Chu-hai is an evil, evil thing. The base of that Japanese cocktail called chu-hai -- an alcohol named shochu -- tastes like nothing. Just soft, clean liquid, with a lurking shadow of melon and rice. The shochu spirit is similar to vodka, but more suave. When mixed with any variety of fruit juices or syrups, as it usually is, it goes down like gentle Kool-Aid. The only hint that we're in for something strange is a fuzzy warm glow that starts in our stomachs, then spreads to our cheeks after a few sips.
The most popular mixed drink in Japan, chu-hai looks like watery candy in its traditional, fruit-garnished highball glass glittering with ice. That's when it's served in bars. The first time I tried it, though, it was in naiveté, sipped one early evening many years ago with my brother Carter, from silver cans we purchased from a vending machine on a Tokyo street (in Tokyo, folks can buy all kinds of beers, scotches and whiskeys publicly, as if they were Coca-Colas). The brew, acquired for a few hundred yen in a sleepy residential neighborhood of toy box homes and postage-stamp-size yards, looked like soda pop to us.
I remember liking the first can quite a bit; the third quite a bit more. The next thing I recall, though, I was being startled by the yells of shockingly cranky neighbors, furious faces peering at me from behind tiny balcony railings above, and an impossibly old, impossibly miniature, vicious wrinkled woman shaking her broom at me from behind a bamboo fence just inches away. I ran, fast, hard and clumsy, and somehow made it home.
The next day, when I finally woke at the crack of noon, I felt terrible. Worse than terrible. My tongue was shag carpet, my brain full of itchy, sharp-edged lint, my stomach so green my navel was throbbing olive drab. Carter was laughing at me across the Lilliputian apartment we were sacking in. He did it quietly, though, pausing periodically to clamp his head hard in his hands, as if trying to physically press the pain from his brain.
He explained what had happened. Chu-hai is Asian Everclear. Distilled from rice, it packs up to 90 proof. No soda pop; it brings with it villainous suggestive powers, such as the one that inspired him to purchase firecrackers and set them off in that residential street at midnight. The colors going boom were so exciting, I vaguely recalled.
That electric, vivid memory of feeling so ill I welcomed death, in fact, is the only thing stopping me tonight from ordering another of the tall, pastel pink watermelon cocktails studded with kiwi. It looks and tastes like a Barbie beverage, and I kind of like how just halfway through the glass, my brain feels like it's floating outside my ears.
This is a time for concentration, though. I've discovered the potent concoction at Mika restaurant in Scottsdale, and I'm not surprised by how much I like it. I knew I would. What's got me confused is how much I don't like pretty much everything else on the table in front of me. No question I'm going to need all of my brain cells to decipher what's going wrong with this casual Asian bistro -- a place that, I would have bet money, would have been an instant success.
Mika is the new cafe concept from the Valley's -- actually America's -- culinary legends James and Stacey McDevitt. This talented duo introduced us to Restaurant Hapa five years ago, and since have gathered a treasure chest of national awards and accolades for their cutting-edge Asian-American cuisine. Mika, opened in August at the Borgata and within walking distance from upscale Hapa, is designed to offer the taste drama of the original, but with a more relaxed atmosphere and with more approachable pricing.
Mika. The name is Japanese for "beautiful." The ambiance is gorgeous, to be sure -- voluptuous minimalism that's as rich and naked as a Japanese rock garden. But as far as the food goes, this definition doesn't translate.
I'd better get ready to run. Saying I don't like a McDevitt operation is as risky as setting off cherry bombs in the Asian suburbs at midnight. Hapa was voted last year as one of the top 50 in the country by Gourmet Magazine, and James McDevitt appeared on the cover of Food and Wine magazine in 1999 as one of its top 10 chefs in America. Last year, he was nominated as a Rising Star chef for the James Beard Award, and there are many more glorious ratings I don't have room to mention.
I think Hapa is terrific in many aspects, with attention-grabbing dishes like seared big-eye tuna salad with grapefruit, jicama, mango, avocado and Thai citrus vinaigrette; and a complicated but effective pancetta-wrapped veal tenderloin with crispy sweetbreads, fresh water chestnut purée, Chinese longbeans and Thai basil oil. It's perfect for serious foodies who want to dissect ingredients and don't mind spending big bucks on kitchen experiments to further our gourmet cause.
Yet at Mika, the food is too much work for a casual, comfortable repast. Dishes roller coaster between fine, careless and dreadful. I'm expecting inventive, since this is a McDevitt production. But too disturbing: While the menu is written as though recipes are classic-contemporary adaptations of Asian favorites, the goosing the actual plates are given equates to an atomic wedgie. If someone had told me upfront that my melted Popsicle chu-hai was grain alcohol, I'd have been better prepared. And if this menu warned me that with little exception I'd be eating untraditional, ultra, ultra-sweet takes on my favorite Asian foods, I wouldn't have been so disappointed.
I was caught off guard. While the menu changes every few weeks, today I think I've been blessed with what is one of my all-time favorite Japanese treats: a bento (combo meal served in a portioned lacquered box) described as pork katsu with caramelized onions and tonkatsu sauce, green salad with ginger dressing, stir-fried vegetables and my choice of brown or white rice.
I've been clear with my smiling server that I want katsu, too -- the crisp, panko breaded, beautifully juicy cutlet that's sliced and served with tonkatsu sauce. I don't want katsu-don, a soggy breaded cutlet capped with egg and onion over a bowl of rice (she doesn't know what the difference is, but checks with the chef). I'd eaten a few bites of Mika's katsu-don a week earlier and tossed it, turned off by cloying sweetness in the heavy caramelized-onion-drenched sauce over rice that tasted as if it'd been steeping in sugar water. Yet today's katsu is worse. The too-thin sliced meat is way overcooked, with what should be feather-light batter turned to Formica. And a thick coat of "tonkatsu" sauce is so fruity, it swamps any other flavor.
Sweetness crops up again and again and again -- even in kalbi marinated flank steak, grilled and served over black pepper rice noodles with charred scallions. Yes, I get it: At Hapa, sugar is one of the McDevitts' signature notes, but here at Mika, it's overkill.
Nothing could prepare me for an ahi burger, though -- described simply as such, seared with caramelized miso sauce and taro chips. Yet tuna, when ground, does not retain nice texture like meat or poultry. Instead, it's disturbing damp cotton blended with too much togorashi (a paprika-pepper-chile spice blend), and not helped by hash-brown-like searing or a stale grilled hamburger bun. A dip of nice, thick (sweet) caramel aids, but not enough; I like the bed of shredded green cabbage best on the plate.
And how can a silly California roll be such a letdown, but it is, with grocery-store deli-dry rice and no crab to speak of in the tiny rounds. Tuna tataki is overcooked and bland, seared to a gray interior ladled with (sweet) roasted onion soy purée atop chilled soba noodles. And five-spiced duck rolls are admirable for their lacy, crisp shells, but without the menu as a primer, I'd never have known I was eating anything other than vinegary carrot-stuffed bundles dunked in barbecue-like plum sauce. Chef McDevitt grinds his own five-spice mix, but perhaps is saving the stronger stuff for his fancier Hapa, where it announces itself in a beguiling butter poached lobster with potato blini and sake beurre blanc.
Not surprisingly, some of the best things at Mika include Hapa copies, like the invigorating "fiery" squid salad -- so true to its name that it burns my gums in a blissful S&M. The seafood circles and tentacles are perfectly chewy, and the lemongrass broth is bright-orange aggressive, barely tempered by plump lychee, mango chunks, shredded crispy noodles, radish sprouts and nori (dried seaweed). Try it here for about half the price of Hapa. I also like the Singapore chicken, a wonderfully juicy braised breast and wing ladled in lots of milky rich, chile-kissed coconut broth stocked with chunks of red potato. Chilled shiso shrimp rolls are winners, too, dunked in a sparkly Thai citrus sauce.
Dessert has always been stunning at Hapa; so it is at Mika. My favorite is coconut-lime tapioca in a symphony of taste and texture -- smooth rice pudding accented with chewy coconut strands, vanilla parked with tart lime.
The chefs are still finessing the menu, my server explains. Here's my tip: Keep the chu-hais. Lose the sugar.
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