Cafe Society

Karma tempts fate with its fusion menu but triumphs.

I have no use for fusion cuisine, for the deliberate fuckery that comes of trying to jam two or three or five culinary traditions together on one plate, for the dumb manhandling of food — torturing it and forcing it into unnatural configurations of time or flavor or place.

Of all the ridiculous ideas to come from restaurateurs who were too bored or weird or high to just make a great steak, a lovely little pave of salmon, a spread of tekka maki or plate of chicharrones, fusion might be the worst. California cuisine was damaging to the American spirit and culinary consciousness for many years after it moved out of the charmed area codes where it was invented. The phrase "New American" became a hollow excuse for the deliberate abuse of root vegetables almost the minute it was uttered; "small plates" and tapas menus proliferated for one or two beautiful seasons before quickly being subsumed by the piling on of shady operators who used them as just another excuse to lower food costs and jack prices at the same time.

But fusion cuisine is particularly deadly — and just as impossible to kill. As a concept, it has teeth like one of those little sucker eels that stick on the backs of sharks, and in execution it's as addictive as crack cocaine. For chefs, taking two great cuisines (French and Japanese, say, or Indian and Chinese) and combining the best of both appears to be a perfect panacea to the ennui that sometimes sets in after years of cooking, say, only French or only Chinese. Forget the fact that French and Japanese are almost diametrically opposed in terms of mindset and style. Forget the fact that there is little or no historical precedent for the mingling of these two styles. Forget the fact that sashimi and béchamel go together like nuts and gum. Fusion seems like such a good idea that even as the marshals are coming in the front door, tagging equipment and stock for the bankruptcy auction, the chef in back is still wondering why no one liked his Bavarian-Korean cafe and biergarten...

Nine times out of ten, a fusion restaurant might just as well hang a sign on the door announcing to all and sundry its intention to suck even before the first plate flies clear of the galley. But Karma is the tenth restaurant. It's that rare exception that proves how an essentially bad idea can very occasionally work, balancing the half-dozen cuisines on offer through humor and lightheartedness and occasional flashes of true talent from the kitchen.

I wasn't prepared to like Karma, which had two strikes against it right from the start. First, Peter Hsing, ex of Wokano Asian Bistro, decided to put his fusion Asian restaurant in the former home of Min Min Chinese, a bizarrely freak-tastic Hello Kitty-themed Chinese restaurant, thereby robbing me of one of my favorite jokey touchstones for why Denver is awesome: Because we had our own Hello Kitty restaurant, that's why.

And second, when I tried Karma soon after it opened last summer, it was awful. Also empty. And weirdly off-putting because I had to sit in that empty dining room, trying to get through that awful plate of chicken Panang curry over rice that tasted both sour and bland at the same time, pretending I was enjoying myself while missing my favorite fake-happy-face lubricant — liquor, because Karma opened without a license. When I finally managed to escape, I was in no hurry to ever go back.

Still, I can't tell you how many times I have sworn to never, ever visit a certain restaurant again, only to be drawn back like Michael Corleone in The Godfather. In the case of Karma, I was pushed by peer pressure, too. People kept telling me how good the place was, about these great meals they'd had there, how glad they were that someone had finally started serving inari or bang-bang chicken in their 'hood, singing the praises of the Asian tapas menu. So finally I surrendered and returned to Karma.

The room felt different than I'd remembered it — slightly more alive, with a few tables occupied on a Saturday night, the vibe cooled out by lightweight world/house music burbling out of the speakers. True, the color scheme was still black-on-black (good for a nightclub, often misguided for a restaurant), but the feel was less generic Asian minimalism, less cold and more relaxing than the version in my memories. I'd forgotten some of the details: the waving maneki neko behind the counter, pictures of smiling Buddhas and woven mats on the bench-back banquette seats. And there was one important addition: Karma now had a stocked bar at the back of the main dining room. Fortified by company and a bottle of icy Tsingtao sweating in the July heat, I started looking over the menu.

And then I ordered curry again. This time, though, I skipped the Panang and went for a curry that was essentially four or five pork chops, removed from the bone, pounded thin, battered, fried and dumped into a vat of powerful, dusty yellow curry, deep with spices and teasing sweetness, fragrant even from a distance. Maybe it was because the kitchen had gotten markedly better; maybe it's simply tough to go wrong with a bowl full of pork chops. Whatever, my curried pork chops weren't just good, they were fantastic. Even as I was eating them, I was getting sad because I knew that eventually I'd reach the bottom of the bowl and then have no more curried pork chops.

After that, we were off to the races. Pineapple-cheese wontons? They sounded awful but were pure junk-food good, served with a dipping sauce made of pineapple juice and basil that tasted like a chimichurri with all the heat removed. The straight Japanese inari were like bar snacks and played nicely with the Vietnamese egg rolls (filled, strangely, with shredded chicken, but excellent nonetheless) and ahi tuna rolls that were half Japanese sashimi (only, you know, cooked) and half all-American inventiveness (seared tuna, wrapped in soft rice paper, paired with avocado and red onion for a nice double hit of fattiness and sharp savor). The steamed dumplings (Chinese) were terrible — severely undercooked, so that the skins were doughy and the filling still cold – and the shu mai (Chinese, again) were just strange, packed with shrimp paste, sure, and with that deliciously salty tang, but studded with bits of water chestnut that I found superfluous. But the chicken satay (Thai) were just what I've always dreamed of eating while leaning against the rail of some street vendor's cart, wearing a stained linen suit and disreputable hat and waiting on my John Le Carré-style brush contact on the streets of Chiang Mai.

Over the space of two visits, I ate nearly everything that Hsing had put on his quote-unquote tapas menu — really nothing more than appetizers, but plated so beautifully (someone in the back has a serious eye for plate design) that I could almost forgive the hierarchical promotion. I tried the wonton soup (hearty, packed with shreds of napa cabbage and handmade wontons, and served in an earthenware mug); the miso soup (comforting, with a smell like cut grass); the ginseng chicken soup (a Korean variety that included dates); the Hot Crispy Prawns, served on an altar of cauliflower stained blood-red by Mandarin chili oil and topped with a spray of garlic and scallions; and the Exploding Chicken, because when you see something on a menu called "Exploding Chicken," you're a fool not to order it.

I liked the humor and tiny hits of poetry scattered throughout the menu — the shu mai described as tiny, just-opening flower buds, the kimchi as dangerous to vampires. And even though I didn't like everything I ate, I liked enough of it that every step forward encouraged another step, and another. If a simple bowl of wonton soup wasn't enough, there was always pho; if the Hong Kong scallops in XO sauce didn't satisfy me, then the Korean jaam-bong (with shrimp and scallops, squid and kim chi and noodles all tangled up in a broth spiked with red chili like a lightning strike) surely would.

Karma's success isn't just luck. Although Hsing chose to feature a tangled, border-hopping board of fare, he recognizes its boundaries — and so avoids the curse of fusion cuisine. Although there are a few isolated incidences of internal fusion (those tuna rolls, for example, or the fried-rice plates with curry and pineapple or the deep-fried avocado wontons with cilantro and red onion), most of the menu holds to a strict division: This plate is Chinese, this is Thai; this is Vietnamese, this is Korean. To have individual cuisines existing side by side in this way, showcasing their best takes on certain spreads of ingredients, makes each meal a minor lesson in geography and history, offering an intriguing balance between the peasant heat of Korean food and the restrained subtlety of Japanese, the epic span of Chinese cooking's development and the relative simplicity of the traditional Vietnamese. It's all very different from the muddle you get at a fusion place featuring "spicy Asian kimchi potstickers with nuoc cham and miso glaze."

While not everything coming out of Karma's kitchen is the best possible version of a particular ethnic favorite, the pure number of attempts virtually guarantees some measure of success. It's tough for a man of particular appetites to find pork chop curry and exploding chicken, both Korean short ribs and shu mai on the same menu. But I trusted in Karma and found a place that does all that — and more.

Even if I still miss Hello Kitty.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan