Cafe Reviews

Asia, Major and Minor

Restaurant Hapa, 6204 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-8220. Hours: Dinner, Wednesday through Monday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

In 1927, German physicist Werner Heisenberg had a breakthrough theoretical insight. He called it the Uncertainty Principle: It's impossible to measure accurately both the position and momentum of subatomic particles, like electrons, at the same time.

Why not? Because even the most precise instruments, he discovered, change either the position or the momentum of the electron in the very act of observing and measuring it.

The uncertainty principle has had social implications, as well. Some deep thinkers have gone so far as to suggest that merely observing any event, with no active participation, alters its nature. Anyone who's ever seen athletes mouth, "Hi, Mom," and mug for the cameras can get an idea of what they mean.

It means there's no such thing as a neutral observer. It doesn't matter if you're a marine biologist following whale migrations, an anthropologist studying Sudanese marriage ceremonies, a sociologist looking into gang initiations or a mom watching a kids' soccer game. Since your very presence shapes the reality you're watching, whatever observations you make must take that presence into account.

What's my point? Well, you may want to take Heisenberg's uncertainty principle under consideration when you weigh my assessment of Restaurant Hapa and Ra Sushi, two new Asian restaurants. How did my (anonymous) presence shape the experience? Did my cheery outlook and high culinary hopes contribute to making dinner at Restaurant Hapa a 1998 highlight? Maybe. On the other hand, I brought that same cheery outlook and those same high culinary hopes to Ra Sushi. So how come dinner there was so dismally forgettable?

Might your experience be different? At Restaurant Hapa, it will be different only if you're impervious to relaxed surroundings, a knowledgeable, eager-to-please staff and the masterful kitchen talents displayed by Restaurant Hapa's skilled husband-and-wife proprietors. This place is absolute dynamite.

It's about three months old, a small storefront with maybe a dozen well-spaced tables, tucked away a few doors down from Trader Joe's. The owners have come up with a decor that's spare, simple and elegant. Mirrors framed with bamboo hang along one wall. The other wall features a hanging mat and Japanese prints. At the entrance sit two metal pots in cast-iron stands, holding coconuts from which palm trees have sprouted. An open kitchen in the rear of the room lets you watch what's going on.

What's going on is some wonderfully inspired cooking. "Hapa" is Hawaiian slang for "half," which describes the Japanese-American background of James McDevitt, the husband part of the team. It also describes his cooking style. He takes familiar American menu items--steak, pork chops, lamb, chicken and salmon--and transforms them with creative Asian touches. But there's nothing halfway about the results--the food here is breathtaking.

Take the appetizer of mussels. Black mussels--about a pound--are heaped and roasted in a big cast-iron skillet. They're bathed in a mesmerizing, Thai-inspired broth infused with the powerful scents of lemongrass, mint, basil, ginger and coconut. It's a good thing I was sitting down when I ate this; otherwise, I might have been bowled over.

Gyoza--crispy, fried, pot-stickerlike dumplings filled with pork and ginger--are scrumptious, perfectly blending taste and texture. Juicy, pan-seared scallops also shine, embellished with crunchy strips of tart green papaya and a bit of sweet Asian pear for contrast.

There was, however, one small inconvenience. Both the gyoza and scallops, our server told us, came three to an order--and we were a group of four. But he solved our problem as quickly as he stated it: "I'll bring you an extra one of each." And he didn't charge us for them. That's outstanding service.

I know we're now past the soup season, but don't overlook the soup of the day. We hit a ravishing duck broth, stocked with duck meat, sweet potato and crispy noodle.

The main dishes are simply bursting with flavor. The signature entree seems to have become the Chinese beef tenderloin, a small filet brushed with hot Chinese mustard and caramelized brown sugar. Wow, what a taste explosion. The pretty-as-a-picture platter also includes a giant battered prawn, shiitake mushrooms, sticky rice and Chinese longbeans, artistically folded. This is the kind of dish that food magazines take pictures of.

Grilled pork chop offers another indication of the chef's culinary imagination. It's moistened in an aromatic ginger plum barbecue sauce, and paired with sweet potatoes and Chinese broccoli. Who says, "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"? They do in this plate.

The biggest dose of animal protein comes from the gorgeous rack of lamb, coated with five-spice and a lovely star-anise-tinged broth. The Szechuan peppercorn mashed potatoes and the delightful mix of baby veggies--beets, carrots, onions and asparagus--make ideal companions.

I don't like to order chicken in a restaurant, because it's almost always unspeakably dull. Not here. The roasted chicken, pepped up with lemongrass and cilantro, is topnotch, and so is the side of couscous, flecked with cashew nuts and charred scallions. And if you're looking to get your taste buds tingling, consider the spicy shrimp, six critters tossed with peanuts over udon noodles.

You may want to call ahead to see if salmon is the daily special. Like chicken, salmon can be brutally boring. But this model is beautifully prepared: wrapped in a banana leaf, infused with lemongrass, mint and basil, and then grilled.

Stacey McDevitt, the wife part of the team, is responsible for desserts. She's just as talented as her husband. Spectacular Asian pear cake, armed with toasted macadamia nuts and homemade lemongrass ice cream, is a triumph. The coconut creme brulee tart, gilded with caramelized bananas and coconut sorbet, got our group dueling with spoons. Moist cinnamon chocolate cake came with red pear ice cream so good I asked the waiter to bring over an extra bowl of it. Once again--no charge.

The only misstep here is the tea. A meal like this, where such attention is lavished on quality and detail, shouldn't end with a tea bag in a tea pot. Why not brew loose tea?

Restaurant Hapa is everything a competitor like ObaChine isn't: understated, undersized, unhyped, untrendy and probably undercapitalized. But it's one of the best restaurants in town, and charming to boot. Get here before the McDevitts succumb to temptation and open a 200-seat place with a European-suited maitre d', trendoid clientele and cooks who do their cooking for them.

Ra Sushi, 3815 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 990-9256. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Is this you? You're between the ages of 21 and 35. You enjoy listening to loud, thumpa-thumpa music while you eat. You like dining on sushi and Pacific Rim-style fare in a buzzing, trendy place. And you don't really care how good the food tastes.

You're probably already going to Zen 32. Now you can add a Scottsdale clone, Ra Sushi, to your list. Out front, the sushi bar and dining room are hip and happening. Unfortunately, the kitchen is neither. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

The sushi here aspires to mediocrity, and just about reaches that level. The yellowtail and scallion roll, the rainbow roll, topped with tuna and shrimp, and the Alaskan roll, stuffed with salmon, make almost no impression. Two of my favorite sushi items, unagi (freshwater eel) and the spicy scallop roll, are forgettably lackluster. Only the mackerel showed some spunk.

Don't expect much from the other pre-entree nibbles. Won-ton sticks are deep-fried bar food, purportedly stuffed with crab and whitefish, whose taste I couldn't detect. The chewy octopus salad delivers quantity, not quality. The only tasty munchie--in fact, the only genuinely tasty thing here--is the Vietnamese crab cake appetizer, served over spinach and enlivened with a bit of spicy red pepper cream. I don't have any idea what's Vietnamese about this crab cake, but there's no sense quibbling over the kitchen's only success.

The entrees aren't all completely awful, but that's as ringing an endorsement as I can muster. Don't look for an eruption of culinary artistry from the Volcano Duck. It's a total misfire, duck breast and udon noodles tossed in a way-too-sweet pineapple ginger sauce that would have been better poured over ice cream. The platter was supposed to come with "an explosion of julienne vegetables," but apparently they were too embarrassed to show up.

The Black Bean Chicken featured another dubious poultry platter. This one brought a prefab-looking chicken breast, freezer-bag cubes of fried tofu and a black bean sauce that could cure insomnia.

The Shellfish Tsunami is another main-dish idea that suffers from terminal dullness. A handful of clams, mussels and scallops--hardly a tidal wave--shares space with udon noodles, in a ginger-clam broth that has no hint of either. You can do much better, and cheaper, at any other Japanese restaurant in town.

Saikyo tenderloin is an improvement on the duck, chicken and seafood, but that's not saying much. The miso-marinated slices of pork are, at least, good enough to eat. But whoever let the greasy, sodden eggplant tempura accompaniment out of the kitchen deserves public humiliation. Truly, we live in a world without shame.

Despite Heisenberg's theory, there can be no uncertainty about Ra Sushi: Back to the drawing boards.

Restaurant Hapa:
Skillet-roasted mussels
Roasted chicken
Chinese beef tenderloin
Asian pear cake

Ra Sushi:
Vietnamese crab cake
Volcano Duck
Shellfish Tsunami
Saikyo tenderloin

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Howard Seftel