East Meets West in French-Asian Fare

Peter Gianopulos

If you’re in the mood for a charming—and distinctively modern—culinary love story, consider the budding romance that’s playing out between Japanese and French fare around the globe.

From afar, it looks like true love. In Paris, Japanese chefs are helming some of the most-acclaimed, Michelin-studded spots in town (see “The Rise of the ‘Japarisiennes'”). In Japan, chefs have begun to slip French dishes into their omakase. And here in the U.S., chefs of all stripes have begun to discover the delicious harmonies that can be created by marrying French techniques with Japanese flavor sensibilities.

Unlike some of the less-successful fusion trends of days gone by—which often shoehorned together flavors and ingredients that had no business being in the same kitchen let alone sharing a plate—both French and Japanese cuisines come with their own set of boundaries. There are rules in each tradition that allow chefs to showcase their culinary skills while also offering appealing opportunities to balance out flavors—heavy and rich with subtly sharp or earthy umami against cream and butter—in wholly original ways.

“Both cultures take cooking very seriously,” says Sarah Pliner of Aviary in Portland, Ore., “so you can find new ways to show respect for ingredients or techniques while still creating something new.”

In retrospect, one has to wonder why it took so long for these two storied culinary traditions to find each other. Both rely on exacting time-honored techniques, show a deep reverence for local ingredients and constantly strive for pitch-perfect balance in every dish. Individually, they’re stunning, but together they’re capable of achieving an irresistible and unexpected blend of richness and subtlety that’s raising eyebrows around the globe.

Consommé is Key

At Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore., Gabriel Rucker is interested in infusing classic French techniques with subtle Asian flavors, including his Japanese-inspired eel pot-au-feu with foie gras, pears and dumplings. For Rucker, who has long described his restaurant as “a fun restaurant that uses French techniques,” the blending of French and Japanese allows him to keep his food grounded in the familiar French flavors that have made his restaurant a destination for regulars, while also allowing him to lean on his instincts and surprise new guests. “It’s like a marriage,” says Rucker. “You want to be with this person forever. You want to grow with them, but at the same time you don’t ever want to lose sight of what the original attraction was in the first place.”

The foundation of the dish is an eel consommé made by cooking down the eel with a potpourri of French flavors—garlic, onion and sherry—and then combining it with chicken and fish stock spiked with bonito and red pepper flakes. That liquid is joined with ground chicken and mirepoix until a raft is formed and yields a briny-yet-clean consommé (recipe). The supporting flavors are Asian-inspired: salt-and-pepper beech mushrooms, a hard-boiled quail egg and flour dumplings leavened with bits of unagi. The key to good dumplings, Rucker insists, is to make sure you give them enough time to cook. “It’s better to overcook them than undercook them,” he says, “as they’ll begin to get poofy and you’ll know they’re ready.”

The seared foie gras, however, leans toward the French side of the ledger. It’s cooked in honey and sherry vinegar, a semisweet blend of flavors that stops short of being teriyaki-sweet, which would prove too cloying with the pot-au-feu. “People like this dish for the same reason they love a Snickers bar,” says Rucker. “It’s sweet, salty and fatty; it finds a balance between the over-the-top foie gras and the clean Japanese flavors.”

Shuji Furukawa at Autre Kyo Ya, a French-Japanese bistro in New York City, also leans on a traditional French consommé for a bold dish that fuses sea urchin gelée, Japanese “onsen-style” eggs and a velvety parsnip purée ($16, recipe). Texturally, the dish is designed to be soft and luscious, with striking swirls of white and orange colors that melt together to deliver an array of cool seafood notes.

Furukawa reduces his consommé a bit longer than most French chefs, imbuing it with a flavor and aroma that he says is similar to a light soy sauce. Once gelatin is added and the mix is cooled, the consommé has an umami note that pairs effortlessly with sea urchin.

The key to making a good parsnip purée, he says, is to think of the parsnip like cauliflower. You want a thicker vegetal flavor to stand up to the uni, so he cuts his parsnips into cubes, salts them and then adds milk instead of cream to retain their flavor. They’re cooked, blended, puréed and set aside, while he works on his onsen-style egg. To get the texture right—what he describes as a half-boiled egg—it’s all about controlling the heat of the water, not even a touch over 152 degrees F for 14 minutes.

The parsnip purée is set down first, followed by the orange-hued gelée topped with raw uni and then the cooled-down onsen-style egg in the middle. The result is a cool custardy treat, which has the mouthfeel of a custard and a thick roux and the raw briny taste of an uni shooter.

Richness Squared

For Tony Messina of Uni restaurant in Boston, the ability to carefully marry two ultra-rich staples—French foie gras and Japanese tuna tataki—into one dish has allowed him to create a genre-defying surf-and-turf.

His preparations lean on old-school techniques. A three- to four-second flash sear is applied to the tuna and then it’s carefully cut sashimi-style, with a full strike through of the knife, not a sawing motion. His foie gras gets scored and seared in the traditional manner with fleur de sel and one surprise: a hit of togarashi ($22, recipe). The key to the dish’s appeal is the array of components that cuts through the dish’s richness in different ways: Strawberries compressed with lavender add sweetness, lemon-steeped olive oil is folded into crème fraîche for citrus notes, pickled walnuts carry a nuttiness and an aji amarillo paste made with tamari soy, yuzu and ginger offers a kick. Each accompaniment highlights different elements of the tataki and foie, yielding a dish that gives off “sweetness, acid, crunch and spice in each bite.”

Sarah Pliner’s venison with uni purée at Aviary in Portland, Ore., goes one step further, capturing the more full-bodied—almost rustic—elements of both French and Japanese cuisine. “Both uni and the venison have an almost metallic undercurrent to them,” says Pliner. “And when two ingredients have a similar flavor but aren’t quite identical, they can bring out the best in each other.”

She gives her venison leg—rubbed down with coriander, pepper, fennel and fenugreek—a short sear, keeping it rare but collecting enough of its juices to create a jus. The uni, however, gets folded into a compound butter, mixed with a sherry reduction and transformed into a full-bodied uni beurre fondue made with soy, sherry, mirin and ginger ($22, recipe). In order to add a crispy element capable of soaking up these flavors, she makes a classic pommes fondant. Fingerlings are cut on the bias and laid upside down in a pan. Water is poured two-thirds up the pan, butter is added and it’s cooked until a fond is formed on the bottom of the pan. When taken off the heat, the metal cools faster than the potatoes, allowing the ultra-crispy potato wedges to peel off the pan. A final touch—an onion agrodolce made with sherry vinegar—is added to the dish, which captures the intersection of land and sea. “There’s contrast and harmony on the same plate,” says Pliner, “vinegar, richness and brininess. It’s comforting and different at the same time.”

Getting Saucy

Thanks to his Cajun background—and his experience working in numerous French and Japanese restaurants—Timon Balloo of Sugarcane in Miami has always seen more similarities than differences between French and Japanese fare. The key to making the French-Japanese marriage work, he says, is to think carefully aboutterroir and use ingredients that are honored by both traditions. Both cultures prize scallops, for example, so he sears them in a neutral oil, adding a sprig of thyme to imbue them with a subtle French aroma, and then bastes them with a compound miso butter ($18, recipe). “Textures and mouthfeel are important in both cultures,” says Balloo. “You want your scallops to be delicate and meat-like.” But then Balloo surrounds the scallops with two preparations of carrots, an ingredient that’s respected in both France and Japan. First, he makes a carrot purée—shot through with orange juice, honey and five-spice powder—and then creates a kind of crudité salad out of raw tri-color carrots. They’re peeled, dipped in a citrus dressing and topped with a bit of shiso and wasabi crest.

The result is a three-layered feast for the eyes and taste buds—a warm purée, meaty scallops and crisp carrots—which is designed, Balloo says, to showcase both culture’s shared reverence for simple ingredients and bold color.

At Trio in Colleyville, Texas, Jason Harper sees the blending of French and Japanese flavors as an opportunity to generate a sense of discovery and make a lasting impression on his guests. “I want people to look at some of our dishes and expect one thing, only to be surprised when they taste the unexpected flavors on their palates.”

His togarashi-seared lemon sole, for instance, certainly looks like a classic French preparation, but the sole and all its accompaniments are shot through with bursts of Japanese-inspired citrus notes, spice and sweetness ($31, recipe). His parsnip purée is spiked with lemongrass, ginger and kaffir lime, while his beurre blanc is made by reducing sake, mirin, coriander, yuzu and white wine into a kind of syrup. Butter is folded in to cream it up and then a small pinch of miso is added to add creaminess and meaty notes. The sole is rubbed down with togarashi—“It’s the Japanese version of espelette,” says Harper—and seared French-style until the results are golden brown. On comes the beurre blanc and the purée, and then the dish is rimmed with shaved radishes and radish sprouts. “What I’m looking for is a melody of flavors,” says Harper, “a certain rhythm that tastes familiar yet unique at the same moment.”

Peter Gianopulos thinks a properly prepared Lyonnaise salad with extra bacon is the single greatest use for frisée in the known world.

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