I rarely rate restaurants at "excellent to extraordinary." As far as I can remember, I've reviewed only seven of that quality in the five years since I arrived in "America's finest city." It's no coincidence that two of them have had the same chef, Escondido's Riko Bartolome, whose cooking I first encountered at 150 Grand.
He has now opened his own restaurant, Asia Vous, a few blocks away, where once again he features fine ingredients in dishes that meld French disciplines with Asian flavors. What elevates his version of "fusion" is the chef's thorough understanding of Pacific flavors and his grasp of what tastes and textures work best together. I can't talk about every dish I've eaten at Asia Vous (not enough ink), but what stands out is the consistent level of quality and creativity.
The menu is divided into small and large plates (appetizers and entrées). The experience is the same at both sizes, and at dessert as well. Every plate is a complex experience -- not a sitcom, but a singular drama with a cast of interacting characters. The bill of fare changes constantly to reflect the seasons, and the chef's evolving ideas, but a few favorite dishes are always offered because the restaurant's regular patrons refuse to let Riko retire them.
One of these perennials is an appetizer of veal sweetbreads that turns the traditional treatment of this organ on its head. Where classic French chefs slather the unctuous meat with a rich sauce, Riko crisps the surfaces of the morsels and matches them to chunks of pineapple and disks of lap cheong (Chinese pork sausage), along with a heap of broccolini. The winey-sweet, chewy sausage is just what sweetbreads need for contrast, while the tang of pineapple and fierce greenness of wild broccoli complete the sharply focused picture.
Another unconventional menu stalwart is a delicate combination of potato gnocchi with Maine lobster and squash blossoms in a sauce perfumed with Tahitian vanilla. The secret to the ethereal gnocchi: Riko uses cold mashed potatoes, which (unlike hot potatoes) are sufficiently dry that they don't turn glutinous and sticky when beaten with flour and egg. The squash blossoms add a gentle vegetative note, and the buttery sauce is based on dashi (Japanese dried-bonito broth), which adds a mere whisper of fish flavor. Lobster and vanilla have become a popular pairing in recent years, and they do form an apt partnership. Here, the vanilla seeds in the sauce come as a surprise if you've forgotten the menu description between ordering and eating. Bite into one, and your mouth is flooded with tropical sunshine.
Hamachi cured in kosher salt and brown sugar is a sexy new favorite. The thick, translucent rectangles of yellowtail arrived on a hot plate, arranged like a flower over a plushy round of green heirloom tomato scattered with cucumber julienne. The dressing was a yuzu vinaigrette (a sour Japanese citrus fruit). The fish was toothsome, lightly cooked by the heat of the plate; the ripe tomato echoed its texture in softer form. Tomatoes may be out of season by the time you read this, but I trust Riko will find a suitable equivalent.
Instead of the ubiquitous warm goat-cheese salad, Riko makes goat-cheese tempura. Encased in a light, crisp coating, it looks like a big, tan meatball; when you cut it, it's runny inside. The dish is strewn with edible pink flower petals to complement luscious little Mara des Bois semi-wild strawberries. Alongside is a warm fennel compote with a melting texture, and underneath all is a reduction of balsamic vinegar and honey, cooked to the color and thickness of chocolate sauce, and tasting chocolatey, too. It fairly begs you to dip your strawberries in it.
Hawaiian-style tuna tartare is more familiar fare -- an upscale ahi poké; flavored with dark sesame oil and Asian chili oil, topped with a simple guacamole and microgreens and plated over grilled bread. Black tiger shrimps in red Thai curry are a reverie on the theme of Thai mee krob, replacing the rice sticks with crisp shoestring potatoes the size of wooden matchsticks and cutting the sugar of the original to just a hint of sweetness.
The entrées are divided equally between seafood and land creatures, plus two vegetarian dishes. All the seafood is in season, flown in from Kanaloa, a small company in Santa Barbara that Julia Child mentored during her final years there. (Chefs Charlie Trotter and Michael Mina use the company, too.) The meats and poultry are also aristocrats: The steak is Kobe beef from Snake River, Idaho, the pork is Kurobuta (the Kobe equivalent for hogs), and the chicken is Jidori, the Kobe of the fowl world. Celebrity chef Nobu Matuhisa turned Riko on to these birds when the latter was cooking at the Hotel Nikko in Beverly Hills and Nobu owned the restaurant next door. The chickens, raised here but highly prized in Japan, are free-range, hormone-free, and raised on natural food, so they taste like real poultry, not cardboard. (Riko is currently matching them with foie gras in various guises.) Some of the produce is locally grown and sustainably raised; twice a week, Riko shops at the farmers' markets in Escondido and Vista.
Miso-bronzed sablefish (black cod) was invented by Riko's old neighbor Nobu. Riko serves it with a crisp, salty skin that slips off the fillet, accompanied by shelled edamame that taste as if they were picked that morning, in a sweet sake (mirin) nage with smashed purple potatoes hiding under the fish.
"Duck liver enriched suzuki" is a dish of Riko's invention involving a mild Hawaiian whitefish -- not a motorcycle that ran into a waterfowl. It had everyone at my table asking, "Where's the duck?" because we couldn't locate any liver on the plate or on our palates. The twist here is that the fish is poached with dashi and shallots in clarified fat that Riko renders from duck liver or foie gras trimmings. It's a subtle touch, to say the least. The fish comes with butter-drenched napa cabbage, marinated slim green beans, and a cube of truffled potato purée with the flavor and texture of knish-filling -- if the knish had a little black truffle essence in the mash.
Kurobuta pork confit is another original creation, treating the pedigreed pig the way Gascon chefs treat duck legs. A hefty shank is cooked in its own rendered fat, arriving crusted on the outside but moist inside, served atop a slick of cider jus. The accompaniment is an ideal match for the weight of the meat: a sparkling salad of apple and watercress scattered with batons of applewood-smoked bacon.
Hoisin-caramelized Australian lamb rack with "peas and carrots" features tender meat with a just-right amount of fat, which arrived roasted to our order of medium-rare. The Hoisin sauce lends a nip of spicy sweetness. The carrots are mashed, looking like a serving of Thanksgiving yam casserole but tasting lighter, with strips of deep-fried carrot chips for garnish, plus a scattering of English peas that were the best we've tasted in this year of mealy peas. Re-emphasizing the color scheme, a handful of marigold petals serve as garnish.
There are very few chefs who can create desserts as brilliant as their entrées, which is why most restaurants have dedicated pastry chefs. Riko is one of the exceptions, and his desserts are comparable to those of 910's Jack Fisher in their lightness and inventiveness.
He's mastered the arcane Tunisian brik pastry, three layers of phyllo leaves buttered, crumbled, and compacted together again into a less frangible form before baking -- it has the same delicate flavor but doesn't shatter at a touch of the fork. I was sorry to miss a brik-crusted bluefin tuna but was delighted to find this delicacy in a yuzu-curd Napoleon, with thin but sturdy vertical pastry layers separating puffs of citric custard. The pastry is served over blackberries and their syrup, yin-yang with green-tea syrup (sugar syrup with an elusive touch of tannin) of a brilliant chartreuse. "What's the green stuff?" asked posse-member Dave at one visit. "Maybe it's the duck liver for the suzuki, at last," Marty answered.
Marty is a chocoholic, while I'm a nut for coconut, so we ordered the warm chocolate torte with coconut béchamel sauce and pecan nougat. The torte was molten in the center, of course, and the coconut sauce was suave and not too sweet. The plate included a limp chocolate finger along with chocolate-nut nougats, so the dish could be called "all about chocolate," showcasing the ingredient in cakey, liquid, nutty, and candy formats.
The restaurant's interior was designed by the chef and his wife as a handsome, comfortable bistro, with dark woods, carpeted floor, soft banquettes along two walls, and a small bar (that's mainly a service area) facing a wall bearing mirrors in heavy frames. Presiding over the far side of the room is Riko himself, visible behind the glass of the open kitchen. His wife Kim is in charge of the front of the house, and the service is exceptionally considerate. The feeling is of a "we," not an ego, and even the busser is in on the scheme. If Riko were working in a fancier setting, his restaurant might get five stars -- but it's more fun to eat at Asia Vous, where he's his own boss and can cook what he wants to cook, while his staff takes pleasure in your pleasure.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Riko Bartolome started out hoping to be an architect but got sidetracked when, at 17, he took a job flipping eggs to earn college money. "I was working with two German chefs who took such pride in what they did... Trying to do something perfectly while in a rush satisfied my competitive nature." He got hooked on cooking, and his bosses steered him to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he graduated in 1989. After that, his gigs included the Hyatt Regency La Jolla and restaurants in Maui and L.A., all of which helped him develop his knowledge of Pacific Rim cuisines. Drawn home to Escondido, he cooked for several years at 150 Grand but developed an ambition to work in the big city. This led to a period of wandering in the culinary wilderness, with several creatively unrewarding gigs, until he could start his own restaurant. He opened Asia Vous 16 months ago, and it's all his own (aside from a bank loan), with his wife Kim as hostess and sole business partner.
"The name Asia Vous actually started out as 'Deja Vu,' but then we decided to get rid of the d," he says. "Of course, the combination of Asian and French in the name reflects what we do there, and our concept of the restaurant as 'old school/new school.' And then, a lot of people didn't know where I went after I left 150 Grand -- I just sort of disappeared and then reappeared in Escondido. So I've sort of been reborn here, and that relates to the name, too.
"I'm living the dream of a lot of other chefs. They're looking at me right now and saying, 'Hey, how's he doing?' because they want to do the same thing. It's not the same to have a lot of partners and investors -- I'm the chef that went out on his own and has only the bank to answer to, and Kim, of course. The reason why the restaurant exists is all the work we've done. I put in the tiles in the bar at three in the morning, after working all day. Aaagh! The design of the restaurant, the objects in the bathroom -- everything has to do with us. We bought some things from Home Depot, some from Expo, and from some of the furniture shops in San Marcos. I can tell you about banquettes, about colors...
"The menu evolves all the time. I'm not the same chef as I was 14 months ago. I can change the menu on a daily basis if I want to. Eventually I'd like to be able to serve a 'tasting menu' again." Some dishes are recycled seasonally. Other bold ventures, such as a sea-urchin custard from the original menu, have disappeared because too few customers understood them or ordered them, although a brave few loved them. "I have to hold back on my menu to some extent," Riko says, "because I'm in Escondido and some people don't understand this [cuisine]. The saying is 'If you can make it in Escondido, you can make it anywhere.'
"I'm especially proud of my service. It's all about teamwork; they don't think just of themselves. My servers started out knowing nothing about the food, but they all have special qualities about them that make the front-of-the-house experience unique and -- unpretentious is the word. Some restaurateurs out there tell me I'm doing it wrong because we want people to be comfortable. We have comfortable banquettes, comfortable chairs. People like to hang out here, and I love it.
"This is becoming Escondido's 'special occasion' restaurant. People love to see me writing on dessert plates. We do a lot of anniversaries, birthdays, engagements. That's a very special thing, when people pick your restaurant to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary."