Sunday, May 25, 2008

Japaneiro's - American Fusion in Overdrive

American Fusion

Japaneiro's in Sugar Land is a strange fusion restaurant that bills itself as "sushi bistro and latin grill." I would just call it "American fusion."

Why American? Apart from using raw fish, this food bears little resemblance to real Japanese cuisine. Although it has Latin elements, few dishes seem traditionally Latin. Instead, this food is an incoherent mish mash of ingredients. It is loaded with hot peppers and sugar.

It is uniquely American. And I dig it.

A Bistro? Hardly.

A lot of non-French restaurants have been calling themselves bistro. But Japaneiro's use of the phrase "sushi bistro" is a joke.

A bistro is a small, intimate restaurant serving simple food and wine. Japaneiro's has a boisterous night-club atmosphere. We sat next to a table of about twelve noisy girls in their late teens. Most customers were in their early 20s, on dates. Although we arrived at 9:30 p.m., the restaurant was still crowded and noisy when we left around 11.

Japaneiro's also does not serve simple bistro food or wine. Its menu is about six pages of strange, complicated creations. And you don't want to order wine here. The small, uninteresting wine consists mostly of oaky American wines that hardly match the flavors of raw seafood and Latin peppers.

If you want to capture the spirit of Japaneiro's, order a fruity cocktail. The drink list is long and fascinating -- strange mixtures of fruit juices with sake, vodka, and rum. I tried a mojito martini. Compared to a traditional mojito, it seemed to have double the alcohol, double the lime, and double the mint. Intense.

I also tried a Brazilian cocktail called "cahipirinha." It mixes lime juice, a lot of sugar, and cachaca, a Brazilian brandy that tastes more like rum. Under all the sugar, this drink had a distinctive flavor.

Strange raw fish dishes

Japaneiro's serves some ordinary sashimi and nigiri sushi. My daughter ordered a plate of fresh salmon, and we tried a Diablo Roll. Both items were fine, but unexceptional. We avoided the portion of the menu devoted to "Grilled Specialties," which looked uninteresting.

The best strategy is to go for the strange stuff. We started with a dish called Crudo Sampler. Ordinarily, "crudo" means simple, Italian-style raw fish preparations. This crudo was hardly Italian. It consisted of thinly-sliced sashimi, each topped with a different spicy, fruity sauce. Salmon was topped with a sweet soy, strawberry sauce and a side of hot Sriracha chili sauce. The two fish on the right (hamachi?) were served with a raspberry chipotle sauce and a spicy peach sauce. Seared albacore tuna was served with some sort of sweet, spicy chutney. And a ruby red tuna was served with a spicy Chinese plum sauce.

My wife scraped off a lot of the sweet sauces and said the fish was very fresh. Yet after the fish was gone, I found myself using a spoon to scoop up the excess sauces.

Japaneiro's Peruvian ceviche also did not seem very Peruvian. White fish was served in a soupy marinade of lime juice, cucumber, cilantro, red bell pepper, red onion, jalapeno pepper, and quite a bit of sugar. On the side were several crispy wonton chips, which provided a nice texture contrast. Like the crudo, sugar was dominant.

The final dish was the strangest and most flavorful. But that doesn't mean it was pretty. The Carribean Volcano is an ugly pile of sauteed sweet plantains, topped with a generous serving of raw tuna cubes and avocado slices, then covered with a strange miso / coconut milk broth. That description does not do justice to how wonderful these flavors worked together. At $12, this large dish is a full meal.

So why do I like it?

By this point, Japaneiro's may sound like an unfocused, inauthentic mess of a restaurant serving dishes that are overwhelmingly sweet and spicy. It is. But it is also quite good. Compared to some other Americanized sushi fusion restaurants, like Aka and Blue Fish House, Japaneiro's excels because of the quality of its fish and the vibrancy of its flavors. The chef does not just throw disparate ingredients together without thinking. These are intelligent, well-prepared dishes, even if they have too much sugar.

It is easy to forgive all the sugar. Japaneiro's is in the far suburbs. It gets a lot of young customers. It knows its crowd. Plus, the town of Sugar Land was founded as a sugar plantation in the mid 1850s. Perhaps Japaneiro is just doing homage to its indigenous local ingredient.

3 comments:

Greg said...

Saying that Japaneiro's "bears little resemblance to real Japanese cuisine" doesn't mean much in light of the fact that the owner/exec chef is from the top of South America (Columbia or Venezuela, I have forgotten which). That region of the world had a great deal of Japanese immigration after WWII. He's not attempting to recreate Japanese cuisine or a fusion of styles. He's putting the flavors he knows from the streets back home (steakhouse, sushi bar, steakhouse) under one roof...and putting his own stamp on it.
Is it authentic: nah
Is it good? oh, yea
The Carribean Volcano, with its tuna (the other red meat - dense protein) on a bed of plantains (dense, sweet carbs)? The Cabo San Lucas roll which is served with a spicy ponzu sauce? The grilled stuff is great too (but less interesting, so bring your sushi-fearful friends)

I'll admit that I haven't done an exhaustive survey of Houston sushi, but the quality of the fish at Japaneiro's beats every body else, hands down. And that's the kind of thing I expect from authentic Honduran sushi chefs.

anonymouseater said...

Thanks Greg. We both agree that we like the food, but we do disagree in two respects. First, I do think it means a lot to say that Japaneiro's bears little resemblance to real Japanese cuisine. That is not a value judgment. It is a description of what to expect. A lack of authenticity is not necessarily a negative.

Second, I seriously doubt that Japaneiro's is "authentic Honduran sushi." There are Japanese populations in Mexico City, Peru, and Brazil, and there is some history of sushi fusion in those countries. But Japaneiro's owner is part Venezuelan, and spent a lot of time growing up in New York City. I suspect that this food is much closer to the sushi/Latin fusion in NYC than it is to anything in South America.

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