away — and that I'd forgone the cocktail that also includes the flower.

Because we were in a group, our server had talked us into the social hot rock, Japoix's most unique dinner option, which involves a 1,000-degree rock and a board of raw prime filet, Kobe ribeye or lamb to be grilled alongside pineapple and bell peppers and dunked in ponzu-soy sauce, mustard or a cognac reduction. Although I could see the social potential, I usually hate cooking my own food at a restaurant. How do I know if I've prepared it the way the chef envisioned it? And if I'm paying a hefty sum for dinner out, why would I want to work for it, anyway? Thanks to crystal-clear instructions from our server, the savory, well-marinated filet came off the grill slightly crisp on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside, and a perfect medium-rare. The aromatic, housemade sauces were an ideal accompaniment — but the pineapple and red bell pepper pieces, which were small and sad, were not. They also didn't grill as well or as quickly as the meat, so we just polished off the protein and left most of the produce on the board.

Our waiter was right again with his recommendation of the lobster udon. Decadent and smoky, the buttery lobster broth was enriched with chile and filled with pinky-thick, chewy noodles, snappy peas and generous chunks of sweet, succulent lobster. It was the most compelling of all the dishes I tried at Japoix. By the time the bowl was empty, I was convinced that Spickelmier has serious skill in the kitchen. And my opinion of Japoix had evolved: Yes, there are echoes of a tired '90s trend here, but Yee and Spickelmier are trying to move food forward.

If they fix those glitches in the kitchen (and improve those frog's legs) and work around Japoix's strange space, they have a good chance of doing so. They may even manage to fuse a bright future to Beauvallon's sad past.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk