Sound enters the fusion food fight and emerges with Seattle’s best
Wanna have some foodie fun? Go to Chowhound’s Pacific Northwest message board, ask for opinions about Wild Ginger, and watch a virtual food fight break out. People will passionately toss out terms like “fake Asian” versus “the real thing,” debating whether fusion fare is a good or bad idea. Fusion, it seems, is fertile ground for foodie opining.
Putting aside my perspective on Wild Ginger until another time, I believe that Eastern and Western ingredients and cooking styles can combine with creative payoff. So for this month’s Dish-Off, Sound invited three restaurants to participate in an “East meets West” competition. The goal: to straddle the globe, experiencing the tastes, textures and techniques of two (or more) distinct parts of the world without boarding a boat or a plane. I want dishes with ingredients that intermingle in a way that’s sensible yet sometimes surprising, resulting in food that’s eye-opening and mouth-watering.
Qube is bold, from its apple martini green wall framing the kitchen to its three-course “Qubed Sets” (three ingredients prepared three ways yielding nine small tasting dishes). A creative concept, but challenging—with definite hits and misses in each trio I tried. For example, in the vegetarian set’s artichoke trio, the purée with fava beans and grape tomatoes (and the slightest hint of Thai basil) is bright and refreshing, but the chips ‘n’ dip is meager and uninspiring—an odd choice for an entrée. Sadly, the Asian flavors are lacking or missing straight through to dessert; the star anise brownie, lychee hot chocolate, and tamarind and lime crème brulee all come up short. Disappointing, as these exotic flavors are enticing, and I’m hoping an East-meets-West twist can spice up some otherwise standard fare. Ironically, my favorite dish is an extra: ?The chef sends out a plate of thin-sliced kona kampachi with yuzu sambal, soy, Meyer lemon, shaved fennel, soy salt, and wasabi and pea purée. The flavors are distinct while working well together, jazzing up the already fine-quality fish. So while the warm staff offers well-meaning intentions with “Qubed Sets” that are, well, “qute,” I’d recommend trying the à la carte menu to see if you have better luck there.
It’s a similar story at Coupage. The quality of the food is fantastic, especially the steamed clams—the highlight of the meal. At first glance I think I see chorizo in the bowl, but the first bite reveals the sweetness of Chinese sausage, a good counter to the clams. With confit tomatoes adding brightness, I’m feeling East meeting West, but I want more potency from the promised lemongrass and Thai chili dashi. And so it would be: well-executed dishes shy on Asian accent. Some of the best crab cakes in town, but lost are the red curry and kabocha touted in the “pumpkin custard” name. The red oak leaf salad is perfected dressed, and though I dig the pickled daikon and carrots, enough already with the trend of adding candied nuts to salad. And I’m wondering, “Where’s the wasabi?”
Most curious were the entrée choices. The halibut and duck confit are darn good but deficient in Eastern elements; I’d think the scallops with glass noodles and red curry or the braised short ribs with kimchi beets might have made better choices. For dessert, I have high hopes for the baby banana tempura with Sichuan peppercorns. I adore these peppercorns; only recently allowed back in the United States (they’re a fruit), they are part of the ma la (numbing and spicy) aspect of Sichuan cooking. I use them in my homemade ice cream, but at Coupage they’re weak with no numbing effect at all. Is ma not part of Madrona?
Which brings us to Joule, its name alone exuding electricity. From the opening amuse bouche (daikon spring roll with white anchovy and chimichurri sauce) to the closing desserts (including the popular “joule box,” featuring tapioca pearls, opal basil and ruby grapefruit), Joule offers a fine fusion of East and West. The showstopper: incredibly tender beef and local fiddlehead ferns swimming in a fiery red, kimchi and chili paste/flake soup served with a splash of crème fraiche. Warming and wonderful! The chilled seafood salad features sweet chili vinaigrette that is perfectly balanced. The only hiccup of the night is the octopus served with the seaweed salad; braised then grilled, it’s a little too salty and intense (though I’m appreciating the chewy textures I typically associate with the East). But the rest is fabulous: cassoulet with garlic, miso and truffle flavors accompanied by cornbread with preserved garlic and smoked Gouda. How’s that for globe-trotting ingredients?
From the “sparked” section of the menu, I enjoy daurade with almond piccata and sweet and sour eggplant, as well as wild boar spare ribs with spicy Korean BBQ glaze and collard green slaw. Both are fusion dishes, and what I love most is that both meat and fish are on the bone. That’s East, and what the West used to be before we went to boneless everything. Joule indeed has innovation and spark. And its own kind of elegance, though casual enough that if Chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi see me picking at those meat and fish bones, I’m sure they’ll smile with appreciation.
All three restaurants excel in classical French technique. It’s not a knock on the quality, but the bone I’d pick with Qube and Coupage is that they don’t offer the bold, brash flavors I seek. They’re more West than East. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because they lack an Asian chef in the kitchen—which both had previously. Where Qube and Coupage give the East a mere peck on the cheek, Joule gives it a full-on French kiss. I like that.
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme. (Also note that Qube and Coupage are now closed.)